General: “Publick; Comprising the Whole”

My biography of Sam Johnson is being written, as you know if you’ve followed this blog or looked at the website, for the general reader. The concept is simple. Most comprehensive and authoritative modern biographies of Johnson published, well, ever, are really aimed at scholars. They are written by scholars for scholars, and though that doesn’t mean that a general reader couldn’t understand them, it does mean that in various aspects of the book, from the style of the writing to the marketing of the final product, it’s not general readers who are viewed by the biographer as the people who will be excited by the publication of another hefty tome (or large Kindle file) that hits the shelves (or is delivered to the Kindle). I don’t mean to say that scholarly biographers or general readers are wrong or perverse in their tastes or habits — it’s just that there is often not much overlap between the two groups.

There are exceptions, as there are with any broad statement such as this. I, for example, am neither a scholar nor a general reader, but I love the scholarly biographies and I have read all of them. But I’m a writer who has abandoned fiction-writing, has already co-written one biography, and I’ve been following from my non-ivory tower the works that have been published about Johnson for the past 40 years or so. Some other non-scholars who might like nothing better than curling up with a scholarly bio with 37 pages of endnotes, a 15-page index, and a solid 357 pages of text might be:

  • readers who love biographies of all kinds
  • readers who got hooked on the ground-breaking style and narrative skill of James Boswell’s biography of the man he followed around for 21 years
  • readers who love the messy and noisy 18th century — a sort of transition from “older times” to more modern ones — and so want to read everything about it that they can get their hands on

Without giving away all my secrets and plans, I would say that these are the main things I keep in mind as I write, in order to have my book be something that a general reader would like to read:

  1. The writing style has to be clear and simple, almost conversational, so that it resembles any other well-written book that is published in 2022 (that’s the date I’m aiming for), except the subject matter is a man who has been dead for nearly 237 years, and not some current celebrity or a well-known public figure who has died relatively recently. My book won’t include (as one of the most recent bios of Sam does):
  • the words “impecuniosity” or “bibulous”
  • a sequence of sentences like: “Even Johnson nodded in deference to his lordship, an act which only hindsight suggests lacked conviction. Had Shakespeare had the benefit of such a dictionary, which would correctly signify the proper names of plants, he would not so erroneously have intermingled the woodbine with the honeysuckle, the Plan made clear; and an exact taxonomy of reptiles would certainly have prevented Milton from disposing ‘so improperly’ of the ellops and the scorpion. In settling these and many similar errors Johnson arrogated no authority to himself, but threw all such questions back upon the arbitration of Lord Chesterfield, on whose behalf he exercised only ‘a kind of vicarious jurisdiction’.”

    I’m not mocking (and in fact I really like the word bibulous), but this kind of elevated diction is something I plan to avoid. Plain language, dear sirs and madams!

2. It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway, that though my book won’t be scholarly, it will be authoritative. That is, it will rely mostly on secondary sources (books written by others) but facts will be checked and re-checked — and though I do plan to express my thoughts on various aspects of Sam’s life and personality, I won’t be just writing blithely and saying any old thing. If I may say, I have learned a few things and formed a few opinions during these past 40 years.

3. I plan to leave all the documentation at the end, notably (ahem) the notes, which will be endnotes — and endnotes not signalled in the text itself. By that I mean that, say, if I quote someone, there will be no superscript number (like this59) in the text indicating either a footnote or an endnote. My assumption is that most readers won’t want to know or verify the source and so it’s better not to clutter the page with such notation. Instead, I plan to use the format used by a biographer I really like, Sarah Bakewell, who does it like this in her How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer:

Notice that the quotation doesn’t have any superscript number indicating the source. There is no footnote, but the source is given in a block of endnotes at the end of the book for those hard-core readers who want to consult them. In the meantime, the general reader sees a nice uncluttered page. (The superscript “42” by the way doesn’t appear in the text. These are screenshots from the Kindle ebook version, and the number is necessary to allow the reader to easily go back and forth between the text and the note, if they want to.)

I have a few other things planned, too, which I’ll discuss in future blog posts — or will keep to myself (as a writer, there are some things I don’t want to talk about or reveal).

And so much for my writing, for now. If you have 3 more minutes, listen to a few things about Sam’s style and methods …

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