Mary Beard, herself a bestselling author, wonders why more women historians aren't

Historians in the News
tags: mary beard



Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University.

So many women write great general history books, why don’t they sell in the vast numbers that they should? My guess is, rather gloomily, that this is another aspect of the “women’s voices” problem; that public authority is still very largely vested not just in what men say but also what they write (and for the most part, white, middle-class men at that).

The point is that big sales are heavily dependant on off-the-cuff, unplanned purchases, on people choosing the book out of any number they might buy from the bookshop display before Christmas. I am afraid that time and again, the man’s name signals knowledge and reliability. The average punter, armed with little more information than the name of the author and the blurb, will tend to trust a woman author to write about women (just as they listen to them on childcare or health). Their instinct would be to turn to a male author on the Napoleonic wars or early 20th-century economic policy.

It is something like this that underlies what I slightly unfairly call those “big books by blokes about battles” that dominate the bestseller lists (they’re not all about battles, but you know what I mean). So how have those of us who have bucked the trend managed it?

I wish I knew. It can’t be a straightforward issue of quality, or of good reviews. How much influence reviews have on sales is utterly imponderable. I think I must thank my publishers for giving SPQR an elegantly authoritative jacket. And I must thank TV programme makers for presenting me as “someone who knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the Romans” (however much in need of a makeover).

But none of us are immune to the power of stereotypes or the desire to cast history into one particular mould. When people write to me about SPQR they are often warmly appreciative. When they do complain, it’s mostly to say that there is too much on ancient obstetrics (there’s actually very little) or the lives of the urban poor (there’s more on that) – and not enough on Hannibal, the second Punic war or how the emperor Trajan thrashed the Dacians. ...




comments powered by Disqus