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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Through exploring the psychopathology of Capgras syndrome, in which a patient mistakes a loved one for an imposter, The Echo Maker offers a sustained meditation on the ways in which we project our own problems onto other people. As a reflection on the mysteries of consciousness, the novel offers some interesting if not especially new insights into the fuzzy boundaries between scientific and literary interpretations of the mind. Read more

Ropey Writing

Thursday, August 12, 2010

In the London Review of Books, Neal Ascherson writes about the historian, Hugh Trevor-Roper, one of the most influential public historians of the post-war period. Trevor-Roper was despatched to Germany to verify the death of Hitler on the back of which he wrote his most famous book, The Last Days of Hitler, although he is, unfortunately, perhaps more infamous for his verifying the forged Hitler diaries as being authentic. He is somewhat redeemed by his victory in a spat with Margaret Thatcher, when he refused to share her hostility to a reunified Germany.

Yet for all his public and political renown, Trevor-Roper's ultimate academic credentials suffered from his "serial failures to complete a full-length work of history." The only full-length book he produced was his first, on Archbishop Laud. Others were extended journal supplements, collections of essays and lectures, and journalism. His defining achievement was supposed to have been a three-volume work on the Puritan Revolution, which never appeared. Trevor-Roper explained this as being due to writer's fatigue:
I am interested in too many things, and I write so slowly, so painfully slowly, that by the time I have written a chapter I have got interested in something else.
Many researchers will surely identify with this opera of academic adultery. As the initial excitement of a new research project gives way to the tedious days of diligent scholarship and writing, it is more tempting to look for something new than to see the old relationship through to its conclusion.

Ascherson also finds another reason for Trevor-Roper's serial failure to see projects to their conclusion:
It could be that the ‘brilliant examinee syndrome’, the private terror of public failure, had something to do with it as well. No book, no devastating book review.
Trevor-Roper was a notoriously harsh, even malicious, reviewer. Writing about a new work of biography, for example, he declined to discuss its inaccuracies: ‘To make such a charge against this biographer would be unfair. It would be like urging a jellyfish to grit its teeth and dig in its heels.’ So used to serving up vitriol, Trevor-Roper was afraid to receive it himself: better to publish nothing, and not risk a taste of one's own medicine.

Now whilst few researchers will be so amusingly negative in their reviews, the underlying anxiety that the great historian suffered from is one with which many will sympathise. Whilst no academic today could get a cosy Oxford professorship - or even a first job at a former poly - without copious publications behind them, we all understand the trick of avoidance that Trevor-Roper serially pulled off. Better to procrastinate and continually revise that journal article, rather than risk the rejection of peer review; preferable to work on a new book project, rather than suffering the ignominy of having one's revised PhD thesis rejected by a publisher. It may not be a good thing for one's career to suffer from a terminal failure to complete projects, but it should be a relief to know that one is at least in good company when this happens.

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Posted by Alistair at 8:44 am


Blogger Laurent said...

This judgment of the historian's "credentials" would be considerably adjusted by consulting his histories. This will recur with avidity and delight for infinitely longer than anyone can recall a deficit in others' expectations. That said, what could be less doubtful than that rather than too much apprehension of opinion he did yield, at recurring expense to the reputation he'd won, to its neglect? A difficult figure, but this he did knowingly endure.

7:45 pm  

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