Friday, March 07, 2008

How to Write a Book

The way books (or theses, for that matter) get written never ceases to amaze me. I'm always intrigued by the different ways my graduate students go about putting words together, and how they strike their own balance between reading, writing and talking about their work.

For me, the most fun part by far is the writing. I'm dreadful at the filing and organising my notes; and often put off the necessary reading, too.

The book I'm writing now is a little like my book on Chaucer, in that it runs from the fourteenth century through to the present, but this time it ranges over much broader cultural fields: literature, ritual practice, costume, religion, historiography, tourism, etc. My shorthand answer to the question "what's your book about?" is to describe is as a cultural history of the Order of the Garter, but it also stems from my interest in how the medieval is figured and re-figured as the point of origin of this more or less continuous form of ritual practice.

I gave my first paper on this topic way back around 2001; and have only just recently locked my chapter structure into place (I've nearly finished drafting the fifth of seven chapters, so there's still a way to go). How am I going to balance the imperatives of chronologies and histories against the thematic threads I want to draw out? I think I have a solution; and am grouping the first three chapters into one section, "Ritual Histories"; and the next four as "Ritual Practices". Neat, eh?

But this struggle has taken place in a part of my brain that has repressed a memory. In the latest edition of Studies in the Age of Chaucer, I've reviewed David Wallace's Premodern Places: Calais to Surinam, Chaucer to Aprha Behn. The title alone will give you an idea of the scope of this book, if you're not a medievalist. If you are, it's certainly come across your horizons. In part, I wrote:

Wallace’s practical method is dizzying, as he moves through what must be an extraordinary archive of filing-cabinets filled with photographs, maps, references and allusions to events, emotions and memories of these six locations across several centuries, and from many different kinds of writing. He lays a rich and fascinating wealth of material before us in this book, as he traces the patterns of remembering and forgetting that influence the cultural histories of place and period.

This is not a narrative strategy without risk, however. Premodern Places is a wonderful and practical exercise in the multiple temporalities invoked by postcolonial criticism, in critiques of periodisation, and especially by scholars working in the fascinating territory between the late medieval and the early modern, a problem neatly solved by the inclusive “premodern” of its title. It is a book preeminently concerned with the shaping power of broad cultural forces, and many will find it an inspiring, even liberating project in uncovering multiple forgotten histories, places and voices. Wallace is interested, after all, in the way literary scholars can sometimes fall silent, and let texts speak “in the past’s own idiom”; indeed, he gives the last word of his book to the pseudonymous poet “Tryphossa”, writing in 1973, in the hybrid language Sranan: “Èn beybi-Jesus krey a fosi: yè-è-è.”

Nevertheless, the book depends on an extraordinary mastery in marshalling and organising its materials. Wallace’s narrative voice is engagingly candid and modest, but the hand of the compilator remains firmly in control. Moreover, the impulse to write of the superego and the id of the Renaissance, for example, to speak so broadly of what history, or cultural history represses, skirts dangerously close to re-instituting the unfashionable grand narratives of modernism and colonialism. Perhaps it is impossible to write this kind of long history without such perspectives. Premodern Places will undoubtedly stand for a long time as a important test-case for this method.
Apart from my propensity to over-use the word "extraordinary" (an early draft had a third usage in these three paragraphs), what strikes me only just now are the obvious similiarities between David's book and what I'm trying to do in mine — though my prospective publisher has indeed suggested I take Premodern Places as a model for a book that might appeal to a somewhat broader audience than a narrow specialist one. This is daunting indeed.

But perhaps the filing cabinet I had in mind when I wrote the review is my own. I have drawers and drawers of Garter stuff: books, articles, pamphlets, photographs, newspaper cuttings, even a drink coaster.

So my questions are ones about mastery. How do we master these vast and complex archives without re-instating master narratives over them? Or perhaps a master narrative is appropriate here? Does the last paragraph of my review speaks more to my own anxieties? And perhaps they are more about my fear that I won't be able to find a grand narrative.

So as I often say to myself, Beckett-like, when writing: "I can't go on. I'll go on."

5 comments:

David Thornby said...

The scope of the Garter book sounds enormous, and fascinating. In reading your description ('literature, ritual practice, costume...') I get the feeling that your book (for me) would be very much about the figuring and re-figuring (happening and re-happening and re-imagining) of the medieval for us now, with the Order and its cultural history as a particularly pertinent case in point. It's not just simultaneously historical and modern, it's history reminding the modern that it hasn't gone away. But I can see there's potential for a lot of tension between doing justice to a long and presumably enormously well-documented (at least in parts) history, and the influences of the Order in a cultural theory sort of sense, in a finite work.

Is there no organic grand narrative already/continually instating itself over those vast and complex archives? (and am I being naive even to wonder if there is?) You ask if a master narrative (which 'master' I read rather much as a verb) is appropriate -- but I read the last part of your review as thinking that, largely, they aren't. I've rewritten this paragraph too many times now to be sure it makes any sense, but I'm sure you'll find your ways to let both yourself and the material be compelling.

Karl Steel said...

How do we master these vast and complex archives without re-instating master narratives over them?

I wonder--and I really am wondering here (not presuming to suggest anything)--if the problem could be solved in part by writing yourself into the book: why not let us know what desires drove/drive you to do your cultural history of the Garter? You might not prevent the master narrative, but at least we'd know the master isn't a voice from nowhere...

Stephanie Trigg said...

Yeah, I kind of thought about that, and have put in a few such moments. But it's awfully easy to come across as overly engaged with and driven by one's own personal trajectory. Nothing worse than a book that's too self-regarding.

At the moment, I'm trying to capitalise on the deep curiosity many people often feel about the intimate secrets of the royal family; on that love — which I certainly share — of all the many arcane and bizarre details of royal life. And the Garter story is full of them. So I'm thinking about making the book in part a story about our own interest in royal arcana. You know, kind of feeding that interest while also trying to think critically about it?

Hmm. Writing this comment makes me want to get back to work. Just two lectures to write for tomorrow and then the Easter break. Yay!!

Karl Steel said...

I suppose so long as the moments of personal engagement are themselves critical moments, not self-regarding but self-reflective (the self as a particular thickening of the larger cultural interest), then you're doing it right, yeah?

So I'm thinking about making the book in part a story about our own interest in royal arcana. You know, kind of feeding that interest while also trying to think critically about it?

Excellent! Not that you need my approval, but this sounds like a really exciting project. For some reason I'm reminded of this.

Jeffrey J Cohen said...

You know it's funny, I've just returned from Penn where I gave a paper that attempted exactly what Karl has suggested, specifically as a way of getting around some of the "exterior" imposition of grand narratives you worry about.

I also reread Premodern Places on the train, having a hunch that it would help me to reformulate some questions I am trying to frame about the survival of lost voices. I was actually surprised -- and pleased -- to see how much David Wallace DOES in fact inscribe himself into the narrative. Many of the pictures are by him (one even features his brother), and he does narrativize his travel to places like Tenerife and Suriname.