On First Lines and Literary Tastes

Dan Green responds to Ed Champeon’s post about how publishers thin slice the slash pile. For Dan, a quibble. You call Stephen Dixon’s story “Red stops in the park to watch an opera rehearsal.” an undistinguished sentence.

I disagree. It sets us in medius res in a rather bizzare setting, and it sets the action in motion. There is not much style at work here; instead, we are dealing with a stacatto, casual (almost oral) tone.

One purpose of a first sentence is to create curiosity, suspense, a sort of frame and a sort of tone. Sometimes I begin with flashy or clever sentences but later in the revising process just tone it down. Sometimes I make the first sentence uninteresting or banal for a reason; sometimes short sentences are setup sentences to lead the reader down the path of more intricate ruminations.

You probably need 3 or 4 sentences to get a thumbnail sketch of how the narrative is going to flow. Obviously it helps if another trustworthy reader assures me it would make a good slog. But it surprises me how often this initial feel for a story (gleaned by a paragraph or page) correlates with my overall appreciation of the book in general. (The only exception I can think of was Conrad’s Nostromo–the first 100 pages were dreadful, but the last 100 were positively gripping). In previous times (with more limited entertainment options), readers were expected to suffer through a few chapters before deciding to stay or bail. In the year 2005, you can’t count on readers having that much patience.

Sorry for sounding so reductionist, but have you noticed how accurate Amazon recommendations tend to be nowadays? As adventurous as our tastes can be, some of our preferences are the result of personality, educational and ethnic background. If you like X, chances are you’ll also like Y. There is room for change, and I’ve learned to enjoy certain writers and disenjoy other writers over time. Henry James, I expect to enjoy when I finally get around to him again. Or maybe not. DF Wallace & Eudora Welty bore me (don’t ask me why). I could go on.

Love for artistic books tend to be visceral and almost Pavlovian. A literary background might make us more tolerant (a Coetzee fan might be able to enjoy a stephen king novel on occasion, although perhaps not vice versa), but we need to accept a certain degree of irrationality in the selection process.

Let’s not even talk about the vagaries of the publishing industry. If a respected literary agent and a respected writer both recommend a book to you chances are you’ll read more sympathetically. The problem with publishing is not the arbitrariness of acceptance criteria but the fact that money for novels is dwindling and our reasons for buying a book today are much different than it used to be 50 years ago.

BTW, having said all this, I had never heard of the Stephen Dixon book you mentioned and will probably go out of my way to read it simply as a result of your bringing up the sentence and my coming to its defense.

The problem has to do with listening to authority and relying on the same source for recommendations. I once changed dentist after having gone to the same one for over 10 years. The new dentist was totally different in terms of approach to care, and it made me realize that there wasn’t anything magical about that first dentist (although he was good). We need to vary our sources of recommendations on a regular basis and devote a certain percentage of our reading time to “reading blind” (reading random junk without having a clue about whether it’s any good.

BTW, an interesting side question is whether producers of culture are in a better position to recognize talent or quality than consumers, particularly with respect to public grants. As the political climate becomes more conservative, grants are awarded to more “safe writers” writing about mastery of method while producers gravitate toward the subversive and countercultural. At any given time, certain social messages float to the top for no apparent reason. About 10 years ago, it seemed that any novel about African-American women got special attention, then the gay-coming-of-age, cyberpunk, young Americans in Eastern Europe, and anti-cubicle geeks. (to name just a few). Publishers are better at responding to these social trends than in finding quality. I think they expect the question of quality to be answered after being published, not before.

The solution (I’ve decided), is to choose a familiar genre, make superficial references to some sexy social theme and then write in whatever damn way you please. (People who did this well: JC Oates, Paul West, John Updike). Make it a Mexian-American Gay coming of age cyberpunk unemployed geek traveling in Eastern Europe and then throw in as much philosophical, pseudo-existentialist Jamesian postmodern postdeconstructionist semiotic bullshit as you have time for, and your novel will sell well. Guaranteed.