The Historical Narrative
Karen Abbott is a journalist and author of the New York Times bestseller Sin in the Second City, an exploration of the role of brothels in the cultural and political life of turn-of-the-century Chicago. Prior to publishing Sin in the Second City – which took her three years to write and research – Abbott worked for Philadelphia magazine and for Philadelphia Weekly. Abbott, a native of Philadelphia, received her BA from Villanova University in 1995. The critically acclaimed Sin in the Second City tells the story of Chicago’s Everleigh Club, a famous high-end whorehouse that was known as the “finest brothel in the land.” Abbott lives with her husband in Atlanta and is working on her second book, a portrait of Gypsy Rose Lee and Depression-era New York.
Karen Abbott: I’m not a historian and I’m not an academic. So you know my . . . I figured my job in this was . . . as a journalist was to tell a story and tell it, you know, as accurately as I could, as thoroughly as I could, but also as entertainingly as I could. And I sort of . . . I try to do that by, you know . . . Luckily a lot of my writing group are novelists, so they would tell me . . . We would exchange drafts and read each other’s work. You know and they would tell me if . . . They would write in the margins like, “I am so bored.” Or they coined a phrase called “information dump”. Like if I had just, you know, wanted to prove how much research I did and just sort of like, you know, wrote page after page of statistics without any narrative thread throughout, they would call me for that and I was really grateful for that. It was important for me to sort of get down all of the information, but without losing any narrative moment. So that’s what I tried to do. That’s a good question too. You know I didn’t wanna be objective. I wanted to have a point of view, and I hope I . . . I hope the book does have a point of view. You know I think that it’s almost impossible for anyone to be objective. I think the whole idea that journalists are objective is a fallacy. Everybody comes to a story of their preconceived ideas and preconceived notions. That’s not to say they can’t change, or be colored, or influenced, or broadened by what they learn along the way. But everybody comes to what they . . . what they’re about to write with their own baggage too, and their research. So I think that objectivity is something that’s really not achievable, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.
Recorded On: 1/22/08
Can a historical narrative ever be objective?