08 December 2004

Openings

I've been reading The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories edited by Ben Marcus, and it's caused all sorts of conflicting, half-formed, murky thoughts for me. It's an extraordinary book in its range and ecumenical editing (it has been accurately, insightfully reviewed by Kristin Livdahl, Priya Jain, or Laird Hunt).

I tried to write a post about Charles McGrath's review in the NY Times (a review Maud Newton accurately labeled "passive aggressive"), but I failed, because I found myself repeatedly getting tangled in McGrath's incoherence.

What I discovered while writing that failed post, though, was that I wanted to say something about how stories begin. Not their gestation, but their first paragraphs. Here are some first paragraphs from books I have within arm's reach at the moment:
Two glass panes with dirt between the little tunnels from cell to cell: when I was a kid I had an ant colony.
(Samuel R. Delany, "The Star Pit")

The lucidity, the clarity of the light that afternoon was sufficient to itself; perfect transparency must be impenetrable, these vertical bars of a brass-coloured distillation of light coming down from the sulphur-yellow interstices in a sky hunkered with grey clouds that bulge with more rain. It struck the wood with nicotine-stained fingers, the leaves glittered. A cold day of late October, when the withered blackberries dangled like their own dour spooks on the discoloured brambles. There were crisp husks of beechmast and cast acorn cups underfoot in the russet slime of dead bracken where the rains of the equinox had so soaked the earth that the cold oozed up through the soles of the shoes, lancinating cold of the approaching winter that grips hold of your belly and squeezed it tight. Now the stark elders have an anorexic look; there is no much in the autumn wood to make you smile but it is not yet, not quite yet, the saddest time of the year. Only, there is a haunting sense of the imminent cessation of being; the year, in turning, turns in on itself. Introspective weather, a sickroom hush.
(Angela Carter, "The Erl-King")

Offerings the book is called. Gold lettering on a dull-blue cover. The author's full name underneath: Almeda Joynt Roth. The local paper, the Vidette, referred to her as "our poetess". There seems to be a mixture of respect and contempt, both for her calling and her sex -- or for their predictable conjuncture. In the front of the book is a photograph, with the photographer's name in one corner, and the date: 1865. The book was published later, in 1873.
(Alice Munro, "Meneseteung")

Pulling his three blunt boats out of a cold-ball sunset he came into my range. And I shuddered, even at that far out shuddery he was for me. Not since a long time had it been this way, a crackling dry hum in the air and the heart racing like a shaft cracked loose from its load and everything standing back a little, just a little back to give me more room for dread. Or was it that at such times I shrank just a little and everything stepped back thus, not really, but was the same, and I was stepping in from all sides just a little, shrinking in tight to calculate disaster? Or was it more just now that I had a death-high fever, mental fever and torn flesh-strips of the brain, an unsettling that made me see phantom things?
(David R. Bunch, "A Vision of the King")
What these openings share is precision and authority. The precision comes from the author having a clear and specific vision; the authority is the authority of imagination, of someone saying "Let's pretend..." in a voice that is both assured and alluring.

Writing teachers and textbooks often tell amateurs to begin with a hook -- grab the reader and don't let them go. (As if we go to fiction to be mugged.) Other sagely advice is similar to some recently shared with me by a well-meaning so-and-so: "In the first paragraph of a short story, most readers expect to know something about the main character and what she wants, desires, or needs to resolve."

Is it purely my contrarian nature that makes me bristle against such strictures?

The opening I quoted that seems to me least likely to rope in a reader is Alice Munro's, but it is the opening of one of the most-heralded stories of one of the most-heralded short story writers alive. It may, in fact, be the bravest, the riskiest of any of the openings here, because it is so bland, so factual -- and yet I doubt anyone who has read the whole story would say it is out of place or inappropriate. The authority here comes from a writer so confident in the story she has to tell that she is willing to let the beginning be what she knows it needs to be, rather than something more immediately eye-catching.

I've been reading a lot of stories over the past few weeks for some reviewing assignments, and I found myself skeptical whenever a story began in a way that seemed to be pandering to the reader or crying for attention. Immediately, the story had a lot to prove to me if I was going to be well-disposed toward it. I have become skeptical of openings that resemble a third-grader who sits in the first row and raises his hand so high whenever the teacher asks a question that his face turns red with the strain and he risks dislocating his arm by the force of his effort. I'm finding it even harder to keep reading stories that try to convey Important Things about their main characters in the first paragraph, not because that's a bad thing to do, but because so many people think that's the only way to begin a story.

The best openings are arrogant -- they stand out not because they scream for attention, but because the author clearly trusted their instincts. A less self-assured writer would have made Delany's syntax more ordinary, would have cut Carter's paragraph to at least a third of its length, would have jazzed up Munro's opening, and would never have dared behave as badly as David Bunch.

And thus would have been born into the world yet another competent, unnecessary story that looked a lot like a million other stories. I've written plenty such things myself, which is why I treasure writers who buck every trend they encounter and swear allegiance only to their own truth -- they are models for us all, readers and writers alike. If they get attention, it's not because they raise their hand the highest, but because the answer they offer is the best for the question at hand.

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