Standing Up For Citations

The question of how sources ought to be cited in a work of non-fiction history came up again this past week with the release of Karen Abbott’s new book, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. The book tells the story of four women, who engaged in various acts of espionage during the Civil War. From all the reviews I’ve read this looks like a highly entertaining read, which should come as no surprise given the author’s success with previous books.

Two reviewers, however, have questioned the author’s choices regarding citation. Neither reviewer suggests that Abbott’s approach renders the book unreadable as a work of popular history, but it does raise questions about how best to handle sources in a book that appears to fall somewhere between a scholarly study and historical fiction. This issue first caught my attention after reading Ashley Whitehead Luskey’s review in The Civil War Monitor:

One of the only critiques I have of Abbott’s excellent book concerns her citations and her treatment of a few sources. In her introduction, she states that “anything that appears between quotations” comes from a primary or secondary source (xiii); however, such sources are not always cited, leaving the academic reader to wonder exactly where that information—especially some of the more surprising facts or nuanced arguments—came from.

Abbott took issue with this claim and offered the following following the review:

I include a combined 60 pages of endnotes and bibliography that draw from more than 200 sources, and that far exceed the guidelines set forth for narrative nonfiction by the Chicago Manual of Style: “authors [should] identify the sources of direct quotations or paraphrases and any facts which are not generally known or easily checked.” I indeed cite every word of dialogue that appears in the book.

Unfortunately, Ashley doesn’t offer a specific example, but anyone who knows her will immediately conclude that her review is the result of a thorough reading. In his review of the book for The Washington Post, Jonathan Yardley also points this out.

In her introduction she is at pains to say that “this is a work of nonfiction, with no invented dialogue,” but this leaves unanswered the question of sources for her descriptive passages.

Yardley provides a couple of examples. Once again, Abbott took the initiative to respond to Yardley’s critique of her handling of sources along with an inappropriate reference about her writing style.

I don’t think there is any doubt that the book includes passages that lack citations. At the same time I don’t believe there is any reason to deny that a great deal of research went into the formulation of those passages and the rest of the book, which I intend to read at some point based on Ashley’s review. As we all know popular works of history follow no set guidelines when it comes to citation. Often times it’s the publisher that sets the rules, usually for reasons having to do with length and costs.

So, are Yardley and Luskey nitpicking or are they defending an important line between historical writing and fiction that has increasingly become blurred?

4 thoughts on “Standing Up For Citations

  1. Ken Noe

    I agree with Jim Epperson. The entire point of citations is that they should lead me easily back to the original source so that I can judge that source and how it was used. We also teach students to “mine” citations for their own research. If they can’t do that, the citations are useless and the book is automatically suspect in my mind.

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  2. Richard Welty

    I’m currently reading Ashworth, _The Republic in Crisis_ and while no one would doubt Ashworth’s credentials, and the book is very good, I do find myself wishing for better sourcing; there are many statements he makes that I find credible, but would like to follow up on.

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