Posts Tagged ‘james joyce’

Beginnings: First Lines in Literature

April 25, 2010

I’ve been thinking a lot about beginnings, first lines in literature. Which ones are satisfying and what makes them so? And others, admired by all, that still just leave me cold. My friend Susan and I walk around Lake Merritt every day and talk about this. Susan is writing a novel, and we are having , uhh, differences of opinion on the subject of first lines. There is a bunch of material on the internet about beginnings. Lists of the 100 best first lines in fiction. Advice to writers about how to construct a first line. Stuff like that.

Since I’m not a creative writer, I can’t dispense writing tips with any authority. As a literary agent though, I have to take beginnings seriously. For me the  first line is the most important sentence in the book. Editors are very busy people and  receive stacks of manuscripts every day. If they get turned off by a clumsy first line, they are likely to cast a cold eye on the rest of the manuscript.

So here are a few of my random thoughts on this subject focusing on some illustrious examples.

“Call me Ishmael.” –  Moby Dick by Herman Melville

 This first line is always at the top of the list. The most famous first line in all of literature. So what’s so great about it, anyway? I thought about that today and decided that it was overrated, that it is one of those things that people  think is great because everybody else thinks it’s great. It’s catchy. It’s different. But why would it lead me to read the rest of the book?  What if I wrote a book that began: “My name’s Andy”? I don’t think it would make the 100 best  list of anything. Why didn’t Melville start with something like: “Ishmael’s my name. Whales are my game.”? Think about it.  Tells a whole lot more about the story. It really is a better lead, —  wouldn’t you say?

But stay with me on this. Let’s  dig a little deeper. Here is the second line in Moby Dick .“Some years ago–never mind how long precisely –having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.” Wow! Now that’s writing. Here we have a book that does more than tell a story. It has the boldness to tackle THE BIG QUESTION;  man’s struggle for truth in the face of an indifferent and inscrutable universe. I mean, duh! We are not in “chick lit” territory here. And this second line —- what would the critics call it? Understatement? Ironic foreshadowing? Because whatever this book is going to be about, you know it isn’t going to be about sailing a little to see the watery part of the world. Magnificent!

***

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” —   The Bible  by God  (or was it King James? Or was it The Gideons?)

 

 

This is pretty good as far as beginnings go. I’m trying to think of a better one. The only thing I can come up with  as an alternative is: “Call me Yahweh”. And that really  doesn’t work as well. But when we think of the Bible as literature, we really think of the King James Version which, as the learned biblical exegetes will tell you, is a triumph of form over substance. Not an accurate translation at all.

Here is a literal translation of  The Book of Genesis  from the Young Literal Translation Bible:

“In the beginning of God’s preparing the heavens and the earth –the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness is on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters.”

Not exactly something you expect to hear from  the deep, rich voice of James Earl Jones. And can you imagine Michelangelo’s God in the Sistine Chapel with little yellow and black butterfly wings  “fluttering” on the face of the waters? I’ll stick with King James, thank you very much.

***

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness”.  — Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

 

This famous beginning has really become a kind of joke, a metaphor for bad first lines. Just mention it at a cocktail party of literary snoots, and you will hear uncontrollable guffaws and  belly laughs around the room. Honestly, I don’t think this is such a bad first line.  Maybe a little overwritten with some murky syntax; maybe a little bloated; maybe a little attenuated by the author’s sense of the of his own unmerited importance. But otherwise, not bad.    It sets up the scene pretty well. The reader really has a sense of where he is. And it gives us a pretty robust  foreboding of what will follow.  Now let’s compare it to this famous first line:

“riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from the swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodious vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”

 I bet you can’t name that one.  It’s Finnegans Wake, you moron!   I bet you can’t tell me what it means. I bet Thomas F**king Pynchon couldn’t tell me  what it means.  Try dropping that first line at the literary cocktail party. No snarky snickers with this one. The room will be silenced by the crushing weight of your gravitas.  And you might as well forget about your designs on that sexy assistant editor  from Knopf  wearing  the black dress standing by the sushi platter. Because tonight   you’ll be going home alone to the solitude of your bedroom,  Bub.

***

“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” — The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

 

Oh yes. This is really sweet. I bet every modern writer has wished they could have thought of this beginning. And I suspect that many of them think of it still when they sit down staring at their blank page ready to begin  their novel. By the way, gentle reader, if you know of any beginnings by great modern writers that are clearly derivative of this masterpiece, can you share it with other readers of this blog?

***

“In the second century of the Christian Aera, the empire of Rome comprehended the fairest part of the earth, and the most civilized portion of mankind. The frontiers of that extensive monarchy were guarded by ancient renown and disciplined valor. The gentle but powerful influence of laws and manners had gradually cemented the union of the provinces. Their peaceful inhabitants enjoyed and abused the advantages of wealth and luxury. —  The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon

 

This is my favorite. I won’t sully Gibbon’s gorgeous beginning with an impertinent comment. Gibbon’s language is commanding, lofty, elegant, and confident. Worthy of a work of such grandeur.   What is even more remarkable is that this level of writing continues over six volumes and 3000 pages. And look at the vocabulary, the syntax, the voice and the cadence. It is the quintessence of perfection. It has the faultless precision of Mozart and the epic splendor of Wagner.   I am in awe!

I’m going to leave this now.  But I don’t want this to be the last line. I would really like you readers to weigh in with your favorite first lines and why you love them.

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Publisher Rejection Letters From Plato to Hitler

February 13, 2010

When I became a literary agent three years ago, I simply wasn’t ready for the flood of publisher rejection letters flowing into my office in response to my submissions. It felt a little like my social life in high school. I can only imagine the shame and humiliation that my clients must experience from these letters. Four years of work on a novel reduced to a single line, a formula really: “I just didn’t fall in love with it.” Or: “We all felt it didn’t quite have the right narrative arc.” I decided to engage in a mental exercise of employing   the standard rejection templates as they might have been  used for some of the great  (or notorious) classics of Western Civilization.

Plato’s Republic

Andy,

Thank you so much for submitting The Republic by Plato. Certainly this book has much to recommend it. It asks some  serious questions and it doesn’t get bogged down in “jargon” like some of the philosophy books we see coming over the transom. That said, I am going to have to pass on this book. I’m not sure that the author has anything really new to say about the themes he discusses. The Good, the True, the Beautiful,  and the Just have been written about ad nauseum since the time of the ancient Greeks. There is really no new way to slice and dice this material. And although Mr. Plato seems quite adept at dialogue, I can’t help but wonder how he would hold up in the face of tough questioning by the likes of Bill O’Reilly.

The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann

Andy,

I don’t quite know what to make of this book. Six hundred pages of narrative about people in a tuberculosis sanitarium on top of a mountain, and for twenty years?  Really! I’m afraid that modern American readers need a little more action and excitement in their lives. They don’t want to come home and read about the over-ripe decadence of Central European culture in the early Twentieth Century. I certainly don’t mean to sound snarky, but in my humble opinion (and I have been  known to be wrong before), Herr Mann  is nothing but a gas bag.

 

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

Andy,

Thank you for your submission of Mr. Sophocles’ drama, Oedipus Rex. Sophocles is an exceptional dramatist with many fine works to his credit  that have been both critical and commercial successes. And we feel privileged that you gave us the chance to consider this work. That said, I’m afraid we are not going to publish this book. Although I am a personal admirer of Mr. Sophocles, I feel that Oedipus is a minor work and, quite frankly, a little derivative. The  implicit theme, the idea that “from suffering comes wisdom,”  has become a little hackneyed and a little frayed at the edges, as it were. I think that after  seeing James Cameron’s Avatar, there really isn’t much left to say on this subject. But we would be delighted to look at anything newer and fresher that Mr. Sophocles might create in the future.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Andy,

I’m sorry. I just don’t get it.

 

 

Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Andy,

Thank you for sending us Macbeth by William Shakespeare. Mr. Shakespeare certainly brings a fresh voice to the modern theatre and has a commendable mastery of plot and character. That said, I am not going to make an offer on this book. I think that Mr. Shakespeare has a certain  inelegance of style and his language skills could use some refining. I also noticed a number of careless misspellings in this work. The extensive “scholarly” footnoting with its endless references to “folios” and “quartos” was annoying and distracting.

I feel compelled to say, and I hope neither you nor your client take offense at this, that some of his “speeches” are just plain pretentious and not suited to the more casual sensibilities of our upscale readers. For instance:  Macbeth says: “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Don’t you think this could be stated more clearly and succinctly? How about: “Life is pretty confusing. Sometimes I just want to shake my head and cry.”  Furthermore, I could not help but note an obvious unattributed locution from William Faulkner. Your author should try to be more careful.

Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

I am a big fan of Mr. Twain’s work. In fact, his novel, Huckleberry Finn, was one of the best books I read last season. So I approached your submission with considerable excitement. I’m sorry to say that I was not thrilled with Tom Sawyer. Compared to Mr. Twain’s other works, I felt that this was merely a bagatelle and perhaps a little (shall we say) jejune. Still I sent it around for some more reads and  I took it to the editorial meeting. The sales director pointed out that all of Twain’s novels since Huckleberry Finn have shown steadily declining Bookscan numbers. He felt, and the committee agreed, that it was unlikely that the chains would take a position on this book. But I encourage you to show us any new projects the author might develop in the future.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Andy,

Thank you for your submission of  Count Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I found it to be a very well researched and polished  novel. And I can certainly see how it would appeal to the  same readers who enjoy the works of Herman Wouk.  But I am afraid that I won’t be making an offer. As you know, our imprint is always looking for quality genre fiction. And certainly War and Peace falls squarely within the conventions of the historical novel. But, just between you and me, this manuscript just isn’t ready for prime time. For starters, it is a real door-stopper. 1500 pages plus change! I think the author needs to face the facts that he could do with some judicious freelance editing. Our readers lead busy lives and are looking for a more, shall I say, intimate reading experience. If the author could cut the plot by, say, 900 pages; if, for example, he could take out the sub-plot of the Napoleonic invasion of Russia, we would be happy to review this submission again.

Mein Kampf by Adolph Hitler

Andy,

I have to tell you that this one came pretty close. Personally, I loved this book. I took it to the editorial board. We almost had consensus. But the committee reluctantly decided to pass. There is much to admire in this book. We were impressed by the author’s passion, his strong sense of purpose, and his robust voice.. Some of us were moved to tears by the Youtube clips from the Nürnberg Parteitag rallys. Herr Hitler’s platform is most impressive, indeed. One of the editors said, only half jokingly, that it was too bad we couldn’t bottle Herr Hitler’s charisma and give it to some of our more pedestrian authors. And our marketing director was inspired by the book proposal that offered so many  innovative marketing strategies. The concept of   summarily executing any citizen of the Third Reich who didn’t purchase this book was  refreshing and indicates that your client is a very savvy marketer.

At the end of the day though, there was no agreement on how we could position this book in the marketplace. Some of us wanted to treat it as a kind of how-to book for people who were seeking to improve their public speaking and, at the same time, pick up some useful tips for world conquest. Others felt that the ideas were just a little too “weighty” for a trade house like ours. After some brain storming about possible merchandise spin-offs, we decided that we were the wrong home for this remarkable book.

We wish Herr Hitler the best of luck in his career as a writer and as a public figure and expect to see great things from him in the future.