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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