In a comment to Domey's post yesterday, McKenzie McCann talked about how much she dislikes it when seemingly every story element is symbolic. A coffee pot, as McKenzie said, is never just a coffee pot. I answered something like, "I'd rather an author tried too hard than didn't try hard enough." That was yesterday.
Today I am not so sure. Since writing my reply to McKenzie, I have read the first chapter of Paula McLain's The Paris Wife and the first couple of chapters of Louis de Bernieres' Birds Without Wings. I'm going to read the Bernieres book and I might read the McLain book, but both of these novels begin with a lot lot lot of the author displaying their research. The Paris Wife is a fictional first-person account of Ernest Hemingway's first marriage as told by the wife, Hadley Richardson. The first chapter is essentially an essay about Hemingway. His eyes, his hair, his dancing, his every nickname, etc etc etc and I just wanted to shake Ms McLain by the collar and tell her "I get it; this is about Ernest Hemingway." The trouble is, the scene was allegedly about Hadley Richardson dancing for the first time with Hemingway at a party, and there was almost no Hadley Richardson in there. It was all McLain's researched details about Hemingway. Ms McLain is trying too hard.
Birds Without Wings is a tragic love story set in the last days of the Ottoman Empire, as it is becoming Turkey. Nationalism, racism, the Gallipoli campaign during WW I and love all intertwine in the novel, all with tragic consequences. Sounds nifty. Except, the first few thousand words are all set dressing. It's nice to know that an imam is one who leads prayers and that a hodji is someone who's been on the haj and that people in Turkey spoke Turkish but wrote using Greek script and that Christian and Muslim traditions were mashed up in rural areas, but after a while I just wanted to meet some characters and see some action. I'm in a history lesson right now. Mr de Bernieres is trying too hard.
This reminds me of when Mighty Reader read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina. Every time Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya ("Kitty") comes into the story, Tolstoy must describe the beauty of Kitty's clothing and person. Mighty Reader was more than once heard to exclaim, "Okay, Leo, we get it. Kitty's pretty and dresses well. Is that all you've got to say about her?" I said to Mighty Reader, "Well, the book is like 6,000 pages long. Don't you need to be reminded about the characters?" Mighty Reader looked at me like I'd grown soft in the head.
This is something I wonder about in my own books, which so far have tended to be set in the historical past. How much do I tell my reader about the setting? Where do you draw the line between giving enough explanation so that the story makes sense and the story just being a textbook? I'm not one of those people who read historical fiction in order to learn about the past. I just like a good story told well. I also don't think that writers owe any fidelity to the past and I've read enough interviews with writers of historical fiction to be aware that they'll serve the story at the expense of the facts and I'm fine with that. So I don't need to hear how the horsemen of Mongolia were more fierce than were the horsemen of Kurdistan or whatever, especially when that's just filler in the middle of a paragraph. At some point, the story gets lost for me and I'm just wading through the writer's notes.
This is not an argument against detail, though. Proust goes into minutia for half a million words but that's just the way his mind works in the pursuit of his themes. He's not trying to show you how well he's observed his hotel suite or the shoes worn at the artistocratic parties he attends. His work is about the details and it's pretty fine stuff.
Anyway, I realize that this is all very much down to personal taste and individual reading history, but I don't think that's any reason not to discuss it. How much do you want/need to be told about setting/history (real or made up by the author) before you're willing to lose yourself in a story? What are your minimum requirements? How close to the beginning of the story do you want this stuff to appear? (Last night I was talking about backstory with Mighty Reader, re my current novel. She asked if I was going to give my MC's Big Personal Question in the first chapter or so. "What?" I said. "And leave nothing for Act Two?")