Archive for December 13th, 2005

I can’t help but cringe when I read that a story or novel should have a “hook”. While I agree that a beginning should be interesting, all the writing manuals in the world have emphasised this point so strenuously that every mediocre, or even less-than-mediocre writer has learned to start his story with one. Well, I’m not fooled. The hooks are transparent. They’re easy, and by no means an indication that the rest of the story is going to be interesting. Here are the kinds of opening sentences that are meant to hook the reader.

By the time we’d got Simon disentangled, the mailman was dead.

For years I’d been looking half-heartedly for my name in the dictionary. Nothing, however, prepared me for the shock of actually finding it.

“You can pray all you want,” Chris said. “God’s not listening. And besides, he’d never take an interest in dominos.”

I admit they’re silly, but that’s all there is to it. You could fill volumes with them. (Calvino, in his lecture on Quickness, mentions a Guatemalan writer, Augusto Monterroso, who wrote a story consisting only of one sentence: “When I woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” ) They’re so easy to come up with, and the writers who insist on them so mediocre, that they are a guarantee that what you read will not live up to the promise (if you can truly say there is any) of that first sentence. They should, like Monterroso, just stop there, because that’s as good as it gets.

How’s this for a first sentence?

Lily, the caretaker’s daughter, was literally run off her feet.

Not particularly promising by today’s standard. I can hear the whining shits in writing workshops complain, “The hook’s not strong enough.” And yet, it’s from one of the greatest stories ever written, “The Dead”. Joyce’s story is the opposite of the hook-approach. The reader is lulled by forty-odd pages of interesting but somewhat uneventful writing into thinking that nothing is going to happen and shocked by the magnitude of what eventually does.

The writing that is taught in manuals, and I imagine in workshops, is so formulaic, and its practitioners so unimaginative that for some time I had been suspecting that its effect was not only to lead writers (and publishers too, I suspect) to think that there is only one way to begin a story, but was also creating a new kind of reader: one who immediately punishes the piece of writing that fails to observe the rules by refusing to read it.

This suspicion was confirmed a few days ago when I was browsing around in Amazon. I’ve been interested in Paul Auster lately. I don’t know, and am not that interested, in how good a writer he is. He has rekindled my interest in story-telling, and I’m reading everything I can find by him and letting his influence on me run its course. I find it liberating. I went to Amazon to check out people’s comments on Leviathan. While I was there, I came across Roger Angle.

Angle is supposedly a writer, and claims to have been nominated for a Pulitzer once for reporting. I rarely go to Amazon. It’s enough to make someone who wants to be a writer give it all up. If I ever entertained populist notions, I’d be cured in about two seconds of browsing there. It’s depressing. I’ll admit they’re cheap shots, and have little to do with the main point of this post, but I can’t help but quote some of Angle’s critical gems.

Of Haruki Murakami’s Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he writes:

The narrative lacks a sense of place. Although it is set in Tokyo, we don’t see it or hear or smell it. We don’t learn anything about the city or way it is laid or out or how it would feel to be there. The focus is on the main guy and his day-to-day life. Although it is set in Tokyo, there is no sense that this is a romantic or exotic place.

You know why, Roger? Because Murakami’s Japanese, and Tokyo isn’t the least bit romantic or exotic to him. It just happens to be the city he lives in.

Most of Angle’s reviews are of pulp, although he sometimes reviews more “serious” fiction. I find the one on Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost quite funny, especially in light of the Auster review.

I loved this book and can’t wait to read it again. The older I get the less I can stand best-sellers, with their rampant exposition and lack of trust in the reader. This is just the opposite. Ondaatje trusts you to figure out the story, to add two and two, which is part of the pleasure of novel reading, I think. His use of language, his keen insight into the characters, the depth to which he plumbs the human heart — all make this a first-rate novel. The only novels I would rank above it are Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” Melville’s “Moby Dick” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

This guy who claims his favourite novel is Ulysses actually spends most of his time reviewing crime fiction and reviews books he hasn’t even finished. Now, keep in mind what he writes about “rampant exposition and lack of trust in the reader” and Ondaatje’s belief in the reader “to add two and two”. Although he finds it harder to stand best-sellers, this is his review of Leviathan after reading only ten pages.

The strategy of the story-telling didn’t work for me.
I found the first ten pages so annoying and tedious that I couldn’t read any further.
What I gather from the first 10 pp is that:
1. The dead guy had a “terrible secret.” I need to know up front what this is, to keep reading. I won’t read another page to find out.
2. The narrator knew the dead guy but doesn’t want to tell FBI. I can’t imagine why, and I don’t care. This is supposed to be a hook, I guess, but it doesn’t work that way for me. Just tell me, right off the bat. At least give me a hint.
3. The dead guy blew himself up for a reason. We don’t know what that is. Right now-during the whole 10 pp-I don’t give a tinker’s damn. I guess this is supposed to be another hook. You have to give me at least a hint. Otherwise I just do a dim-out.I took a workshop from the novelist John Rechy one time. He said: If you keep saying, in your book, “I have a mystery that I’m going to tell you,” and you say it over and over again, it becomes maddening. It will make you put the book down. That is what happened to me here.
Thank God I can just put it down and forget about it.
Whew. What a relief.

Angle, you’re in no position to comment on what Auster says “over and over again”. After a mere ten pages, you have nothing but false impressions. You don’t know jack shit about this book’s strategy. Auster never delays explaining the explosion. The explosion isn’t the point. If Auster has made any mistake, it’s trusting fools like you to put two and two together.

What really impressed me about this review was that it confirmed what I’d been suspecting for some time: that now lazy, formulaic writers have become lazy, formulaic readers, unable to go on if someone hasn’t followed the rules and written the proper opening. When I read it, I hadn’t read Angle’s profile and didn’t know that he’s supposed to be a writer (he doesn’t really mention getting published). The reference to the workshop said it all. Roger Angle just had to put the book down: John Rechy had told him to find it maddening.

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