Reading books: The metadata problem
Should a text always be approached without prejudice? Should we read reviews? Should we read introductions? CiP pages? Back covers and flyleaves? Author bio? Anything but the actual text?
Well, yes. I want to know if it is a standalone volume or part one of a series. I want to know if there’s a consensus that it’s a waste of time. I want to know if it is likely to be interesting to me.
Certainly for non-fiction it is sensible and reasonable to look at the metadata. Will it tell me what I want/need to know? is the author sufficiently expert? and so on. Suspense is not part of the entertainment, usually; I know that Hitler dies in 1945 and Newton was an inventor of calculus.
But in fiction the decision is not so clear cut. I think we have all had the experience where the back cover reveals too much. It may not even become apparent until well into the story that some crucial piece of data, without which we would be stumped and intrigued, was actually printed on the cover. Simon was really a CIA agent. The thing Matilda was looking for was her father’s diary. Whatever.
So often the back cover tells me things I wish I had found out as I read. Do authors write books knowing what wil be revealed by the writer of the teaser? I doubt it.
I know readers who steadfastly refuse to read introductions to works of fiction. I’ve more than once learned a fact about the author that had affected the way I see their book, and not always for the better (but sometimes for the better, yes).
It’s one reason I like reliable series. Even if they are bad. I have almost all the Venture Sci Fi books, a series of paperbacks selected by Rog Peyton and Rod Milner which promised ‘no short stories, no fantasy, no boredom’ It is pulp adventure SF and makes no apologies. There are some terrible works in the series, some excellent resurrected John Brunner and Richard C. Meredith stuff, and some quite superb early works from Roger MacBride Allen.
So even if the books are not all good (they are not), I know roughly what I am getting and I am not going to be per- or dis-suaded by any back cover copy, so I just read them.
A good magazine is similar. Trust the editor and read the stories and skip the blurbs and bios until the story is done. Because when it all comes down to it that extra verbiage has two possible functions. To help me decide whether to read the book, and to tell me something the author/publisher/editor thinks I ought to know about it. If I have some other guide then the first of these becomes superfluous, and the latter may be read afterwards as well as before (yes, I know some authors play games with intros and they do in fact serve a purpose in the story; I am not going to worry about special cases).
So I have decided. In fiction, the metadata is for afterwards or not at all.