End of History: Snappy Titles for Academic Success

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in at 1/19/2010 01:56:00 PM
I somehow came across this somewhat overlooked article in Foreign Policy that takes a look at how back at how some of the Big Idea, Big Title books authored by social scientists have fared. It mentions a theme I've touched on earlier that you don't even need to be correct with the overall gist for these books to gain attention. Look at Fukuyama. Even though he's (rightly) been subject to unending ridicule for titling a book The End of History, there's no doubting that it enabled him to achieve a much higher profile in academic circles and beyond. The writer here, Carlos Lozada correctly observes that "Being right, as Fukuyama showed, is certainly no prerequisite for success in the marketplace for big ideas." (Fortunately, the rest of Fukuyama's other work is of considerably more academic merit, but that's another story for another day.)

And so we have the Clash of Civilizations, Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus, and any number of other hackneyed titles with varying value. To me, the bigger point is that academics, like a lot of most other things, involves marketing. Amusingly, this article makes suggestions on how to come up with a Big Idea, Big Title idea of your own. I myself am thinking of something revolving around this blog's subtitle--subprime globalization. Who knows? It may yet fly. Here is the conclusion from the FP piece though the rest is well worth reading:
The George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton years can be thought of as the End of History/Washington Consensus era, with visions of benign world orders and free markets dominating foreign policy. George W. Bush's administration had more of a Clash of Civilizations/Mars-Venus flavor after 9/11, forged by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention Rumsfeld's barbs against "old Europe." And the current administration seems more of a Soft Power/Post-American World crew. (A Nobel Peace Prize certainly suggests some soft power, and Barack Obama was caught toting around Zakaria's book during the campaign.)

Despite such influence, several of these writers -- like Fukuyama still trying to outrun "The End of History?" -- profess serious second thoughts. Zakaria speaks wistfully of his prior book The Future of Freedom, "a more serious book, to be honest," than the best-selling The Post-American World. Williamson jokes that the Washington Consensus is his illegitimate child and admits he's not sure it accomplished what he had hoped. "The plus is that, of course, it's made me famous," he said. "The minus is that I'm not sure the phrase really was conducive to promoting reform, which was the object of the exercise."

Or, as Kagan put it about the Mars-Venus essay: "I was arguing contrary to desire. I wanted Europe back in the power game. Part of me is always hoping to be wrong."