In novel writing, much importance is placed upon the first sentence, the need to capture the imagination of the reader – love at first sight, if you will. Certainly there are many terrific opening lines for great books. (Do you own Google search, just for kicks.) Is this one of them?
It’s the opening of American Pastoral, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Philip Roth.
Ok, let’s not be so literal so as to limit the “opening line” to simply the first sentence. Let’s say we’re evaluating the opening in general. Roth follows the not-so-descriptive introduction of one of his pivotal characters with this:
“During the war years, when I was still a grade school boy, this was a magical name in our Newark neighborhood, even to adults just a generation removed from the city’s old Prince Street ghetto and not yet so flawlessly Americanized as to be bowled over by the prowess of a high school athlete.”
Are you hooked yet? No? Me neither.
And yet I kept reading. Page after page after page about the old neighborhood and its people. Not much action. Some conversations in a class reunion about days gone by. in medias res? No, not really. It’s all backstory. It’s what writing coaches would call exposition, and they greatly advise against it.
Take another look at that second sentence. It’s really long. The coach would advise to break it up, to get that comprehension level down a couple of notches. Roth also uses big words that most readers would have to look up. Again, not something they say you should do. It takes the reader out of the story.
I used to read a lot of John Grisham. Lots of story and action, and Grisham will keep you turning those pages. He follows the rules, has lots of fans, and piles of money. Roth probably does too, but he’s not exactly a household name.
Yet Philip Roth is a highly respected novelist. He breaks the rules and wins a Pulitzer. How?
On page 86, he wrote this:
“The daugher who transports him out of the longed-for American pastoral and into everything that is its antithesis and its enemy, into the fury, the violence, and the desperation of the couterpastoral – into the indigenous American berserk.”
It took Roth 85 pages to get to the reader to the point that the meat of the sentence is understood mentally and emotionally, and so on-point that its resonance is profound.
I’m starting to get it.
It’s all about what you’re trying to acccomplish. It’s all about what you want your writing to do, and not so much about how many people read it. The truth is, the odds are greatly against any of us writing a best-seller. If you’re going to put in the hours, it had better be for something worthwhile. It had better bring at least one reader some satifisfaction, that one reader being the author.
Footnote: The number one best-selling author from 1996 to 2000 was John Grisham. Philip Roth didn’t even crack the top 15 in 1997, the year American Pastoral won the Pulitzer.