Narrative strategies

Friendly blogger Elektradig puzzles over my apparent anti-narrative stance - I should offer a word or two, since this has been an issue raised before.

There are two sides to narrative and analysis - as reader's choice and as writer's choice.

Reader's choice.
My strategy in reading narrative - like yours - is to find a framework in some topic I am not well versed in, ideally with as little work as possible. Hello easy reading! Thus, I read Jean Smith's Grant when it came out and enjoyed it - I am naive enough in things Western that his mistakes and failures of attribution did my entertainment no harm at all.

The next reading on the same topic, if it is a narrative, will be matched against what I read before; in other words, I will begin to develop my own analysis and to offset weaknesses in each storytelling by reading one narrative against the other. And so it goes, until I am ready for fully analytic work. Once there, I cannot, as a reader ever go back to reading narrative for enjoyment in a particular subject. I have (accidentally or on purpose) made myself into a critic of the literature. I believe this to be true for everyone.

The narrator has wired a large board and set all the switches of controversy to flow the storyline in a manageable direction. As a naive reader of Jean Smith, the switches were hidden from me and I went with the flow - with pleasure. But as a deep reader in other areas, say the early war in the East, I can recognize each choice the narrator makes to either highlight or suppress a controversy. I become judgemental: is the subject being done justice by the author?

The author is on trial. And yet, narrative as a form has served its (positive) purpose. It has taken me to a point where I can exercise my analytic faculty - also for enjoyment.

What would be weird (pathological?) is if I repeatedly sought out more books on the same subject and at the same level as Jean Smith's Grant. In other words, something very bad is happening if Grant is a gateway to years of more Grants.

People generally range various nonfiction fields topically, looking to recreate that nonfiction reading pleasure James McPherson delivered with his Civil War material by finding a similar work by a different author on another topic. In other words, readers do not repeat Grant endlessly when they can swim at their chosen depth across a wider sea; and they do, travelling from Leonardo's Italy to Mao's China and back again.

So let the wide-ranging reading of narratives continue. Let me not begrudge the entertainment a McPherson or Goodwin delivers to a naive reader. And let us remember that the pleasure fades as topical innocence is lost.

If this is true for the general public, it needs qualification for Civil War readers. The ACW is so broad, one could wade the same shallow depth from one war topic to the next. One could, in other words, start with Battle Cry, then seek out a similar reading experience in a campaign account, then in a tale of the Lincoln presidency, etc. One could arrest one's own development as a reader while assuming the (false) identity of a history reader. The publishing industry understands this and has built for us in Civil War nonfiction a huge wading pool.

Part of the maintenance of that pool involves praising entertainers as historians.

McPherson and Goodwin, then, represent less a gateway to the riches of history than a trapdoor into this nonfiction wading pool.

Writer's choice
When you get down in the trenches with bestselling nonfictioneers, say a Peter Maas, you notice a hopping from topic to topic. You find authors studying up for a next nonfiction book; they are only one or two steps ahead (informationally) of their naive readers. They are, in sum, naive readers packaging material for other naive readers. This is an excellent way to preserve freshness, the innocence, the view from 50,000 feet. But if Maas, for instance, had stayed with his first hit like many an ACW scribe has done, if he endlessly re-investigated, rewrote, and rethought Serpico (different aspects of the career, different cases within the career), he would have passed through an ever-evolving understanding of his topic, something he could apply to the deepest questions about life. He would be doing history.

This Maas dynamic, real or imagined, does not apply in the professional class of Civil War authors. We are confronted by writers who publish decade after decade without hopping or evolving.

Battle Cry has not been revised since it was compiled in 1988 (unless an illustrated edition is considered revision - and there we are told all the revisions involved cuts). On the other hand, Doris Goodwin had to study up to write Team of Rivals. Like Maas, Goodwin topic hops, establishing an alibi of innocence.

But the Centennial era material that McPherson aggregated in the late 1980s had already been made stale then by 10 to 15 years of research and new discoveries. It is now almost 20 years since this outdated-at-birth, never-revised nonfiction was released. The book, delivering its pleasure, sets up a pathology part of which is a standing invitation to immaturity.

Personal choices
J. David Petruzzi said something about being a writer that applies just as much to being a Civil War reader:

In my case, before even thinking about writing on a particular subject, I have a personal desire to know it inside and out. I gather all available sources - both primary and secondary - and sift through them over and over. I make comparisons and contrasts, and attempt to construct the story that I feel is accurate, placing the subject in context with surrounding events. By the time I’ve grown comfortable with the idea of beginning to write - the process can take weeks or even months - I feel that the story is now “mine.”
As readers, we make topics of interest "ours." Once that happens, the attraction of narrative fades, its entertainment value falls away, and the idea that this form could transcend entertainment to deliver History becomes improbable.

For all those who tell me, "I came into this by reading Battle Cry," let me suggest you are different. You escaped the pool, leaving many times your number wandering aimlessly through sludge.

Sentimental loyalty to an author in repayment for a good reading experience is misguided.