- Immersion: A Writer's Guide to Going Deep by Ted Conover, and: From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnographies That Everyone Can Read by Kristen Ghodsee
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Pp. 172. Cloth: isbn-13 978-0-226-41616-8, us$55.00; Paper: isbn-13 978-0-226-11306-7, us$18.00; eBook: isbn-13 978-0-226-11323-4, us$18.00.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Pp. 150. Cloth: isbn-13 978-0-226-25741-9, us$48.00; Paper: isbn-13 978-0-226-25755-6, us$16.00; eBook: isbn-13 978-0-226-25769-3, us$16.00.
Journalism and scholarship seem to sit on opposite sides of a non-fiction continuum: at one end is informing; at the other, transforming. Research underpins both types of writing, with the motives behind this research, as well as the rhetorical moves activated in its presentation, largely shaping whether journalism or scholarship results. Producing either also involves craft, with quality of writing affecting both readability and impact.
In this valuable pair of books from the Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing series, the authors—two skilled, decorated writers who have received Guggenheim Fellowships, among other accolades—share two perspectives on writing about people: one journalistic (Ted Conover), the other academic (Kristen Ghodsee). Scholars who wish to write readable prose would be wise to read both. In previous reviews I have asserted that scholarly writing can benefit stylistically from fictional and poetic influences,1 but Conover's work demonstrates that even other forms of non-fiction can prove inspirational in helping scholarly writers understand their works as stories that should seek to captivate their readers. What are ethnographies, at heart, other than true stories of a time, a place, and a people?
Ghodsee, professor of Russian and East European studies at the University of Pennsylvania, whose research centres on Bulgaria, was compelled to write From Notes to Narrative: Writing Ethnographies That Everyone Can Read due to 'ire and frustration' (129) over the 'continued production of unteachable books' (1). Students in senior seminars she taught at Bowdoin College, themselves intrepid readers, struggled with poorly written assigned texts. Ghodsee pored over new releases from university [End Page 281] presses for replacements, often disappointed by her findings. This book, then, serves as intervention. In twelve chapters averaging a very approachable ten pages each, she presents a dozen straightforward strategies (or clusters of related strategies) for budding or practiced ethnographers to improve the quality of their written offerings. The strategies arose from Ghodsee's own experience (as the author of four ethnographies) and observations gleaned during her perennial quests for readable works for her students. The good news is that well-written ethnographies do exist, even if they may not prove the norm. Ghodsee invokes a number in her explanations and analyses, and she provides an impressively diverse list of nearly ninety in the back matter. Writing readable ethnographies has practical dimensions, of course: such works are more likely to get published, more likely to be read, and more likely to influence their fields. A further ethical question underscores Ghodsee's presentation: Shouldn't ethnographers 'endeavor to make their insights accessible to the people they study (as much as possible)' (7)?
Ghodsee's advice can be appreciated, at one end, by graduate students who have yet to settle on a topic or embark on their fieldwork and, at the other end, by scholars who have already had ethnographic works published. 'Writing is a skill,' she concludes, 'and skills develop with time and practice' (127). In fact, Ghodsee had already written three books before a novelist friend pointed out that her writing relied heavily on so-called weak verbs (versions of to be or to have).2 (Sharing one's own vulnerabilities or weaknesses is an effective ethnographic method for building rapport with informants or, in this case, readers.) Ghodsee sagely places the technical advice about language and formatting—mastering grammar and syntax, minimizing jargon, mobilizing endnotes instead of parenthetical author...