August 24th, 2012

OMG! you’re thinking. That’s why Shar hasn’t written a blog post since the last presidential administration! She’s been lying there dying!

No, no, no. I don’t mean “as I lay dying.” I mean, As I Lay Dying. The book. By William Faulkner. I have been thinking about it recently, and about books and writing and popularity and marketing, and this is why.

I took my 17-year old son out for a meal and talk, as I sometimes do, and because he was about to take a trip, I handed him a paperback I’d picked up for him, Bonfire of the Vanities, and told him it was one of my favorite books. He thanked me, and then we had the following conversation:

Son: You know what my favorite book is?

Shar: I hope you’re not going to say a gaming guide.

Son: No, Mom, of course not. It’s As I Lay Dying.

Shar: Um… what? You told me you hated Faulkner.

Son: Oh, I do. Most of his stuff. I’m pretty sure. But not that book. It’s great — you should read it.

Shar: Excuse me, but I specifically remember you saying you hated that book. You complained about it every night!

Son: Well, I hated it at first. For maybe the first half of the book. You just have to get into it. You gotta read it, Mom.

Shar: You want me to read a book that I might hate the first half of?

Son: Well, if you do, then when you’re done, go back and read the first part again, and then you’ll like it. That’s what I did. I’ll make a deal. I’ll read your book, but you have to promise to read mine.

OK… my memory is not faulty here. The kid complained about this book, and his literature teacher for assigning the book, and his lit class for existing, and the AP Lit exam for causing the lit class to exist, for no small number of nights. And now he’s telling me that it’s his favorite book (and despite my crack about gaming guides, he does read a lot).

It got me thinking about what I hear “out there” about writing and publishing these days. You have to catch the reader’s attention in the first chapter. No, in the first three pages! No, the first page! The first paragraph! The blurb before the first paragraph! If readers aren’t totally hooked by, oh, the first three words, they will never buy your book. Not that any agent or publisher would touch it in the first place.

That’s kind of harsh, isn’t it?

Now, I don’t know if serious literary authors are listening to this too; or even if the majority of first-time indie writers are considering it. But I sure do hear it a lot. And that makes me sad. That we no longer think readers have the stamina or interest to read more than a few pages without adrenalin coursing through their veins. Must all books thrill and chill from the opening lines? Is there no room for novels that sit quietly inside you for a while? Or plots that meander? Or books that force you to think? For books that are challenging to read?

I say, if a book can win the heart of a busy teen with other interests who only read the thing because he was required to, can win his heart even though he actively disliked the book for the first half of it, can win his heart to the point that he now declares it his favorite book and presses others to read it… there’s still tremendous value to the slow burn.

I don’t know for sure if anyone is still out there reading this blog, which languished while I worked all summer (it happens, people!), but if there are, here are the questions I want to pose:

Readers, must you be gripped from the first page? How much of a chance do you give a book? Have you ever started a book without liking it overly, and then come to love it as you progressed?

Writers, does this notion of a ‘fast beginning’ influence your writing at all? Or do you have works that might take someone longer to get into? Is this something that’s a conscious decision, or is it more a matter of writing as you please?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the son is halfway through Bonfire of the Vanities. So I must head off to the library for my Faulkner …

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This entry was posted on Friday, August 24th, 2012 at 11:36 pm and is filed under • As I Lay Dying. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

10 Responses to “As I Lay Dying”

Jeremy Edwards Says:

Well, here’s a question for you: who was Faulkner’s audience, in his day? Strictly the (at that time influential) literati, or a “general audience” of readers? My guess is the “grab ’em right away” message, though undoubtedly amplified in our era of publisher desperation and author competition, is a hallmark of “popular fiction” and has been ever since the leisurely, scene-setting approach to opening a narrative went out of fashion roughly a century ago. I would further guess that the agents looking for the next Franzen or D. F. Wallace today don’t necessarily expect the first-sentence “grab” and all it proverbially entails. In those circles, isn’t “difficulty” still considered a mark of prestige?

As a writer, btw, I try to grab, in some fashion. I don’t feel forced into it, though–it’s a strategy that suits the kinds of things I write, I think.

Gregory Allen Says:

As I Lay Dying is the only book in my reading life I literally turned from the last page back to the first and read a second time. Tell your son that! I’m right with him on how great that book is! (I liked it right away, though, but I was also ten years older. I doubt I would have read it at 17.)

I have no problem with readers wanting to be grabbed right away. I have no problem with writers wanting to grab readers right away. I even have no problem with agents and publishers who insist writers grab readers right away or they have no interest in them.

My HUGE problem (hence the caps) is when writers, agents, and publishers shrug helplessly and cry “we can’t help what readers want!” Agents (not all but many) are out there looking solely for the next Hunger Games type trilogy to push and that’s fine, but then they don’t accept any of the responsibility for influencing an audience to only want that type of fast paced read.

And yes I’m also complicit. One of my most daring moves was to wait until chapter 2 of my first femdom novel before Kimberly took control over Alex. But, let me tell you, I very consciously made sure chapter one didn’t go on for too long. Because I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose readers. Everyone does something to acquire and keep readers, we don’t need to feel bad about doing it. What is plot but a device to keep readers interested in a story? I do think it’s something we should be honest about and aware of, though, because it’s all tied together.

And it’s funny you brought this up because I just finished a perfect example of what you’re talking about. I read The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead. It was such a daring book because the book had no real driving force except the brilliance of the writing and the characterizations. Took me two months to read it and I had to read other books in between, but it was one of the greatest books I’ve ever read.

d.n.stuefloten Says:

As a writer and a reader I love the idea of being gripped by the first paragraph. But what grips me is to see a writer taking enormous chances with language. My favorite Faulkner (and my favorite novel of all time) is The Sound and the Fury, which I read at 16. The first paragraph left me thunderstruck: the tale told by an idiot, in the language of an idiot! But books today have to compete with the internet, with television and movies, with cheap wine and dvds and familial arguments and flashing, smashing, crashing video games. I think publishers–since their goal is just to make money–are correct in looking for the widget that grabs you in the first paragraph. Who wants to spend serious time and attention on a serious novel, even if you could find one?

I guess (to focus on your questions) I do want to be gripped by the opening paragraph–but what grips me, as I note, is extraordinary risks in language, in style–not some clever plot twist or cute gimmick. And when I write, I attempt the same trick, to throw language at the reader which he doesnt expect. Upend the reader, that’s what I say. Confuse him, dismay him, amaze him, and if he aint up to the task, leave him in the dust…

I’d say more, but I’m gonna pull out my copy of The Sound and the Fury and just linger for a while over that first long, amazing paragraph….

Shar Says:

I wonder if Mr. Faulkner is going to see a jump in sales now. 😉 I like experimental language too, though it has to hit me just right. I’m a Peter Carey fan, but the Ned Kelly one drove me bonkers. But then I loved his Theft. Some of the French nouveaux romans thrilled me, and some I just couldn’t get at all.

And Jeremy is right, there’s a difference in “serious literature” and lit to entertain (at least, somewhat). Maybe I’m longing for a day that never actually was, when the serious lit would show up on the Amazon best-seller lists and in the B. Daltons. But I do think publishers are more worried now about losing money (or just not making it); I know in my youth you could find lots of YA novelists writing many stand-alone books, and now it’s all series, series, series. Because YA novelists are more long-winded now? I doubt it. It’s agents and publishers telling them that series sell better: get your readers hooked with one and they’ll have to buy the rest. An alphabet of murders. One for the Money; Two for the Dough… we could go on forever. If I wanted to sell erotica to a publisher, I should be pitching The Billionaire Bondage Alphabet: A is for Anal.

When I was in early high school, I went through a James Michener phase. I confess that a major attraction for me was that his books were so long. How clever and dedicated I must be to pick up something that heavy! (I was a pretentious high-schooler.) But I remember a newspaper interview with him that came out at the time he released Centennial, which begins with about 100 pages of the geology of Colorado or something equally dry. The interviewer asked him why he’d done that, and he said something like “To weed out the ribbon-clerks.” And I loved that; that he’d put sort of a textual ‘test’ in there to see if you were worthy of getting to the good stuff. I wonder if he’d be allowed to do that today?

Lacey Reah Says:

Great blog. I often think about this. Some of my favorite books didn’t grip me with action in the first page. But they slowly pulled me in, challenging me to look at the world from a different perspective. Are books to become nothing more than outrageous block buster hits that sacrifice content for entertainment?

Often I hear people say that they hate a book because it was honest or real. The book challenged their own ideas and made them face issues that they were in denial about. So you have to wonder, isn’t this book good for you? Over time, you might hear someone give a book a bad review due to their own anger because the book made them really face themselves. Overtime, they might confess that they ended up loving the book because it changed their limited opinions about life.

Right now, I’m branching away from the lesbian vampire erotica to finish a work that is personal and deep. I have been afraid that this work would not pull people in with the same shock value as my first book. Yet, the issues I tackle in this book are so important to me and to society in general so I have to press on.

I love Faulkner. He is one of my greatest inspirations. I’ve heard people bash him left and right for his long sentences but it is wonderful to hear that your son has started to like him. I have read so much Faulkner that I even started writing like him at some point. That’s when people started editing my work and telling me that my grammar is off. As long as it doesn’t sound like the first chapter of “The Sound and The Fury,” I think I’m okay.

Catherine Treadgold Says:

Love this discussion.
I also read every Michener book I could get my paws on at one stage. Loved the way he started with pre-history and went on from there.
I used to keep a stack of books by my bed. Some would sit there for a year, then, suddenly, they would take off. The Magic Mountain, for instance, becomes a page turner about halfway through, as does Portrait of a Lady. And, until they started to pick up steam, they were better than Sominex for putting me to sleep. (I used to finish every book I started.)
Sadly, I no longer have the time to read this way, and I confess, if a book doesn’t grab me in the first 50 pages, I give up. Life is too short (at least now I’m more aware of that fact).
What some authors don’t seem to grasp, however, is that a strong writer can grab readers with interesting characters and an original writing voice. You don’t have to hit them over the head with anatomically questionable sex acts on the first page.

Fulani Says:

Interesting questions.

As a reader I do need something that will hook me in fairly quickly. Doesn’t have to be a specific thing, it can be the use of language, the subject matter, a character, a situation. Just… well, just something.

With some books I can’t even define what it is. For example I’m currently reading Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. The language is faux-Victorian (ok, it’s set 100 years before her reign but you get the idea); I’m not warming to the characters; but there’s some hidden nugget of an idea there I’m running with.

As a writer, I’ve always tried to go with ‘show, don’t tell’ as an axiom. If possible I’ll start with some hopefully powerful scene or writing voice that pulls readers in. It might involve sex, it might not. It might be a scene that gets its context from a later flashback. A couple of times I’ve done things like deliberately start with anatomically questionable sex and then go on to show how it was possible. At least some of my readers seem to have liked these strategies…

Gregory Allen Says:

How about an update? Did you read it?

Shar1 Says:

Given the season, I feel I must respond by posting this link to “As I Lay Buying.”

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