The persistent appeal of bad history

In a review of a new edition by the unbearable/unreadable John Steinbeck, Jonathan Yardley agonizes at length: Why are all of his books still in print and selling well? It's a question that resonates across nonfiction as well, where the authors of bad books are lavishly rewarded.

But to begin with Steinbeck: I recall the revulsion Vladimir Nabokov expressed toward Ayn Rand's novels; in treating fiction primarily as a medium for ideas, Rand (Nabokov felt) inverted the merit of a novel putting literary worth at the bottom. Nabokov was stridently against "message" books throughout his life. The people who revere Rand's novels would probably tell us that the ideas within are what make them worthwhile - thus bearing out Nabokov's point. (The same dynamic is at work not only in all sorts of political fiction but in political movies as well.)

To me, until now, Steinbeck has been the primitive, artless politicized non-fiction fiction writer whose sensibility people endorse by buying and reading his books. This is not enough to explain the strong sales of his entire output, however, and here Yardley does good service:
The only reason I can come up with for the high esteem in which Steinbeck is still held is his transparent sincerity. It has long been my pet theory that in the popular marketplace, readers instinctively distinguish between writers whose work draws on genuine feeling and those who rely on art or artifice, and that they reward the former while repudiating the latter. [Note: Yardley says "readers" where I would have said "non-fiction readers dabbling in novel reading" - DR.] From Jacqueline Susann to Danielle Steel, from James Michener to James Patterson, readers have recognized the sincerity of feeling beneath the utter lack of literary merit, and have rewarded it accordingly.
Do you see how useful this anlytic is?

We have, in Civil War history, a marketplace that rewards emotion, intensity, and authorial identification with causes and "characters." This leads, as I lament here often, to manipulation of readers, evidence rigging and suppression, and other pathologies that turn history upside down. The hard work of getting at the truth of an incident is often viewed as "dry as dust," as the founder of American Heritage famously said.

As with the fiction marketplace's non-literature readers, Civil War history is filled with all sorts of bookbuyers not fundamentally interested in reading history; there are the novel readers crossing over, the movie goers looking for more entertainment, the TV watchers buying a souvenir of the show; some would say even re-enactors, all driving nonfiction sales.

"The sincerity of feeling" would explain also the Troiani/Kunstler phenomena, the persistent public championing of such as McPherson, the top-flight sales of Stephen Sears, and so on.

Tip of the hat to Mr. Yardley. Let's try this paradigm on and see if it fits.