Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Stacy Schiff’s Witches and Mine
I don’t recall what prompted me to begin reading about the Salem witchcraft trials, but the deeper I got into the story the more it assumed the aura of a fever nightmare. Yet in 1692 the bizarre and brutal events were all too real, as were the people involved, many of whom were displaying human nature at its darkest. It wasn’t just an incident confined to a small village; it had spread like a pandemic throughout the New England colonies. Even the religious, political and legal forces that contended over the craze, and the manner in which it was eventually snuffed out, made for compelling reading. I was hooked, and I decided to tell the story my way.
It took me over a year to research and write “What Happened in Salem.” To that narrative I added “Old Adam” and “The Girls” so that I could explore aspects that I had not dealt with fully enough. When it was completed I didn’t try to get it published; I knew of no magazine that would be interested. It sat in my computer for over ten years. After I started this blog I decided to include it because I wanted it to exist in some form. Only “Old Adam” is listed, but at the end of that entry a reader can access the other two parts.
So Stacy Schiff and I have tackled the same subject. But there the similarities between us ends. Ms. Schiff is the author of three biographies and a historical study; all have been awarded prizes (Vera, about Vladimir Nabokov’s wife, won the Pulitzer). She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Since she’s definitely a Somebody, I can imagine the following steps: her proposal for a book about the Salem witchcraft trials was accepted by Little, Brown and Company; she received an advance and gathered a staff around her; they carried out an enormous amount of research; she wrote the big book her publishers wanted; it came out in 2015 and was heavily promoted; it rose swiftly to the New York Times Best Seller list, where it remained for many months.
I got The Witches from the library (there was a long waiting list) and read the first chapter. I was initially impressed at the thoroughness and the inventive prose, though at the same time I wondered why I was having trouble staying focused. I skipped to the end and read the last two chapters; the wandering mind syndrome was still present. Maybe, I thought, I knew the story too well for it to hold my attention. I decided that the book just wasn’t for me.
This essay wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t paid a visit to the Amazon site and checked out the reviews for The Witches. The negative responses far outweighed the positive. Although 23% of the reviewers gave the book five stars, 29% gave it two stars and 26% gave it one. I read what these disgruntled readers had to say; though they expressed themselves differently, the same categories of faults kept being cited: the book was “tedious,” “long-winded,” “confusing,” “meandering.”
The blurbs Ms. Schiff chose to use on the back cover of the book are by historians or biographers; her “meticulous research and lyrical writing” are lauded. Maybe an academically-minded reader can find another virtue: readability. For many people interested enough in Salem to buy her book, Ms. Schiff didn’t deliver on that crucial quality. Since it wasn’t just me who had remained unengaged, I decided to look more closely at The Witches and try to identify the source of the negative responses. As someone who had made conscious decisions on how to approach the story (decisions which differed radically from Ms. Schiff’s), I thought I could offer a unique perspective.
Stacy Schiff obviously set out to cover in depth every nook and cranny of the Salem affair. The Witches weighs in at 415 pages. Then there are her closing Acknowledgments (in which she names the people who assisted her), her Notes (in which she cites reference sources) and a Selected Bibliography. These additions take up another sixty pages, which is a good deal longer than my entire three part piece. Also, she starts things out with a Cast of Characters; there are eighty-nine people mentioned. I’m sure that the role each played is examined. But the impulse to be thorough can result in a quagmire, and to slog through a quagmire is, as many readers found, “tedious.” Exhaustive studies are exhausting to read, but that’s what historians and biographers feel obligated to produce. Ms. Schiff’s book on Vera Nabokov is 456 pages long. Is there really that much of interest to say about the woman?
In my research I faced the enormous complexity of what went on in Salem. It was both daunting and freeing. As I saw it, my job in “What Happened in Salem” was to create a narrative that carried the reader along. The best way to do this was through selective elimination — to bring forth only those people and events that were representative of the whole. The goal was to capture the feel of Salem as it grappled with its crisis. Since I’m a writer of fiction who always tries to be reader-friendly, this was something I was capable of doing.
Thoroughness serves no good purpose if you lose your reader’s attention. And I found Ms. Schiff’s thoroughness to be oddly selective. Available to both of us is the transcript of the confession Ann Putnam made to the parishioners of Salem in 1706; thirteen years earlier she had been the chief accuser among the girls. Ms. Schiff offers only a few snippets from the confession and paraphrases some of the rest. Why, in a very long book, omit Ann’s 248 words? In “The Girls” I present the entire text because I found it to be riveting. Salem was a human drama, and I give that aspect precedence. Ms. Schiff beats me on facts. She was able to discover what became of the girls: “Mercy Lewis, the Putnam’s maid, bore an illegitimate child; she later married and moved to Boston.” But the lurking question is what motivated the girls to act as they did. Though that is ultimately unanswerable, I offer a line of reasoning that makes psychological sense.
Despite all her research Ms. Schiff frequently acknowledges a problem she encountered. Near the close of the book she writes “In three hundred years, we have not adequately penetrated nine months of Massachusetts history.” True — and we never will. For one thing, those who wrote the contemporaneous accounts we depend on all had an agenda in mind (most commonly an ax to grind or a defense of their actions). In the multitude of books and papers that followed in the next three centuries, authors present differing versions of events and motivations. One writes that a certain thing happened this way; another writes that it happened that way. What version is valid? I decided that no amount of research would clear away the murkiness (also, I had no staff to aid me and I wasn’t going to devote my life to Salem). But in my readings major facts did consistently emerge (though they took slightly different shapes and colors); I went with the account that seemed the most logical. There are instances where I erred. I write that William Phips died on the ship carrying him back to America, Ms. Schiff writes that he died in England. I’m sure that she’s right, but what does it matter?
The biases of those who write about Salem tilt the scales one way or another. I saw instances where Ms. Schiff’s bias is evident (for example, she’s particularly hard on Cotton Mather, often employing sarcasm when describing his machinations). I can’t criticize her for having biases because I did too. There are many villains in the story of Salem, and few heroes. In all the craziness and chaos, some used the opportunity to achieve personal goals. Some were criminally stubborn. Religious dogmatism took a beating. But if you examine the forces that made Salem Village a tinderbox, the fractious Puritans don’t seem so alien and deluded. I felt that this point was relevant, so I included a section called “Old Adam.” When you look behind the curtains of history you may see yourself staring back.
On page one Ms. Schiff’s writes “We have been conjuring with Salem — our national nightmare, the undercooked, overripe tabloid episode, the dystopian chapter in our past — ever since. It crackles, flickers and jolts its way through American history and literature.” Impressive prose, yes. But wordiness, however inventive the words may be, can wear thin. I thought of those Amazon reviewers who found her book to be “long-winded.” What style serves best in recounting the events that took place? I think it’s simple, matter-of-fact style. Since only the story matters, the reader shouldn’t be aware of an author composing beautiful sentences.
Prose also involves arrangement and sequencing and organization. In a paragraph that opens with the question of what motivated the accusers, we get a lineup of facts: after a Cotton Mather quote Ms. Schiff touches on tensions in Andover, the motivations of the confessors, the issue of reparations claims, and then closes with a John Hale quote. Since the relationship between all these parts is tenuous, there’s no engaging train of thought for the reader to follow. Even the descriptions of what went on in the hearings, which are inherently gripping, suffer from overkill. Ms. Schiff had a multitude of facts, and too often she doles them out (all of them) in a disjointed way. This led to the recurring complaint by Amazon critics of the book being “confusing” and “meandering.”
Thoroughness, Accuracy, Prose — all are intertwined. Ms. Schiff was encumbered by her attempt at thoroughness and accuracy in a story too complex and shadowy to bear it; the muddled prose reflects the effort to include all the muddle of facts that have been diligently garnered.
I’m aware that finding fault with Ms. Schiff smacks of sour grapes. My Salem story died on the vine, hers thrived. She gave her publisher the comprehensive study that they wanted; the reviews in the top newspapers have been overwhelmingly favorable; the book has sold well; everybody’s happy. Well, everybody except some reviewers at the Amazon site who gave The Witches one and two stars. Their criticism is as legitimate as the praise and can’t be discounted.
Putting me in an even worse light (as a shameless self-promoter) is the fact that I have made the case that my molehill is better than her mountain. But I believe I do deliver what those disgruntled reviewers wanted. The fact that I can’t reach that audience bothers me. So count me among those who aren’t happy.
What Happened in SalemOld Adam