The other day I started reading The Witching Hour by Anne Rice, while simultaneously re-reading Sense and Sensibility, and it struck me...both books start with a positive plethora of back-story. Jane Austin makes sure we know the set-up of the family long before she gets to the present situation and their move to a new location. Anne Rice could be said to intersperse the present between long chapters purely concerned with the past. And, you know what? I didn't have the urge to flip through or jump ahead. Not one thought of, "Oh, good grief, just get on with it, will you?"
So, that left me sitting there, wondering...what's all the fuss about with back-story? Judges in competitions and critique partners are always saying, 'too much back-story' even when you try to pare it down to the minimum. I've been guilty of that myself, telling my own crit partners to cut back on the back-story and scatter the pertinent bits around the rest of the story as needed. We've been brainwashed into believing back story=bad and terse present action =good. But the truth is that sometimes back story works, sometimes it doesn't.
As writers we try to find a host of ways to sneak the history of the characters into the beginning of the story, feeling the reader will be lost without it. We introduce key players and then have them go through the kind of mental introspective most of us only have at times of great loss or upheaval. That can grate, especially if the present action is abruptly cut by four pages of what the character was like from age zero on. Worse if they somehow find the time to do all of this in the equivalent of a nano-second. Or sometimes we start the story far in the past with a prologue, then cut to the present. I sometimes like that (and confess to using it on occasion) but the trick is to make sure the prologue is the actual start of the story, and chapter one the continuation. Often the prologue consists of information the writer really could have put in later, and in doing so upped the tension to boot.
In some cases the reader would be completely at sea without some back story, and we need to give them a foundation to stand on as we build the tale for them. There are types of characters who simply scream for a real introduction, because there would be few chances to elaborate on them later. Loners and taciturn people come to mind, since one of the most effective ways of introducing back story later is in conversation with others. In other cases, we really could just make the effort to find places and situations that allow us to bring the past in to the present.
I guess it's all a matter of what will work for the story but there's one more perspective to take into consideration. Unless you plan to self publish, you need to produce what will attract the attention of publishers and I've always maintained that I, as a new and aspiring writer, can't expect to get away what Anne Rice or Jane Austin can. If culling back story and re-working the book will get me the sale, then that's what I need to do. As long as my voice still comes through and I'm not cranking out homogenized, boring stories, I'm fine with it. When I'm as popular as Anne and Jane, I can more blatantly break the rules!