September 30, 2011 5:35 pm

Instant messengers

Histories of momentous events are being written more rapidly. But does an increase in immediacy lead to a loss of perspective?

In 1936, a journalist for China Weekly Review called Edgar Snow travelled to north-west China to interview Mao Zedong. Mao told his officials to greet Snow with “security, secrecy, warmth and red carpet”, for he wanted him to perform a vital task – to shape Mao’s image in the west.

“Mao offered Snow a mixture of valuable information and colossal falsification which Snow swallowed in toto,” write Jung Chang and Jon Halliday in their 2005 biography Mao. “Mao covered up years of torture and murder ... and invented battles and heroism in the trek across China, now astutely titled ‘the Long March.’ ”

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The result, published in 1937, was Red Star Over China, a sympathetic account of the Red Guards’ campaign against the nationalists that influenced how Mao was regarded outside China for decades. Mao knew the value of controlling how history would be written – as did Lenin, who provided a glowing introduction to John Reed’s account of the 1917 Russian revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World (1919).

Yet these accounts – especially that of Reed, who was on assignment in Russia for the socialist magazine The Masses at the time – also capture aspects of those events that would be impossible for a historian to recreate from scratch years after the event. Whatever their shortcomings in completeness or historical perspective, they have documentary value.

Intimate accounts of world-changing events are now well-established in non-fiction publishing, with numerous examples provided by the 2008 financial crisis and by political events such as this year’s Egyptian revolution. Michael Lewis, whose 2009 book The Big Short narrated how hedge fund traders bet against the mortgage bubble, is back this month with Boomerang, a tour of countries such as Iceland and Greece that are still suffering the aftermath.

John Reed

John Reed, who chronicled the Russian revolution

Indeed, history is being written ever more rapidly. Snow and Reed’s books both took a couple of years to get from research to publication. Lewis’s latest has been “crashed” by its publishers. He completed it on August 15, incorporating material from articles written originally for Vanity Fair magazine, and it will be published early this month, just seven weeks on. Yet even that turnround may come to be seen as leisurely in the new world of publishing.

The traditional delay of up to a year between a book’s completion and publication was partly enforced by the “pipeline” for distributing and marketing printed books – big booksellers such as Barnes & Noble in the US want to clear their shelves of one set of books before taking on another load. The rise of digital books, with ebooks now a bigger market than hardback books in the US, is shortening – even eliminating – this pipeline, allowing publishers and self-published authors to produce narratives more rapidly.

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Yasmine El Rashidi’s first-hand account of the Egyptian revolution, The Battle for Egypt, which drew on her reporting for the New York Review of Books, was published by Random House as an ebook in May, four months after the uprising started. Among its competitors was Tweets from Tahrir, a collection of short observations on Twitter by witnesses to the revolution. It was released in April by OR Books, which specialises in rapid publication of current events titles in electronic and print-on-demand form. OR has also produced books on the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the Gaza flotilla.

This evolution raises big questions about the trade-off between immediacy and accuracy – or at least perspective. The historian sits down long after the events have occurred with no need to please or flatter the participants to gain access, since most are dead, and the freedom to study a wide variety of sources. A journalist working at high speed has only what he or she witnesses and the details that others – some with an agenda – choose to divulge.

“None of us has the right perspective, given how quickly these events unfolded, and we won’t know how to think about them for 30 years,” says Andrew Ross Sorkin, The New York Times journalist and author of Too Big To Fail (2009), which reconstructed the climactic events of the 2008 financial crisis in New York and Washington. “If you try to write a great analytical book now, you will either be wrong or lucky.”

Lewis says: “The last thing I want to hold myself out as is [as] a historian or a prognosticator. I have no clue where this is all going. I am not a wise man, I am a journalist. The historian’s advantage is that he knows how the thing ends. If [the eurozone financial crisis] ends in war, that’s one story. If it ends with Germany owning half of Greece, it’s another.”

Reporters do have one edge on historians – they can get to the scene before events fade. El Rashidi, who went to Tahrir Square at the start of the demonstrations, says: “I didn’t step back and think, ‘I must record this moment’ but I was very aware of feeling that something extraordinary was happening and wanting to share it. You can capture time and the smell and the colour of a place that cannot be captured 10 years later.”

William Cohan, author of three books about financial institutions – Lazard Frères, Bear Stearns and Goldman Sachs – says: “I find instant histories to be incredibly valuable. You can talk to the people directly involved and you can check what they tell you against documents. Email has become a great first draft of history – it’s immutable. You cannot argue with it.”

Journalists also dig out things that might otherwise remain undiscovered. Cohan says: “When I was researching Lazard, people would hand me stacks of memos that Felix [Rohatyn, a former Lazard partner in New York] or André [Meyer, another former senior partner] had written and had hoped would be buried and say, ‘I knew someone like you would come along one day, so I kept them.’ ”

Edgar Snow, Zhao Enlai, Deng Yingchao

Journalist Edgar Snow with Chinese premier Zhao Enlai and Zhao’s wife Deng Yingchao, c1938

Sorkin says capturing accounts immediately is vital because witnesses tend to reshape events over time. “It is critical to try to do the interviews in as close to real time as possible. I found that the further I got from the event, the worse people’s memory was about detail but the more definite their perspective. They believed they understood it better but they were wrong on facts.”

This human fallibility also applies to historians, Lewis argues. “The advantage [of knowing how events ended] is double-edged because once you grasp the outcome, you start to arrange the facts to lead to that outcome. Knowing the ending can distort your understanding of the middle – you make it neater.”

But, as Snow’s case showed, there is also a price for being on the spot among participants. Mao could select a sympathetic biographer because plenty of others wanted to tell his story and access is often bartered by the key figures in contemporary events in return for favourable treatment. Journalists, such as Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, whose books have chronicled US politics from Watergate to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been accused of writing accounts that flatter those who spoke to them most.

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It is particularly difficult for the reader to tell fact from fiction – or at least which version of the facts is closest to accuracy – when journalists attempt to reconstruct events by talking to all the participants off the record and presenting a single version of what happened. That has been Woodward’s modus operandi, as well as Sorkin’s in Too Big To Fail.

Sorkin says this criticism is overblown. “I’m not convinced that those who co-operate always get better treatment. I know of some people who co-operated with me and probably didn’t get the treatment that they imagined.” But he admits that it makes such accounts harder for the reader or a future historian to analyse and unpack – they simply have to trust the writer.

Woodward’s books are rarely disputed by those whose actions and words he records, and Sorkin’s was admired on Wall Street. It is not always so smooth. Ron Suskind, author of Confidence Men, about economic policy under President Barack Obama, recently came under fire when three of his subjects, including Christina Romer, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, claimed to have been misquoted.

In principle, the two types of history – an instant account and the long view – are complementary. The journalist digs up the ground and tries to uncover facts immediately, and the historian assembles all the available data and adds perspective. Rival versions of history may agree on the basic facts but shape them differently to produce varying conclusions.

But as contemporary history becomes faster and more partial – and some versions are written in a style that is hard to prove or disprove – it may become harder for future historians to gauge its value. The rise of digital media and the sheer deluge of data being recorded by individuals and released by organisations such as WikiLeaks, raises a further possibility – that historians will be able to circumvent or to ignore the current accounts and go back to the digital raw material instead. Instead of a few letters and historical records, they may have a plethora of real-time digital data to comb through.

Books by John Reed

Twitter is only one example of this – Facebook pages, email, and photographs and videos of current events are all recent phenomena. Yasmine El Rashidi says she watched others in Tahrir Square holding up their phones. “They were not writing but you could see they were trying to capture the moment,” she says. They were, in their own way, competing to stamp their perspective on the event.

For now, the book tends to carry more weight than individual tweets, photos, or articles in newspapers and magazines. But that may be a historical anomaly – the fact that printed books have traditionally been of a certain length and have taken time to assemble and publish. As ebook publishing speeds up, the line between books and extended magazine articles will blur. “There are people who insist that a book is a narrative form that is transhistorical,” says Colin Robinson, co-founder of OR Books. “I suspect books have been defined as what a binding machine is able physically to hold together. If you remove the constraint, you are left with a continuum between a tweet and a tome.”

Lewis says: “Because [an ebook] is a book, it has this authority but, because you can turn it around so quickly, it has the immediacy of a piece of journalism. You are able to attract gravitas to things that were written very recently that you couldn’t generate before.”

That arbitrage will not last indefinitely. For the moment, anything that is produced by a book publisher is a book, no matter how immediate or distant the events it portrays. But as ebooks get shorter and are published faster, the difference in form will become evident. So too may the differences in value.

John Gapper is a Financial Times columnist

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Waiting game: Frank Partnoy on taking the long view

Journalists and historians have always traded off speed against perspective, especially when covering momentous events. Whereas journalists accept the challenges of time and space pressure, historians just try to get the story right, however long that takes.

Imagine the police finding a billionaire financier’s body in his Paris flat, a bullet hole in his heart. Journalists pounce and report in real time. Several of their bestselling books appear within months. A movie is in theatres soon after. Yet historians do not even consider these events until key documents become available decades later. Only then do they write about the financier’s schemes and correct the journalists’ early mistakes.

This setting looks like today, with instant media reaction and delayed historical treatment. Yet the subject was Ivar Kreuger, the infamous “Match King,” and the year was 1932. Even then, journalists scrambled to write the first draft of history. Earl Sparling and William Stoneman, two leading journalists who wrote quick biographies of Kreuger, were at least as fast as their modern counterparts, and at least as shackled. The definitive account of that era’s mania and crash did not appear until 1954, with John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Great Crash, 1929. It took even longer for biographers, including me, to try to set Kreuger’s record straight.

A decade ago, there was no snap journalism, no minute-by-minute web-based reporting. Today, every form of reporting is compressed. Technology has not sped up writers; it has sped up how quickly we see what they have written.

Speed is valuable but so is waiting. Will easily distracted modern readers value perspective enough to wait for it? Perhaps. Serious history is well represented on today’s bestseller lists. These are books that even technologically savvy consumers prefer to read in paper, so they feel the weight of research on each page. In contrast, although we crave quick news and enjoy good articles and ebooks, we move those items to the trash as quickly as we buy them.

Don’t expect the definitive book on the financial crisis any time soon. And I’m sorry this article is so long; I didn’t have time to compose a Twitter post.

Frank Partnoy is a professor of law and finance at the University of San Diego School of Law and author of ‘The Match King’ (Profile)

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