Told what to think

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Prefaces. Introductions. Forewords. They’re helpful, aren’t they, when they’re designed to give you an inkling of what’s in store, to whet your appetite for what’s to come. A bit like a extended blurb, maybe to give a bit of context to the work, or a potted history of the author. Useful stuff.

Except when they’re not. When they prove to be dull as ditchwater with extraneous material, or when you’re faced with egregious spoilers, or — if written by a third party — they prove to be principally about … the third party.

Above all, I hate it when introductions basically tell you what to think, to get you to form an opinion of a text which you haven’t yet read. Is there anything more annoying than arriving at a novel with a prejudice formed before the very first sentence, even if planted there with good intentions?

I also extend my dislike to the opening pages of paperback editions of works previously published in hardback, filled with glowing endorsements from fellow authors, selected passages from reviewers, even praises for earlier works by the writer in question. I feel browbeaten by the weight of these laudatory quotes; in fact I become so resentful that I’m tempted to be on the look-out for false steps in the prose, armed to shoot down the faintest hint of faulty plotting, ready to criticise any inconsistent characterisation.

I don’t mind a few words by way of preamble. The author saying, Look, I wrote this many years ago but on the whole I think it still stands up as a piece of literature. A biographer or academic giving a little bit of historical context to a classic or a work by a late author. (The emphasis is on a little bit.) A friend or editor givng a brief explanation about the circumstances surrounding the manuscript’s transcription to the print medium.

I baulk however at long essays which are best consigned, along with any scholarly annotations, extended bibliography, acknowledgements or even index, to the end of the work. (Yes, even some works of fiction have some or all of this apparatus.) Instead of a Foreword I’d prefer an Afterword, I’d like to see a Postface in place of a Preface, and a Postscript or Envoi as opposed to an Introduction.

Here, at the end, is where I’d like to compare and contrast my experience of reading the work with the considered opinions of somebody knowledgeable, not be told before the main event what my responses should be.

Is it too much to ask?

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Tell me what you think. Am I making too much of a song and dance about this? I know I could leave reading intros till the end, but by the time I’ve started an intro to work out its nature it’s too late, I’m effectively drawn into its content.

Or maybe you too find effusive crits and extended essays too much? I’d love to hear your opinions!

52 thoughts on “Told what to think

  1. I like intros and forewords that make me excited about the book. For me this means that the piece frames the subject in a way that I’ve never thought of before. Or, if it confirms why I wanted to read it in the first place but gives me additional information that makes me even more eager to explore the topic. I also love intros and forewords that refer to other authors who’ve written about similar subjects or used similar approaches to different subjects. You can tell when an intro is written by someone who’s read the book and is excited about it. And yes, it should not be about the intro writer!

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    1. Yes, excited and eager is how I too want to affected by an intro, Daphne, giving me a new entrance into the book or confirming what I’d hoped for. But only when they’re given with the merest of hints!

      As for the intro writer’s personal anecdotes, how’s this for the opening sentence of the introduction to the McKillip fantasy I’ve just read:
      “Back in the day, Patricia McKillip and I used to party.”
      Arresting, yes, but I’m not sure what it adds to one’s understanding of the novel.

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  2. Well I never read the introduction first, as I’ve been stung by spoilers before! But when done well, e.g. the ones to Iris Murdoch’s reprinted novels in the Vintage edition, or David Olusoga’s excellent introduction to Alex Haley’s “Roots” (same publisher; they must be doing something right!) then they add such a lot.

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    1. You must have heaps of self-discipline, Liz, my eye always drifts to the start of an intro (after publication details, obviously!). Mostly a quick skim tells me whether to read it first, leave it till later, or ignore it completely, but even so, spoilers can still catch me unawares.

      I’ve huge respect for David Olusoga so I might seek out that edition of Roots, if only to see how he gets it right. I think I’ve an Iris Murdoch novel in a Vintage edition waiting so I could try that first. (It was recommended to me by Anne Rowe who’s a Murdoch specialist who, coincidentally, also runs the coaching inn fifty metres down the road from us.)

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  3. I too dislike seeing page upon page of testimonials.

    I wait until I’ve read the book before I read an introduction just to avoid the spoilers. One exception is of I’m reading a classic and the introduction has some details about the political or historical context because those will generally help me get more out of my reading.

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    1. I agree with you, Karen, that classics often need contextualising before one embarks on a reading, and some editions can be very good at that — especially when they’re provided with sections discussing various aspects so what can be safely avoided till after the novel is finished has been well signposted.

      And testimonials, yes, urgh. Like literary awards but without the prize money.

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  4. ‘Instead of a Foreword I’d prefer an Afterword, I’d like to see a Postface in place of a Preface, and a Postscript or Envoi as opposed to an Introduction.’

    I agree; this is my complaint with many classics including the Wordworth eds where they have an Intro and advice you to read it after; why not simply have it as an afterword––spoilers are avoided and one has the chance to form one’s own view before reading another’s. That said, some I feel do bring up interesting ideas like one in my Everyman ed of Emma comparing the social structure with Rousseau’s Social Contract.

    When I was ‘new’ to classic fiction as a middle schooler/teen, I did appreciate some introduction as going into a bulky classic with no idea of what lay ahead did seem daunting, so perhaps a short intro with the full discussion or opinion as an afterword makes the most sense.

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    1. Wordsworth editions have the advantage of being cheap but while the odd intro I’ve found helpful (but as an afterword) some have been unfocused or simply confusing, making me wonder what they’re trying to achieve. Everyman though can be very good, in fact any modern edition where the editing and associated apparatus has been provided by a noted specialist.

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      1. Wordsworths were the ones I picked up when in school/college–the price was obviously a consideration (Popular Penguins too but they had no notes). I do find their notes helpful even now; re intros, it can be a mixed bag, but I’ve learnt not to go into them before reading the book unless its one I’ve read.

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          1. I will say that the skipping has happened with me only in the last maybe three titles that I’ve picked up; my current ‘classic’ read ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ being one; this I am reading in instalments with a goodreads group.

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    2. I think the problem for many publishers is deciding who the reader is, whether new and inexperienced, a jaded old-timer, or someone who prefers their fiction predigested. Often they fall between the several stools in an effort to please all.

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  5. I agree! I appreciate it when the intro warns us that it contains spoilers (I think Penguin Classics books do this). My plan is to skip them and then come back to them in the end, only I sometimes quite forget about them, and this is why they truly should be in the end!

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    1. An ideal might be a short intro, succinct and relevant, with a more detailed commentary at the end. Then we wouldn’t feel cheated by early revelations when we inadvertently get drawn in! As for plots summaries (which is what some intros almost feel like) it’s best to leave that to Wikipedia entries…

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  6. Introductions to 18th-century satires can be absolutely crucial, as they tell readers how to think critically about (for example) the at-first-glance effusive praise of something that isn’t as earnest as it might seem. They also worked to help keep the satirist out of prison for libel, if it was ironic praise of a particular person.

    Because I learned not to skip over these introductions, I usually take a look at introductions to texts from later centuries, but often have the same objections to them that you describe. The introductions to Victorian novels strike me as the absolute worst of the lot!

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    1. I take your point, Jeanne. Some ‘difficult’ classics (like the satires you describe) are I think probably best suited to reading in a scholarly edition, or at least one with such pretentions (as Everyman or Penguin Classics for example).

      However, there are some editions which seem to be designed to cater for a global readership, aren’t there, for whom British culture and language and vocabulary may, even if only from the Victorian period, may prove stumbling blocks to comprehension. I may find them over-prescriptive or over-simple, but then I will have had the advantage of growing up in that culture.

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  7. I totally understand and agree. I generally never read forewords and introductions. I just skip them when I start a book and read them only after I finish a book. It’s interesting that you mention this because I have just finished reading Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet (a short book), obviously skipping the 30 page! “introduction/foreword” at the very beginning and my shock was that when I came back to it I discovered that the author of this introduction told the whole plot with all the spoilers without telling about those spoilers at the start. I would have definitely not enjoyed this book as much as I did if I first read that foreword/introduction. And that was actually Penguin Classics. Testimonials can also be so annoying.

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    1. Your experience with this Balzac edition would have been truly galling if you’d been unwary, Diana! But ‘classics’ may be a case where it’s hard to get the balance right: I value scholarly notes and discussions despite being no academic, and each work needs to be treated differently.

      As an example, I read one early 20th-century edition of the Satiricon in (I think) an earlier translation which mightily confused me at the time because the narrative didn’t seem to flow; so it wasn’t till a later Penguin edition that I gathered that the original text existed in fragmentary forms and thus needed tentative reconstructing.

      No I reserve my ire for recent works where (as in Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld) the introduction reveals the motivations of the main character in a way that, had I not lightly skimmed it, would have entirely ruined my own discovery while reading.

      I really do hope I avoid being so crass in my reviews — unless the works are so well known that spoilers are impossible to reveal because virtually everyone knows how things pan out!

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  8. JJ Lothin

    Good points, well argued!

    I invariably skip the introduction/preface until I finish the book (IF I finish the book), when I may turn back to it if I’m sufficiently interested by what I’ve read … And I do wonder if publishers realise how off-putting those pages of puff-comments can be, especially the ones from fellow writers (“I’ll scratch your back …”)

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    1. Do you think those puff comments are directed at what the publishers think are less discerning readers, ones who hang on (say) a celeb’s every pronouncement? The comments remind me of those terse laudatory critics’ phrases beloved of designers of movie posters, but minus the five stars.

      Mind you, I used to write reviews of titles on Arthuriana for academic publishers Boydell & Brewer which they used to scan for choice phrases to insert in notices, so I can’t really criticise…

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      1. jjlothin

        What you were doing for Boydell & Brewer sounds like a different kettle of fish entirely!

        What really annoys me is when a writer who is actually (in my opinion!) quite or very good comes up with some puff comment for a book that is (in my opinion!) not good at all … Call me cynical, but it does make me wonder, why are they doing this, other than for a backhander of some kind or other? It completely devalues the whole currency.

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          1. jjlothin

            My favourite puff comment is on the back of a book called ‘Acceptance of what is’ by Wayne Liquorman: “Read the book and form your own goddamned opinion!” – Ram Tzu

            “Ram Tzu” just so happens to be an alias of … Wayne Liquorman, of course!

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  9. I like introductions that add interesting context about the author/time period/etc. that I could not get from the work itself. I usually read at least part of the book first, though. Otherwise I don’t feel much interest in what the introducer has to say.

    I agree that pages and pages blurbing at the front of a book is a bit much! I just skim over it because it’s all marketing speak and does not add anything to the experience of the book.

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    1. Marketing speak is a lingo I’m really glad isn’t part of my lexicon, Lory, it’s up (or rather down) there with education treated as a business enterprise with targets, league tables and the chilling phrase “value for money”.

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  10. Well, there are intros and intros… I like ones in academic or translated editions, but I don’t read them in advance of the text – too much risk of spoilers or as you say being told what to think.

    As for the blurbs – they drive me absolutely insane. I don’t want them, and certainly if famous author X likes something it tends to make me think I wouldn’t. Just give us the book itself!!

    I think the British Library Women Writers series has got the balance just right – a short intro you can skip till later, some details about the time the book is set, and a sensible afterword by Simon. More books should follow that recipe…

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    1. That’d be a great ideal, Karen, a short intro then a sensible Afterword—what’s so hard for other publishers to understand that?!

      Blurbs are my principal bugbear as regards telling me what to think, just as for you! Just the word ‘blurb’ (a 20th-century coining) tells you all you need to expect.

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  11. Introductions get read last unless the book is from a tradition I don’t know anything about and the intro seems to provide relevant background information. As for blurbs I’m really good at not seeing them at all no matter where they appear in or on the book.

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  12. I agree. I always skip right to the main text, and avoid the forward. If I like what I’ve read and I want to find out more I may read the forward after finishing the rest of the book, but never before. Don’t nobody tell me nothin!

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    1. That’s the spirit! Freethinkers of the world unite! Er, and then disagree, because we’re not sheeple, are we?! (By the way, I like your conflatuoif ‘foreword’ and ‘forward’ — too many Forewords are just that, forward in making assumptions about what we think…

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  13. I love a good intro – by good I mean well written and informative rather than the academic gobbledook that sometimes appears. But I never read them first, always afterwards, and I agree it would make far more sense to put them at the back. Then it wouldn’t matter if there were spoilers.

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    1. I think such books ought to be like guest lectures—a chair to say this is our distinguished speaker who’s taking about such-and-such, then the delivered address, followed by a Q&A session, the equivalent of the Afterword. Audience members would of course be free to leave at any time…

      Myself I like the odd academic gobbledegook, perhaps to sneer at — although that’s not a side of me I find attractive.

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  14. It’s not too much to ask I don’t think. One of my pet hates is a foreword including spoilers and I’ve been known to put the book aside for that reason. Authors’ quotes are probably there to persuade book browsers in shops to make a purchase however I’ve grown increasingly cynical about them. Don’t I sound grumpy! I do love a note at the end offering further insights though and perhaps suggested reading. A preface providing context is helpful isn’t it.

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    1. I wish publishers would take note of opinions like these, Anne, because it would definitely make a difference to the quality of the reading experience. I think we all have the right to be a bit grumpy in this respect! 🙂

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  15. As others have said, it depends. For me, it depends on whether the person writing the intro or foreword is someone whose opinion I respect. It also depends on the edition I’m reading and whether I trust the publisher’s choice of intro-ist. Finally, it depends on whether I’m unfamiliar with the context of the novel and need a steer before embarking, in which case a preface is more helpful than an intro or foreword.

    Most often, I leave any preamble to the moment I need it, sometimes in the course of reading if I’m not quite getting it, usually after I’ve finished reading. In the same way that I don’t often read mainstream book reviews when I already own a book, preferring to go into it with no preconceptions, intros and forewords can spoil things for me.

    Afterwords are my preference. I like the feeling I get from them of swapping views with someone else who knows the book. Sometimes I’m reassured by similar opinions, other times I find another perspective I hadn’t considered while reading. Sometimes an afterword will encourage me to re-read a book.

    I never bother with the reams of puff and fluff provided by the batch of writers du jour at the very front. They feel like the publisher rang a bunch of their mates up and asked them for a soundbite. And the use of quotes on the front cover is increasingly becoming a turn off for me, what’s said is so frequently banal.

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