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Involving Students

Student Contributions

"Annotations", by Leslie Robertson

We've all read annotations--those notes at the back of books explaining difficult or significant words, phrases, allusions, and historical references. A quick glance at the notes can answer a reader's question and allow reading to continue smoothly. Often the only time we as readers consciously notice annotations or consider their quality is when something we would like a note on isn't there. There's a real art to good annotation, but it's an art that probably isn't recognised as such until one attempts to do it. For many of the student editors working on a Juvenilia Press volume, this is their first attempt at annotation and they are often surprised to find that it's harder to do than they ever thought; that was certainly true for me. The first step is to decide just what is to be annotated. Before this decision is made, however, the editors must consider their audience. Who do they expect to read the piece they're editing? Notes that are absolutely necessary for high school or undergraduate students may seem irritatingly obvious to a specialised academic readership; on the other hand, notes that are illuminating to specialists may seem confusing or overly technical to students. Editing for a general, non-University readership has its own difficulties, as well; overwhelming the text with large numbers of detailed notes may annoy or intimidate a reader who reads primarily for pleasure and not for study. Readers familiar with a genre or author need different notes than readers who are encountering this writer or this genre for the first time. When your anticipated readership may potentially include members of all of these groups, as is often the case with Juvenilia Press volumes, the balance is tricky.

Consider Jane Austen, for example. Readers of a volume of Austen's juvenilia may include undergraduate students who have never read one of her novels (and perhaps are resistant to doing so!), literary scholars specialising in the study of Austen, long-time Austen fans who have read each of her mature novels many times and know them as well as any specialist, and high school students who saw one of the recent films based on her work and thought they would give her youthful work a try. Each of these types of readers (and there are many more) needs something different from notes. Some want connections to the novels, while readers who haven't read the novels may find these confusing. Some want connections to earlier writing, such as eighteenth-century novels Austen herself read; readers unfamiliar with these may find such notes intrusive. Readers unfamiliar with the time period need notes on social customs and contemporary history; specialists may find some of this material too simple. The annotator needs to address all of the needs of each type of reader as far as possible while not boring, frightening, intimidating, or annoying all the others. Tricky business.

Of course, most readers are willing to overlook what seem to them unnecessary notes; what they are often less willing to forgive is the absence of notes that strike them as necessary. With this in mind, the Press has generally chosen to annotate rather fully. Publication history and general availability also influence the decision. Some of our volumes, such as Lady Mary Pierrepont's (Wortley Montagu) Indamora to Lindamira had never been published before; other works were long out of print, such as Louisa May Alcott's Norna, or the Witch's Curse. Since these texts were unavailable elsewhere, they deserved full annotation in our editions. After all, if the editors missed an important note, where else was the reader to go?

Some of the juvenilia published by the Press is more generally available, such as Jane Austen's work; it is usually printed all together, however, and limitations of space and cost necessarily limit the scope of annotations. Our editions are either of a single work (such as Jane Austen's Catharine, or the Bower) or of a few collected shorter works (such as Margaret Atwood's A Quiet Game), and therefore receive much fuller annotation than is possible in a larger, more inclusive volume. Christine Alexander has edited a large amount of Charlotte Brontë's juvenilia in volumes published by Basil Blackwell (with more volumes to come); they are well annotated, of course, but in a work of that size, annotation throughout on the scale we gave the story My Angria and the Angrians could easily overwhelm the text and make the volumes uneconomic to publish (not to mention too big to carry about). Publishing individual works from among the juvenilia of both Brontë and Austen gives us the luxury of space.

That luxury is not unlimited, however. We too must keep practical matters like economics in mind. Full annotation adds pages to a volume and therefore many dollars to printing costs (not an insignificant matter for a small press that struggles to keep its costs down and its books reasonably priced). Also, there is a fine line between ample annotation and excessive annotation. Putting in so many notes that the reader can't get through a sentence without tripping over several of them can overwhelm a text and result in making it less accessible rather than more.

Now that the editors have chosen what to annotate, the next question is who will do the work. When an editor works alone, this may never be an issue, but when a team of two or more editors is working together, as is normally the case with Juvenilia Press volumes, it becomes necessary to split the work up. This may be done in several ways. The editors may choose to have annotations, introduction, and textual editing done by different people. When more than one person is working on annotations, the editors must decide if they will write the notes together or whether they will divide the items to be annotated between them and pool them at a later stage. If they choose the latter option, it will be necessary to work together at a later time to make sure the combined notes have continuity.

Finally, the actual notes must be written. This is where the heaviest work starts. Researching material for annotations is rather like engaging in an extended treasure hunt. Basic information can be surprisingly hard to find; persistence pays off. What exactly is hair powder made of? Where in London is Brook Street and what was it known for at the end of the eighteenth century? When was it proper for a woman to wear ostrich plumes in her hair in the 1830s? What eighteenth century novels is Jane Austen sending up in Love and Freindship? When one finally has all this fascinating information gathered together, it's time to pull it together and write the notes. Some notes threaten to become mini-essays; space limitations force the annotator to edit ruthlessly. Notes must kept quite short, but they needn't be mere lists of dry information. The perfect example or brief quotation can bring a short note to life. A touch of wit and the ability to make just a few words really count can produce notes that are a pleasure to read. Having written a number of notes myself now, I find myself reading annotations with a different eye. A well-framed, informative, entertaining note excites my admiration, while a clumsy, verbose, or dull note reminds me how hard it can be to write one well.

There is one final stage to this process--i.e. checking the notes, and making sure they are good enough, short enough, and have continuity between them (especially important if more than one person has been writing them). This stage can be tedious. By this time, the editor(s) are often so familiar with the material they are seeing it in their sleep. But neglecting to do the final editing of annotations thoroughly can mean that all the previous hard work is obscured by errors, repetitions, or gaps.

This may all seem rather dry. But I have to admit to finding a certain pleasure in the process. As exacting as it is, it can take on the excitement of a treasure hunt. Learning to fit a maximum of information into a minimum of space without sacrificing accuracy, style, or entertainment value is superb training for any writer. Good notes may pass a reader by virtually unnoticed, but bad or inadequate notes stick out by failing to inform and by interfering with the reader's pleasure.

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