A Report From the Borderland Between History and Journalism

Brian Taylor

September 13, 2010

A few years ago, one of us was covering China for The Wall Street Journal, writing articles that would win a Pulitzer. The other was teaching at Indiana University's history department and serving as acting editor of The American Historical Review, one of the discipline's flagship journals.

But if you had just browsed our most recent books, you wouldn't know which one was written by the journalist and which by the professor. And if forced to guess, you would probably bet that the reporter wrote the present-minded, lightly footnoted China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, and the academic historian produced the archivally based A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West.

You'd be wrong. But neither of us would mind. That's because we both like operating in the gray zone between the academic and journalistic worlds, even though such travels present challenges and risks.

One challenge we've each encountered involves credentials. We've had to answer questions that boil down to: Who are you to be writing a book like this?

For one of us (the journalist), the issue comes down to a lack of academic chops. Before A Mosque in Munich appeared, for example, German publishers demanded the names of academics willing to vouch for the author's ability to write history, since he lacked a doctorate and his previous book, 2004's Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China, was a work of reportage.

For the professor, the main question that publishers had was about his ability to write without being too, well, academic. They wondered whether he could focus on enticing nonspecialists to turn the page, and forget about seeking the rewards tied to impressing his scholarly peers and contributing to specialized debates.

Those concerns were not unjustified. Writing in new genres involves learning new skills and sometimes also jettisoning old habits.

Working in archives, for example, was unfamiliar territory for the journalist. He had to figure out whether to treat as reliable old intelligence documents that claimed that a major Muslim leader was a CIA operative. He had to abandon the journalistic expectation that he could interview subjects when trying to decide whether sources could be trusted.

The professor has had to unlearn the habit of scrupulously footnoting each claim and sticking to the past. The editors of his new book wanted as limited an academic apparatus as possible, a focus on the present, and some speculation on the future.

The biggest risks involved in writing books that fall in the gray zone have to do with reward structures. For journalists, veering toward the academic and taking an archival turn can result in lower advances. For professors, venturing into what the cultural-studies professor Andrew Ross has called "scholarly reporting" (a term he coined for his own hybrid work) can lead peers to dismiss your books as merely "journalistic," a liability when you come up for promotion and tenure.

Another sort of risk relates to reviews. The problem here is that reviewers and gatekeepers at publications tend to put books in categories based, in part, on the writer's biography.

Reporters who write about international issues are supposed to produce books with a strong first-person component (something that A Mosque in Munich lacks) and deal with the present. Academics, by contrast, are supposed to stick to the third person except in the opening and closing pages of the work and focus, above all, on advancing debates among specialists.

By defying expectations, as we've each done, we've opened ourselves up for criticism from reviewers who thought, based on who we are, that we would produce different kinds of books based on who we are. Borderland books can also be seen as too "popular" for academic journals to review, yet too "scholarly" for newspapers and magazines to notice.

Venturing into the gray zone can be a gamble, in other words, but we're still glad we made the move. Two things helped embolden us. First, we were already established in our careers: The professor, for example, had tenure before he wrote one of those hard-to-classify books. Second, while we knew we were moving into unusual terrain, we also knew that plenty of journalists and professors we admired had gone there before us.

Role models from the world of journalism included Adam Hochschild, whose King Leopold's Ghost was critically well received and sold well to boot, and Erik Larson, whose best-selling Devil in the White City tells the story of the Chicago World's Fair via a carefully documented look at a serial killer. From the world of academe, there were writers like Jonathan Spence and Perry Anderson. Each is a professor of history who routinely transgresses standard disciplinary norms, the former through stylistic experiments designed to engage general educated readers more than contribute to specialist debates, the latter by using his knowledge of the past to weigh in on contemporary political debates about the present.

Since making the leap, we've each found it hard to go back. We've discovered we get a kick out of spending time in this borderland.

One of us relishes going there for the chance it gives him to indulge his inner archive rat and to add some ballast to his reporting by burrowing into old documents. The other finds it rewarding to steer clear of the archives for a time and participate in public arguments about China.

Perhaps most important, we see ignoring stylistic barriers and mixing different forms of research as good strategies for combining the virtues of two fields. We can inject our books with the rigor of the academic, while having a shot at speaking to readers who have grown skeptical of academic works.

Like many borderlands, this one isn't as easy to get to, or as safe to dwell in, as some other places. Once you've visited, though, and seen what it has to offer, it can be hard not to make return visits.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine, and author of "China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know," published this year by Oxford University Press. Ian Johnson is a writer who lives in Beijing and Berlin and the author of "A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West," published this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.