Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Get down to the facts!

McKim had opened this meeting with a wandering talk about the fair and its prospects. Hunt cut him off: "McKim, damn your preambles. Get down to the facts!"
Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City

Whenever you hear the phrase "needs no introduction," you know you can expect not just an introduction, but most likely a long introduction. Most of us can agree with Richard M. Hunt at that meeting of architects planning the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, as described in Erik Larson's book. We, too, would sometimes like to shout, "Get down to the facts!" or maybe, "If the speaker needs no introduction, why are we hearing one?"

Andre Dubus III
At the Writers in Paradise public readings in St. Petersburg last week, each writer who gave a reading was introduced by another writer, who would then be giving the reading on some other night. These writers, many of whom return to the writing program year after year and by now know each other very well, try to outdo each other with the wit and creativity of their introductions. Sometimes, quite frankly, the introductions are far better than the readings that follow. That wasn't the case Friday night when Ann Hood introduced fellow novelist Andre Dubus III, using the theme of "How do I love thee, Andre, let me count the ways." I don't know about Hood and Dubus, but I found it embarrassing. The essay read by Dubus, however, about meeting of his father, a terrific short story writer, with Raymond Carver, another terrific short story writer, was, well, terrific.

If the introductions of speakers, and sometimes the introductory comments made by the speakers themselves, can often be tedious, introductory passages in books can be equally so. Erik Larson's book itself has a prologue. Looking over some of the other books on my shelves, I found one with both a foreword and a prologue, another with a preface and an introduction, yet another with a foreword and a preface, and another with an introduction and two prefaces, one by the author and another by the editor.

It gets confusing, even for writers and editors, to understand what all these terms mean, but technically a preface is not the same thing as a prologue, which is different from both a foreword and an introduction. (We won't even get into afterword and epilogue.) A foreword, for example, is usually written by someone other than the author. The introduction "usually forms a part of the text (and the text numbering system)," according a source I found with a Google search. Of course, there are exceptions. My Bookstore, a book of essays by writers about favorite bookstores, includes an introduction by Richard Russo with Roman numerals.

I try to read introductions, prefaces and all the rest, and sometimes they can be helpful. Prologues especially tend to be vital to the book, although I often wonder why a prologue can't just be called Chapter One. Yet they can all be annoying at times, especially when they are numbered with Roman numerals, making it seem like you have to read page after page before you can actually start the book, and especially in fiction. "Get down to the story!" we want to shout. "Get down to the facts!"

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