By: Ben Thompson, Badassoftheweek.com
My name is Ben Thompson, and I am the diabolical madman behind the website BadassoftheWeek.com –a magical, mysterious, ultra-violent corner of the Internet where I write short, historically-accurate biographies of history’s toughest men and women and intersperse their tales of head-cleaving awesomeness with a smattering of pop culture references, a sizeable helping of sarcasm, and the sometimes-less-than-occasional use of Naval-grade profanity. The excellent editors here at HistoryRoll.com have asked me to write this month about my experience writing history targeted for a non-history audience, and I will attempt to do so as eloquently as my ham-handed prose might allow.
The website and subsequent books (BADASS, released by HarperCollins in 2009, and BADASS: BIRTH OF A LEGEND, released by the same publisher in March 2011) were spawned from a deep, undivided love of history that could not be de-railed by even the most dastardly history professors academia has to offer. Despite their machinations to make history so utterly boring that most students would prefer to take a hatchet to their brain than read about the Specie Circular, I have remained steadfast in my single-minded devotion to history and all of its facets. This is largely because I’ve always been intensely in love with tales of epic bravery, heroism, and adventure from history, and, like many other history buffs out there, I particularly believe that true stories of real-life human beings triumphing against impossible odds are more amazing and exciting than the most overblown CGI-laden Hollywood blockbuster movie. Unfortunately, throughout my studies in high school and college, I also came to the realization that there are a lot of stuffed-shirt academic types who take history so brain-crushingly seriously that they effectively manage to take a military-grade Black Hole Generator and suck out every possible ounce of fun from these tales. History is serious business, they say, and there’s no room for thinly-veiled penis jokes when you’re talking about the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte.
I started the Badass of the Week because I wanted to write history in a way that’s as different from a traditional history text as I could possibly get without sacrificing any of the historical accuracy. I want to tell the story of Julius Caesar the way I would talk to a buddy over beers in a crowded bar – here’s the man, here’s what he did, here’s why you should care, and oh crap, here’s an awesome story about this time he annihilated a barbarian army four times larger than his own force, captured the Gallic capital of Alesia, then went off to seize Rome and get it on with Cleopatra. Sometimes the characters I write about are well-known, sometimes obscure, but, for all of them, I get right to the point and tell the “action-movie” versions of their lives in 1,500 words or less, skipping straight over the boring crap in favor of the good parts. Over the last seven years, this hopefully-exciting, definitely over-the-top style of writing has managed to attract a large number of readers to the site, to where today I’m getting over a million hits a month rolling through the website. This is something I had never expected when I first started the site. Surprise isn’t a powerful enough word to describe my reaction.
Writing for a non-academic audience has been a bit of a learning curve, but in the end it’s one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. People across the world have responded with overwhelming positivity and support for what I’m doing, and they seem to love that I’m writing history in plain English without trying to come off sounding like some pretentious douchebag desperately trying to impress whatever university search committee currently happens to be looking for a new Assistant Professor of History. Middle school, high school, and college students email me all the time telling me that they hated history class but they love the book because it has showed them that history doesn’t have to be all about boring crap like agricultural reforms or banking practices – it can be incredible tales of one man or woman standing up against impossible odds, crushing all their opponents in battle, braving the most inhospitable environments on Earth, and altering the course of history with little more than a giant two-handed battle axe and the sort of determination you don’t usually see outside a National Geographic documentary on wolverines. Even history teachers and professors email me occasionally, telling me that they’ve read articles to their classes or that they’ve used stories from the book to help supplement their lesson plans. I’m not the sort of person who has an easy time talking about his own successes, but it’s hard not to be really happy when you hear something like that.
Of course, any time you try to do anything new, there are plenty of people out there who are more than willing to rise up in rebellion, take their digital torches and pitchforks to the forums of the Internet, and talk about how this big new thing is actually little more than a giant steaming pile of heretical bull-crap. As such, there are plenty of people out there who feel that my over-the-top style of writing is basically one step above a dirty limerick, and there are a handful of Amazon reviewers for the BADASS books who like to claim that I have the maturity level of a fifteen year-old (which, in their defense, might not necessarily be incorrect). Haters are unavoidable in any endeavor, and ultimately you have to have a thick skin when you’re going to try something like this. In response to these caps lock-heavy unsolicited comments virulently describing my apparent soul-crushing incompetence, I would argue that it’s important to know your target audience – the people who love history are going to love history no matter what, and they’re going to have a great time digging through some ultra-dry history of the Great Depression or whatever. The people I’m writing for are the action movie crowd – intelligent people who don’t know much about history, but who want to be entertained by an awesome story of face-crushing badassitude while learning something in the process. As long as I stay true to the story and don’t go around making up facts Hollywood-style to fit my version of events, I don’t think there’s any harm in having a little fun with the source material and teaching people something in the process. If I’m talking about Genghis Khan driving over the Prince of Kiev on a rocket-powered Harley or Frederick Barbarossa telling the Pope to “go hump a wood chipper,” I’d like to think that most people would be able to figure out that that’s just a colorful turn of phrase rather than a literal description of actual historical events. And, in the end, high school students are reading my books for pleasure in their spare time, which is more than can be said of the more straight-laced history books out there. As long as the good word of history is getting out there, where’s the harm in that?
I should also mention that I don’t pretend to be writing the definitive biographies on these characters – a detail that grants me a little more leeway to have some fun with these stories and tell them in a way that’s going to be entertaining as well as accurate. I always try to include links and references for further reading, so that if someone reads the article and decides, “Dude, that guy was really insane, I’d love to read more about him”, or “Wow, this would be really interesting if it weren’t for all the balls jokes”, they can just click through to a more traditional history website or head to the library and check out a painstakingly-detailed history text about him. My hope is just to get people interested in history, teach them something useful, and share an incredible story that I’m super pumped-up about. If you want a cut-and-dry story of this guy’s life, complete with every minute detail, buy a biography on him. If you want to hear about why I think Saint Moses the Black was like the Jules Winnfield of the Orthodox Church, you should check out my website.
I also don’t pretend that my books or my website will ever fit in to the landscape of “legitimate historical writing” any time soon. To academic types, I’m always going to be an outsider – some crazy half-drunken nut-job from the Internet who somehow managed to hoodwink a publisher into publishing a book of inane delirious ramblings that turn the good name of history into a hateful mockery of itself. And to their credit, I don’t blame them… the Internet is a medium such that it allows any moron with Notepad installed on their laptop to post whatever the hell they want and declare it “facts”. There’s no peer review, no checks and balances, and no need to substantiate anything you say with links, sources, or citations. Sometimes this has come back to bite me – there were plenty of occasions in the early years of the site when I depended on Internet research for some of my facts, only to later learn that these stories were completely false. I have since changed my research such that I utilize mostly books (either through the library or Google Books), and don’t write about anything as being definitive unless I can substantiate the claim in more than one source. It’s still an imperfect system, which is why I always tell readers to search information out for themselves in addition to what I’m writing about.
This does not change, however, the fact that today when people are looking for information on someone from history, they’re roughly 100% more likely to run a web search on their iPhones than head down to the library and spend a day digging through the friggin’ Dewey Decimal System. Wikipedia is the monolithic monstrosity that seems to be the first point of contact (which is kind of dangerous, considering that I have found several occasions where stories cited in Wikipedia were wildly inaccurate), but history sites are springing up all throughout the web these days, each trying to establish themselves as the definitive authority on something. I personally tend to think that this is great – you really can’t have too much history available to people – but as Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben once said, “with great power comes great responsibility,” and we are all responsible for ensuring that the material we’re putting up there is accurate. If it’s not, you’re giving the rest of us a bad name.
Ben Thompson graduated from Florida State University in 2002 with degrees in History and Political Science. He has run the popular website badassoftheweek.com since 2004, and has written humorous history-related columns for outlets such as Cracked, Fangoria, Penthouse, and the American Mustache Institute. His first book, BADASS: A Relentless Onslaught of the Toughest Warlords, Vikings, Samurai, Pirates, Gunfighters, and Military Commanders to Ever Live was published worldwide by HarperCollins in October 2009. A second book, titled BADASS: Birth of a Legend, was released by the same publisher in March 2011.