Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Publishing Dilemma

Reading the County Capital
Recently, visiting the online newsletter Biographile, Discover the World Through Biography and Memoir, I spotted an intriguing article titled, "No Such Thing as Objective History."  As you know from reading my earlier blog, "What is History, An Update on my Manuscript," posted 5/23/13, one of the issues I have faced in writing my manuscript about Isaac Werner has been--"When documentary material is inadequate to supply every detail, can an author write legitimate history or biography?"  Writers of history and biography who are researching famous people often have a great deal of documentary material available.  With Isaac, I was fortunate to have his journal, his newspaper articles, and his probate documents, but I did not have personal letters, interviews, news reports, speeches, and other documentary material of the sort someone writing about Thomas Jefferson or Marilyn Monroe might have.

Visiting Rossville, IL
I have not read Reza Aslan's best-selling book about the "life and times of Jesus," but the Biographile article questioning "Objective History" was based on an interview of that author, who discussed his approach to writing about the life of Jesus.  Aslan's method for writing about more than the Biblical account was, "[to] rely on the world in which Jesus lived, a world that--thanks to the Romans--we know a great deal about.  By placing Jesus firmly within his time and place, we can fill in the holes of his life and create a picture of him..."  What I found so relevant from the interview of Aslan was how he used the information that was available from that historic period in his book.

Transcribing & Annotating Isaac's Journal
My  manuscript about Isaac Werner also uses what Aslan called research about my subject's "time and place" to "fill in the holes of his life and create a picture" of him.  In addition, I benefitted from getting to know Isaac from the emotions and opinions expressed in his journal.  (Thank goodness he did not always follow the advice of Henry Ward Beecher to keep personal feelings out of his journal.  Blog of 12-7-2012.)

Marketing my manuscript, I am asked to define it.  Biography?...history?...narrative nonfiction?...historic fiction?  That definition is difficult, and it has created a publishing dilemma for me.  Am I prohibited from imagining dialogue if I know from Isaac's journal when, where, and with whom Isaac had a conversation and the likely subjects they discussed?  Does it make a difference that I document in a footnote what I have done, distinguishing the sourced information from the imagined?

Reading books Isaac read
In his interview, Aslan insists, "There's no such thing as objective history:  a scholar cannot help but bring his own impressions and perceptions into his study, no matter how hard he tries."  Aslan argues that his approach in describing Jesus by "immers[ing] readers in the social, political, and religious context of the first century" allows a reader to "figure out for yourself the larger implication of what he [Jesus] was saying or doing."

Here is what I have done:  I have studied Isaac from his daily journal, (Blog of 10-23-11), his published writings, newspaper and other accounts of events he attended and organizations he joined (Blog of 4-12-12 & 4-17-12).  I have traveled to the town his father founded where Isaac was born and raised, (Blog of 2-16-12 & 2-23-12), visited the town where he was a young druggist, (Blog of 1-20-12 & 1-27-12), walked the land he homesteaded (Blog of 5-16-13), and found his forgotten grave (Blog of 1-13-12).  I have read specific books he read, as well as books by speakers and performers he saw in person and with whom he corresponded (Blog of 2-2-12, 5-30-13, & 4-11-13).  I have done genealogy research of his ancestry and descendants of his siblings, as well as searching the ancestry of each of his neighbors, also learning from interviews with descendants and public documents as much about Isaac's neighbors as I could.  I have immersed myself in the history of the period, reading original documents and scholarly books (Blogs of 8-30-12, 9-13-12, & 10-18-12).  I often felt I knew those people and their lives better than I know the people living in Isaac's community today.

Researching Isaac's Neighbors (Doc Dix)
What is important to me is not writing another scholarly book but rather bringing Isaac, his community, and the Populist movement of the Gilded Age alive to readers, whether they are reading for pleasure or for academic information.  Isaac's journal and the other research I have done is valuable to scholars, but it is also incredibly interesting for general readers.  Is there not some way I can present Isaac's story that is accessible to both?

In the interview with Biographile, Aslan addresses this issue:  "The biggest criticism I have of my [academic] colleagues is that they spend all their time talking to each other, that they rarely bother to synthesize their ideas and their research to make it accessible and appealing to a wider audience.  ... There is a culture in academia that tends to look down on those who try to reach a wider audience--we're immediately tagged as not serious."

Interviewing Isaac's cousin in Wernersville
I have successfully published two non-fiction books, Should the Children Pray?  A Historical, Political, and Judicial Examination of School Prayer, published by Baylor University Press, and Private Choices, Public Consequences, Reproductive Technology and the New Ethics of Conception, Pregnancy, and Family, published by Dutton, a division of Penguin.  You can learn more about those books at my author's website,  I sought with both of those books to bridge the gap between writing for general readers and academics, or as Aslan said, to reach a wider audience, although both books were carefully researched and documented.  I was chosen the Georgia Non-fiction Author of the Year for Should the Children Pray?

Visit to town founded by his father
In telling Isaac's story, with a bachelor homesteader at the center of the Populist Movement in his community and events throughout the nation impacting Isaac and other laborers, I am again seeking to bridge the gap between general readers and academics.  By footnoting imagined conversations and describing events based on research and newspaper accounts, I feel that general readers will find the story more involving and accessible while academics will be warned to consult the references provided in the footnote without assuming that the conversation or description is an accurate account of that particular conversation or that the description of the event was exactly as Isaac experienced it, although Isaac's journal does reference the meeting or event.  I may not have an easy label for what I have chosen to do, but as Katherine Hepburn said, "If you obey all of the rules, you miss all of the fun."  I believe trying to fit my manuscript into either an academic mold or reducing it to historical fiction would make it less than what it is as I have written it.  The challenge is to find a publisher that agrees!


Kim said...

I particularly like this line in today's blog: "What is important to me is not writing another scholarly book but rather bringing Isaac, his community, and the Populist movement of the Gilded Age alive to readers, whether they are reading for pleasure or for academic information." Best wishes in your search for a like-minded publisher!

Grace Grits and Gardening said...

I believe you have accomplished something amazing that is both historical and creative. I cannot wait to read your book. I'm confident you will find a publisher!

Lynda Beck Fenwick said...

Thank you to two of my writer friends!

Milt said...

I like the term "historical narrative" to describe your "Chronicles of Isaac Werner" ...

The Blog Fodder said...

You have taken the right track. The book is not only about Isaac but about his time and place, using his life to illustrate it. It is NOT historical fiction and footnoting "imagined" conversations is even going beyond the call of duty. Canadian author Pierre Berton was the bane of academics but he made Canadian history available to Canadian people.