Life-changing Articles

We’ve all experienced that lightning-bolt moment when we read something that inspires us to see the past in new ways, or propels us on a whole new intellectual trajectory. In our new series, The Book That Changed My Life, historians discuss a piece of writing, large or small, fiction or non-fiction, that has shaped the way they approach their craft. This month Zora Simic reflects on her love of history articles, and considers two in particular, that have changed the way she sees the world.

 

I am often surprised when friends and colleagues who teach English literature confess that they rarely read whole books, and especially novels. It’s not their thing, they say, before expressing a preference for reading theory and criticism and maybe some poetry. Yet I shouldn’t be surprised because I’m a historian who rarely reads a whole history book for pleasure (I prefer novels), unless I’m reviewing them or somehow accidentally finish them in piece meal fashion over the years. No, articles are much more my bag, both to read and to write, and the historian who most inspires me in this genre is feminist historian Joan Wallach Scott. A predictable choice perhaps, but it has been an enduring appreciation both because I regularly teach her work and because hers has been a fascinating intellectual trajectory.

I first encountered Scott’s work as an undergraduate in the history honours stream at the University of Sydney sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s. I can’t remember what I read first – ‘Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis’, first published in the American Historical Review in 1986, or the ‘Evidence of Experience’, published in Critical Inquiry in 1991 – but I can recall that both opened up new pathways in my brain almost immediately (hence life-changing). With ‘Gender’ – an article I now teach to first year gender studies students, aided by visual flow charts that hopefully capture the multiple levels on which this extraordinary piece of scholarship and thinking operates – I was struck first by her challenge to socialist feminism or Marxism as offering an insufficient theory of gender. Now she was hardly the first to do this, but the methodical and thoroughly convincing manner in which she demolished my paradigm of choice, followed by Freudianism (fair enough) and radical feminism or patriarchal theory was somehow invigorating. It also taught me more about those three theoretical and political paradigms in a few pages than I had learnt during my degree thus far. And this was before she moved on to posit her own theory, dismissed by one of my teachers as ‘deconstructionist post-modern nonsense’, a sledge that made Scott even more appealing, despite my own (by now rapidly diminishing) aversion to ‘po-mo’ theory.

In ‘The Evidence of Experience’ Scott argued that subjects are constituted not ‘recovered’ through various forms of personal testimony, which had by then acquired ‘foundational’ status as a form of evidence by feminist and social historians in particular. In my own understanding of my development as a scholar, this argument directly inspired my honours thesis, a comparative study of the autobiographies of Aboriginal and African-American women. Yet when I took my thesis off the shelf to test this recollection, I note I did not cite her once. If I could bear to re-read it, I would be curious to know whether I observed her lessons in my own analysis in a more implicit fashion (probably not).

My PhD, on the other hand, a history of feminisms in Australia between 1919-1969, was practically a tribute to Scott. In publishing ‘Fantasy Echo: History and the Construction of Identity’ in Critical Inquiry in 2001, she also conveniently for me provided a theoretical framework for hanging together my hitherto disparate arguments. And rather sensationally, she had turned to Freud, among others, to account for ‘fantasies’ of political and other identifications across time. Discourse analysis was no longer cutting it, she needed to look elsewhere and in doing so, she once again helped me answer some questions I did not even know I had.

1. zoracZora Simic is a Lecturer in History and Women’s and Gender Studies in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of New South Wales. She has written articles (not books) on various aspects of Australian and international feminism, the history of teenage pregnancy, the western suburbs of Sydney, migration and marriage, female orgasms and other topics, as well as The Great Feminist Denial, co-authored with Monica Dux (MUP: 2008).

How To… Write a Book Proposal

Phillipa McGuinness, Executive Publisher at NewSouth Publishing, kicks off our brand new How To Series with some fantastic tips on what and what not to do when writing a book proposal. Here she explains what will catch the eye of a publisher, reminds us to read widely (good writers are good readers!) and encourages historians to be imaginative and bold.

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Phillipa McGuinness is Executive Publisher at NewSouth Publishing where she has published a number of prize-winning books in Australian history, biography and memoir, politics, art and culture. She was previously Commissioning Editor at Cambridge University Press and has been on the expert advisory panel of the Australian Research Council and a peer reviewer for the Australia Council. She is the editor of the book Copyfight (2015). In 2018 her first sole-authored book, a history of the year 2001, will be published by Penguin Random House. She tweets at @pipmcg.

Do write your book proposal in the same voice that the book itself will be written in. It sounds obvious, but it’s frustrating to read a submission that suggests the promised book will be an Australian history blockbuster written in the style of Simon Schama when not a single sentence in the proposal suggests the author might be capable of that.

Don’t be shy. Cut to the chase. Remember that publishers get lots of proposals every week and we have thousands of words to read every single day, so be bold and upfront about what you’re trying to do in your book. Oh, and don’t address the letter or email covering your proposal to ‘Dear Sirs’. (It happens more than you might think.)

And back yourself: mention your massive social media presence, your prizes, your upcoming documentaries, your keynote speech, your television appearances, your column in the local newspaper, your blog, your previous career as a circus performer. No matter how modest your efforts to promote your work in public may seem, it all makes a difference.

Publishers are looking for an author who has something to say and will work with a publisher to try and say it in the best way possible and reach a broad audience. We’re looking for authors who have done research about what kind of publisher they’re approaching (make sure you get the name of the publisher right), and who take the time to suggest how they think their book might fit into our list. If your work isn’t Australian or is highly theoretical, you will probably be better off approaching an international publisher. If you want to write for students, you might need a textbook publisher.

Most of all, we’re looking for authors who will think carefully about the readers they want and will do everything they can to ensure that those readers are engaged and challenged. Readers must be front of mind. We want authors who will work hard to promote their book.

We’re also looking for authors who will deliver their books on time and to word length. It may sound prosaic but it’s important.

Publishers are wary of revised PhDs. So if your book is a PhD don’t try and hide its origins. It’s very easy to do a search and find that someone’s thesis topic is uncannily similar to the book they’re proposing. Be honest but persuade a publisher that you’re willing to revise, that you’re convinced your work is original and important and it will make an impact.

Try to be bold. Don’t play it safe. Don’t go crazy either – only a handful of publishers will want something truly experimental – but write with empathy and imagination. If there was a great story that you couldn’t work into your PhD, perhaps now you can include it. Take advice from your peers, mentors and colleagues, but write the book you want to write.

Never write in the passive voice.

Readers like carefully crafted sentences that build to tell something unexpected. Life is too short to waste with very bad writing, unless it contains unheard of facts of the utmost significance from never-before opened archives. History lends itself to narrative conventions better than most other academic disciplines – plot, character, background, dialogue, pace and suspense. So if you’re trying to reach a general audience, think about those. Chances are that once you have persuaded your readers that you know what you’re doing and that what you have to say is interesting, they will jump on board.

Readers hate feeling that an author has lost control of her material and is drowning in detail and couldn’t cut anything so crammed everything in. Often a story will shine more with less detail.

Think about why you decided to write a book in the first place. Do you want to connect with lots of readers and persuade them that the fascinating story you have to tell is important? Do you want to spend the months or years it will take to get it right? Is yours a story that can be told in no less than 80,000 words? If you’re hesitant about any of these questions, maybe your subject is best written about in a specialist article, or a series of them. No shame in that. And if what you have to say is revelatory and newsworthy, maybe you should write a newspaper opinion piece on the back of your scholarly articles.

Remember that if you’re going to be a good writer you must be a good reader. Read widely – including outside your field. Read specialist books and journals in your area, but if you are going to make an intellectual contribution, you must read beyond these. Visit bookshops, pay attention to authors being interviewed on the radio or podcasts and be sure to read general review pages as well as specialist ones. And if you haven’t subscribed to a few newspapers, magazines or literary journals, you should. Support the cultural ecosystem that supports you.

You should also remember that rejection is part of the deal. Don’t take it personally. Be as resilient as you can be. Chances are your book will find a home somewhere.

The problem with a lot of book proposals from academic historians is that they’re perfunctory and boring when they should be imaginative and bold. If you can’t grab my attention and convince me of how interesting what you’re doing is, it will be difficult for me to convince my colleagues, let alone the whole wide world. But the good ones can be so good they make me want to go into bat for an author so we can work together to get the book out in the world.

 

Emerging Historians – Dr Benjamin T. Jones

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Dr Benjamin T. Jones, ANU 2012, Australian Research Council Fellow (DECRA), School of History, ANU. AHA member since 2014.

1. Describe your PhD research. Continue reading

Emerging Historians – Dr Pete Minard

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Dr Pete Minard – AHA member since 2017

I am Pete Minard, a thirty-seven year old underemployed environmental historian. I was the first in my family to attend university and never really dreamed as a kid that academia would be an option for me. I completed my PhD at the University of Melbourne in late 2014. Ever since graduating I have been busy tutoring, founding a public history business and completing endless academic and non-academic job applications. I have recently been appointed an honorary fellow at La Trobe University’s Centre for the Study of the Inland.  Research and writing is a luxury completed in my free time.  This is my contribution to the emerging historian series. Continue reading

Q&A with Ann McGrath

Ann McGrath, Professor of History and Director of the Australian Centre for Indigenous History at the Australian National University, is the subject of our June Q&A Series. In this inspiring interview, she discusses why she writes history and who she writes it for, reflects on the changes she has observed in Australian history over her career and reminds us that historians can be activists. She also calls on ECRs to research topics that are meaningful and important now and to embrace new trends in media that allow historians to tell stories about the past in new and exciting ways.

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Emerging Historians – Dr Laura Rademaker

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I completed my PhD at the School of History at ANU in 2014 and have been a postdoctoral research fellow at Australian Catholic University since 2015 in the Institute for Religion and Critical Inquiry.
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Emerging Historians – Dr Effie Karageorgos

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Dr Effie Karageorgos – AHA member since 2012

I completed my PhD in 2013 at Flinders University, which focussed on Australian soldiers’ letters and diaries during the South African and Vietnam Wars. While I was still a postgraduate, I taught casually in the Department of History and served as Associate Lecturer at the Student Learning Centre at Flinders University, and after my move from Adelaide to Melbourne, I have continued to teach both history and academic skills. I currently teach at the University of Melbourne and Swinburne University, and have done so since 2012. Continue reading