Sunday, September 06, 2009


I have a question that is probably unanswerable in its general form, but I'm going to ask it anyway: how do you decide how much background--historical, biographical, scholarly--is necessary or useful in contextualizing your own work?

Each chapter of my manuscript deals with a single author, and as much as I'd like to believe that all my future readers will pore over the eventual book from cover to well-worn cover, lingering over even its index in delight and edification, I'm assuming that most will actually come to it for just the one or two chapters most relevant to their own work.

That being the case, should I be writing for experts on each author, who don't need a lot of rehash? That has mostly been my strategy so far: I sketch out the bare outlines of the background issue in the text, footnote the shit out of it, and move along to apply or reinterpret the few bits that are important to the work I'm doing myself.

For instance,
"Lord Whasisface's two years away from London remain the greatest mystery of his biography. We know X and Y, but there has been disagreement about Z [insert huge footnote]. However, it seems safe to assume that some part of Z occurred, for its imprints are all over his subsequent work."
"Scholars have traditionally read this work as either A or B [insert huge footnote]. A more complicated picture emerges if we look at [whatever the fuck brilliant thing Flavia has discovered]."

Again, I know there's no hard and fast rule for this, but I'm curious as to how the rest of y'all weigh the pros and cons of lingering over background context that, while perhaps interesting in its own right, is widely and even tediously familiar to a portion of your audience--but only skechily known to another, probably smaller portion.



Belle said...

Well, since I find Z fascinating, I want a quick overview so that I too can see how it influences everything. Which is what Flavia's brilliance is bringing, yes?

squadratomagico said...

I think it depends a lot on your potential audience. Are you really just writing only for other Flavias the world round? Might your audience include youngish grad. students? Advanced undergrads? And possibility of interested non-academics reading it?

When I published my book, I was asked to include much more background than I had, because the press wanted to market the book as broadly as they could (given that it was an academic monograph about the Middle Ages, that is. Stephen King's latest, it ain't!) So, I'd say the rule of thumb, one your press will like, is to be generous with it, and give as much background as is reasonable given the breadth of your intended, plausible audience.

Sisyphus said...

Hate to say it, but when I run across a couple pages of general history (or even better, a really really nice 2-par summary of a theorist) that tells me stuff in a really lovely and accessible way I am happy. Of course it is a tall order to make a basic summary of, I don;t know, Shakespeare or Milton a lively and engaging read, but for me it's all about process and the voice of the author.

But I don't know if your field is as appreciative of slightly snarky and breezy summaries as mine is. Or the occasional pun.

Lucky Jane said...

I was going to post just what Squadratomagico said, only less eloquently. My experience has been similar to hers, and even more so the second time around. I am almost certain your editor will push you to a more general readership than less: the holy grail of academic publishing is a book that can be assigned, at least in part, even to undergrads. Some may dare to dream of readerships on the scale that trade books enjoy (swoons).

Susan said...

I'd sort of merge Squadrato and Sis's comments. I would write a page or so of context in each case: mostly because as a historian, I want to know what YOU think is important about the context. Especially if your discoveries ever link back to the context :)

But you know, you can always keep it as you have it now, and then in response to the readers reports, add more. Or even say when you send it to the press, "I have considered adding more context, and would be more than willing to do so should the readers think it would be helpful."

Flavia said...

Thanks, guys--that's sorta how I was starting to feel: that I needed to build back in more context in a number of places.

Part of the problem is that I'm the kind of writer who pares and pares as she revises, and after living with a project for a long while lots of (probably very useful) material starts to strike me as incredibly boring and repetitious just because I've encountered it so often. And I also have an almost pathological fear of being boring or reptitious (news that might come as a surprise to readers of this blog, I realize).

Sisyphus said...

I totally have that same problem with my writing! Especially since I draft pretty quickly and then revise endlessly. Sometimes I think the very topic or author becomes just too familiar and boring for words.

Horace said...

Let me add that this is what having a few readers available to you is great for. Put the stuff back in, but leave it highlighted in the draft with specific instructions to read for what's necessary and what's footnotable.

Nothing like real readers to help you figure out what those hypothetical ones would be interested in...

Renaissance Girl said...

I'm having, as you know, a version of this problem, and it's been made clear to me that readers do want the contextualizing, in brief, just to make sure that we are, in fact, having our conversation based on the same set of ideas. But I continue to doubt myself and to fear being boring all through the process.

Anonymous said...

I occasionally end up reading papers, abstracts, or what-have-you which are COMPLETELY out of my field. I don't think I am especially uncommon in that respect.

I'm not your target audience, but I and people like me would vote for #1.