Shaara and history writing

This blog generally does not spend much time on Jeff Shaara, given that he inhabits pop fiction, a preoccupation that reduces his menace to Civil War nonfiction, our central concern here.

If he were to venture into nonfiction with the same success his fiction enjoys, we might have a problem, more of that effect where an avalanche of craptastic titles washes into our market seeking dollars from an ignorant but enthusiastic new audience (one hostile to historical method and nonfiction conventions). Shaara's nonfiction need not be craptastic itself, but success spawns (bad) imitators and we are just coming out of an ice age brought on by publishers seeking the audiences of the movie Gettysburg, The Civil War on PBS and associated phenomena.

Shaara published a guidebook last year. The WaPo has just gotten around to reviewing it and the reviewer's reaction portrays in cameo our danger. This WaPo review adresses Civil War Preservation Trust's new guidebook in tandem with Shaara's Civil War Battlefields: Discovering America's Hallowed Ground. Let me hit those of the writer's points that scare me.

You need both books ("a terrific package to read or take along on a trip"). CWPT's attempt at a comprehensive summary cannot stand alone because...

Color rates higher than data ("Shaara's guide is as detailed as the trust guide is brief.") Mind you, the Trust covers 600 sites, Shaara does 10.

Tell me what is important! ("Each [Shaara site] has a lengthy explanation, followed by a helpful discussion of why the battle is important and a section on what visitors should see.") The Trust envisions self-directed tourists using their guide; Shaara generates enthusiasm for preselected itineraries among readers who need a lot of help.

Put it in a story format, regardless of the nature of the information ("Shaara has done here what he has done so well in his novels. He tells a story.") The tour, as it unfolds, is supposed to be the reader's story not the author's, and it is normally assembled from raw, barely-connected data (place, time, opening hours, route). The "story" for the tourist should be the discoveries on site and the adventures en route.

Whatever your goal, entertain me ("Visitors won't have to go to the battlefields to feel as though they have been there.") This is the ultimate statement of (f)utility. The consumer of this guidebook is blowing off the tour; the aim of a guidebook has been completely subordinated to amusement.

This is the crux of all pop culture threats to Civil War nonfiction, the repurposing of history. In summarizing, the reviewer says,
Maybe Shaara has written an excellent Civil War history rather than a good guidebook.
Substitute the word "entertainment" for "history." Note that he is lauded for it, for selling a guidebook that is not "a good guidebook."

Shaara himself is quoted as saying, his work is intended for "those who might have time to stop along the road and visit a battlefield they otherwise might have passed by."

The danger we face is that a master of pop culture like Shaara will someday send stubbornly ignorant masses of people like this reviewer into the Civil War nonfiction marketplace, which "they might otherwise have passed by."