Writers know how to avoid being a bore. We’ve all met the football bore, whose only topic of conversation is eleven people kicking a ball about. Or the parental bore, who never strays beyond the unremarkable achievements of his or her little darlings. But we writers are different. Our skill is in communicating. We delight in finding the best way to present a story that will keep our audience gripped. But we have an Achilles heel, which I discovered while writing a book about Victorian photographer, moving picture pioneer and murderer, Eadweard Muybridge.
As writers, we are good at getting ourselves into the heads of our readers. Our skill lies in seeing the topic through someone else’s eyes. The writer needs to know when to introduce a question that experts would never think to ask, because the experts know too much. Equally, the writer learns to realise when fascinating detail turns into tedious exposition. We face a different danger, though, which I have called ‘the scoop effect’.
To see this insidious process in action, you would have needed to join me as I was writing about Muybridge. I had first come across the man, born Edward Muggeridge, but with a penchant for silly names (he called his son Florado) when writing a book about light. In this, Muybridge had only warranted a few lines as the first person to publicly project moving pictures — but it was obvious he would prove a meaty topic. Few Victorians set off from the leafy surroundings of Kingston-upon-Thames to take on edgy 1870s San Francisco. Nor were many of them found not guilty after shooting their wife’s lover, because the jury thought this an appropriate action to take. And yet there was no scientific biography of the man, just annotated picture books.
I was soon immersed in Muybridge. A wonderful archive at Kingston offered many temptations. I was able to hold in my hand original photographs that Muybridge had taken of his adulterous wife, and the scrapbooks of cuttings he had personally assembled. There was material for a book (or at least a radio drama) in one thick collection of letters alone. These were from Janet Leigh, the daughter of Wirt Pendegast, Muybridge’s defence lawyer in the murder trial. In her old age, Leigh became obsessed with the idea that Muybridge had been intentionally robbed of his place as a photographic pioneer. To support her cause, she kept up a twenty-year barrage of letters to movie studios and publishers, resulting, for instance, in a reply from Cecil B. DeMille, somewhat wearily declining to make an epic based on Muybridge’s life.
All this was meat and drink to the nonfiction author, and tempting though it might have been to over-indulge in some of these details, the constant reference to the reader’s viewpoint kept my urges in check. But then, the unexpected happened. The harbinger was a serendipitous email from the Royal Society. I had made an earlier enquiry with their librarian, and now she came back to me, wondering if I’d be interested in a little note that had just come to light. And the scoop effect went into overdrive.
To understand the significance of this note, you have to be aware of one of Muybridge’s greatest setbacks. His was a life of extremes, and in 1882 the Royal Society provided one of these.
For some time, Muybridge had been employed by Leland Stanford, railroad magnate and founder of Leland Stanford Junior University (better known as Stanford) in memory of his late son. The millionaire was an enthusiastic breeder of horses for the sport of trotting, and was determined to discover if, during its trot, all the horse’s feet left the ground at the same time. To help with this, he had employed Muybridge, who assembled a bank of cameras taking sequential photographs that could be used to dissect the horse’s motion — sequences that Muybridge soon projected, with his magnificently named zoöpraxiscope, to form the first movies.
As well as supporting Stanford’s hypothesis, Muybridge assembled enough material, from equine subjects to boxers in action, to go on a sell-out tour of Europe. He had already had two engagements at the Royal Institution (where the Prince of Wales pointed out the commercial possibilities of showing sporting events like boxing) and then at the Royal Academy. He was due to crown his London stay with an evening at the Royal Society, when he was summoned before a Society committee. They had received a report that Muybridge was guilty of plagiarism. While Muybridge was abroad, Stanford had commissioned a medical doctor to write up Muybridge’s experiments, which he did — but failed to mention that Muybridge had been the photographer. This seemed damning evidence that Muybridge was a fraud, and though he protested his innocence, the committee cancelled his engagement.
The situation was rectified when Muybridge undertook a much more sophisticated collection of photographic sequences at the University of Pennsylvania under the auspices of its provost, Doctor Pepper (no relation to the drink maker). These showed far more detail, and ranged from sequences of people at work, most of them naked so that their musculature could be observed, to a series of shots of a turtle, opened up to show its beating heart.
After his success in Pennsylvania, the Royal Society welcomed Muybridge with open arms. But back in 1882, Muybridge was in dire straits thanks to the report claiming he had not contributed to the research. And it was this report that the librarian informed me had just been uncovered for the first time since the nineteenth century. Not only was it a crucial piece of evidence in the Muybridge story, but I now discovered for the first time that the report was written by the father of eugenics, Francis Galton.
There’s no doubt this document, with its assumption that the establishment figure of Stanford’s word should be believed rather than that of the eccentric Muybridge, was an interesting addition to the evidence. But this was a scoop. No one else writing about Muybridge had ever seen it. And so I couldn’t resist writing half a chapter about a one-page scrawled note where a line or two would have been appropriate. When faced with a chance to be first, the scoop effect propelled me from seasoned writer, with a good grasp of the tolerance of the audience for detail, to an evidence-obsessed geek, desperate to share my new-found knowledge.
Thankfully, my editor proved a restraining force. Editors are the writer’s best defence against the scoop effect. It’s something specifically to consider when we dip a toe into self-publishing. Without that editorial blue pencil, we have to be particularly vigilant, on the lookout for the scoop that distorts our perspective.
Should you ever find yourself writing a book on a topic where a scoop can arise – and this can happen, for instance, to historical novelists as easily as nonfiction writers – the lesson is to take great care. Your natural tendency will be to suppress your inner monitor that says a reader will not share your in-depth enthusiasm and, frankly, will be bored. A scoop plays on the natural pleasure of discovery – a process that the brain is hard-wired to reward – magnified by its uniqueness. But being unique does not necessarily make something interesting to the reader.
I saw a car this morning with the number plate DN59NPJ. Unique? Certainly. Interesting? Well, no. It’s best if you keep the expansive response to your scoops to a joyous whoop, a slice of cake and a nice cup of tea. You know it’s the right thing to do.