Thursday, August 14, 2008

Structure and Audience 2

What I just wrote in my previous blog entry put me in mind of Henry Fielding's Tom Jones, which is introduced with the following apropos passage (thanks to Project Gutenberg, a great resource for free electronic copies of many published works):

An author ought to consider himself, not as a gentleman who gives a private or eleemosynary treat, but rather as one who keeps a public ordinary, at which all persons are welcome for their money. In the former case, it is well known that the entertainer provides what fare he pleases; and though this should be very indifferent, and utterly disagreeable to the taste of his company, they must not find any fault; nay, on the contrary, good breeding forces them outwardly to approve and to commend whatever is set before them. Now the contrary of this happens to the master of an ordinary. Men who pay for what they eat will insist on gratifying their palates, however nice and whimsical these may prove; and if everything is not agreeable to their taste, will challenge a right to censure, to abuse, and to d--n their dinner without controul.

To prevent, therefore, giving offence to their customers by any such disappointment, it hath been usual with the honest and well-meaning host to provide a bill of fare which all persons may peruse at their first entrance into the house; and having thence acquainted themselves with the entertainment which they may expect, may either stay and regale with what is provided for them, or may depart to some other ordinary better accommodated to their taste.

Fielding speaks metaphorically, and as a writer of fiction, of course, but what he says is true for the academic writer, too. What is the abstract, after all, except a "bill of fare" in Fielding's terms? As writers, especially as academic writers, our purpose is (or ought to be) to share our ideas, and to that end we should endeavor to reveal to our readers what they can expect, so they can decide whether to read or move on. On a more general level, what Fielding is suggesting is that structure, generally,--that is out choice of where to place elements--is one of the ways that we can reach our readers: we make structural choices so that we get the responses we want--for example, so that the reader can decide whether to move on or not.

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