Monday, January 25, 2016

They Say a Novel Can Be Judged by Its Opening (no. 18)

 by Larry Witham


IN JOURNALISM IT’S called the snappy “lede.” In novels the acid test is the first sentence, first paragraph, and first chapter. These are the modern-day formulas for “grabbing the reader,” and grabbing her immediately. The grabber, like an extravagant hook on a fishing line, seems to be the key to success in modern-day fiction writing.
            It wasn’t always so. But our modern attention spans, the competition books have with flashy movie scenes, and much else (such as overwhelmed acquisition editors) has made The Attention Grabber paramount. That’s why such an eminent journal as Poets & Writers has a regular feature for aspiring writers on the best, or most interesting (or least confusing), first sentences in new works of fiction.
            It can get a bit silly at times, and it is clearly a subjective judgment.
            One first sentence often voted the best in twentieth-century literature goes like this: “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.” Hmm. Brilliant or too obvious? The line is from Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (1915). By contrast, take the opening sentence from Michael Connelly’s 1996 novel about a crime reporter, The Poet, a line over which even Stephen King has marveled: “Death is my beat.”
            In high literary studies, it is said that the first sentence should do no less than summarize the entire novel. It’s a heady concept to be sure. (How, the skeptic says, can one short sentence possibly do that?) As a corollary, literary agents often say that they can divine which manuscripts will be bestsellers from the first ten pages alone (and that’s double spaced).
            None of this can be verified scientifically, of course. But such notions do carry weight in the fluctuating world of literature and publishing, where lots of experience has bred wisdom. Going back a generation, the same rules probably held true, but not as much as today.
            In former times, novels did not necessarily need to grab the reader by the throat in the first sentence, paragraph, or chapter. This is proved by the grand successes of novels that, as the reviewers say, “start out a bit slow.” Since this blog is about painters and the art world, we can turn to the historical novelist Irving Stone for how fiction can open slowly and methodically—and still be a popular success, though perhaps in the past tense now.
            Stone wrote four novels about painters, launching his stellar career with one about Vincent Van Gogh, Lust for Life (1934). He researched it for six years and had a record number of rejections from publishers.
            Let’s look at the first sentence, and first chapter theme, for Stone’s four novels on painters: Van Gogh; the New York “Ashcan School” painter John Nobel; Michelangelo of the Italian Renaissance; and, Camille Pissarro, an early Danish-French Impressionist.
            ■ Lust for Life (1934): “Monsieur Van Gogh! It’s time to wake up!” This is the landlord’s daughter. Once he’s awake, Van Gogh heads to his salesman job at a London gallery. He’s decided to finally ask this maiden to marry him. All of London looks in love. He’s vastly miscalculated her outlook, however. When he delivers the proposal that night, she’s dumbfounded. “Red-haired fool,” she chides. Going to work the next day, he sees London as bitter and sad. A great novel opening for what will drive the lovelorn Van Gogh to paint like a madman.
            ■ The Passionate Journey (1959): “He lay rolled in his blanket, watching the North Star brighten.” Out on the Kansas plain, the future painter John Nobel is sleeping out in hopes of seeing a rare white buffalo, which he wants to draw. With no luck, he returns to town, a place called Coffeyville. He next decides to sketch from a rooftop—and gets the subject matter of a lifetime. It’s October 1892, and the John Dalton gang suddenly arrives. They rob the two banks in town, but on escape, are killed in a raging gun battle. The young artist has sketched it all, a suitable novelistic opening for his later, raucous career as a painter of street life in New York City.
            ■ The Agony and the Ecstasy (1961): “He sat before the mirror in the second-floor bedroom sketching his lean cheek with their high bone ridges, the flat broad forehead, and ears too far back on the head, the dark hair curling forward in thatches, the amber-colored eyes wide-set but heavy-lidded.” Clearly, young Michelangelo was not handsome, a clue to his quest to create perfect human form in paint and stone. That day in Florence, a friend takes the thirteen-year-old prodigy to the studio of Domenico Ghirlandaio, where the master painter says he’s full up with apprentices. Michelangelo dazzles him during a drawing test, and then requires the stunned Ghirlandaio to pay for his apprenticeship, the fee going to Michelangelo’s cash-strapped father. The odd looking little boy, sketching his self-portrait from a mirror, will obviously become a stubborn, self-confident, and larger-than-life artist. As the rest of the novel will verify.
            ■ Depths of Glory (1985): “It took him only a few moments to put his two leather-strapped bags through the octroy, customs, and carry them along the quai to the Boulogne railroad station.” Camille Pissarro has just exited a ship in a port city of northern France, headed by rail for Paris. His mother and sisters are already there, and his father and brother will soon come from the home they are leaving behind in St. Thomas, an island in the Danish West Indies. Pissarro is about to defy his merchant father by taking up with the city’s outdoor painters, a vocation with no income and no future. Thus begins the storyline of familial conflict. Pissarro will neither get a share of his father’s inheritance, nor gain his parents’ blessing toward the woman he marries. Still, against the odds, Camille helps bring about a revolution in the art world. And as the novel conveys, he gains artistic glory beyond the grave.
            Irving Stone wrote in the milieu of a James Michener (1907-1997) and a Norman Mailer (1923-2007), both of whom wrote very (very) long novels that “start out a bit slow,” but had millions of readers. Our modern attention span is being stressed, to be sure, but free will—and a little discipline—still serves a reader well. After all, how many novels today start with a promising bang, but fizzle by midstream?

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