Thursday, July 31, 2008

Favorite Opening Line

Over at the Telegraph's book blog, James Higgs, spurred on by a colleague, creates what I think is one of the best potential memes out there. Favorite opening line to a novel.

His comes from Anthony Burgess' Earthly Powers a book that I now need to read.

Mine is a tough call. Rex Stout is always good for a quick, evocative opening line, like this one from If Death Ever Slept:

It would not be strictly true to say that Wolfe and I were not speaking that Monday morning in May.

He's got a number of good ones like that, but I can't say any one of them is my favorite. Of course, mystery writers are almost required to have enticing opening sentences, it's a genre thing.

Then there's Camus' famous opening to The Stranger:

Maman died today.

Although perhaps that needs the whole opening paragraph to really qualify.

Either way, my favorite of the moment is probably from Tristram Shandy:

I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider'd how much depended upon what they were then doing;-that not only the production of a rational Being was concern'd in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;-and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:- Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,-I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.

Technically, that is one sentence, and I love it. Yes, I like my language a tad more Ciceronian than most people these days. However, it's not just the achievement of that monstrous sentence. It's also hilarious. Shandy lets his readers know precisely what they are in for, a long, digressive, bawdy piece of narration, all concerned in the history and origins of his main character.

So that's my favorite, what are yours?

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Cover story

Books are trying to find their audience. Anyone who works in publishing knows that 'you can't judge a book by its cover' is not all that widely followed. If anything, you can take a good shot at judging a book by its cover. Covers after all are designed with an audience in mind. This is why 'Chick Lit' which doesn't ever seem to have a section in book stores, unless it's the table labeled 'Beach Reads', always has covers that are virtually interchangeable. They contain some bright pink, a part of, but rarely all of, a woman's body in silhouette, and perhaps a cocktail. Don't tell me that this is designed to be picked up by the hipster guy who's got a used copy of Naked Lunch conspicuously sticking out of his back pocket. This is just the most blatant example. Everyone knows it who buys many books. I know that I can often stand in front of a bookshelf at random, eyes unfocused, and from color, shape, and pattern, pick out a book that I have either read, or would like to read.

Now, I'm not protesting against this. It can be very helpful. It can also be very wrong. One of my favorite authors is Terry Pratchett, but as I've gotten older I've become less and less fond of the covers of his books, the same holds true for a lot of Speculative Fiction. In England, they had a great idea. For certain authors, with a wider following, they do different covers. You can by Harry Potter with the 'juvenile' or 'adult' covers. The 'adult' covers are a little more elegant, a little less colorful and cartoon-y. The same is true for Terry Pratchett. When I was in Scotland, one of the first things I did was purchase a few of these adult cover Pratchett's, I love his writing, and reread one or another of his books almost every year, now I have a few that I also think look pretty good on my shelf. I encourage American publishers to follow the Brits' lead.

It's also important to remember that sometimes, unthinkable as it seems, the publishers get the audience completely wrong. Every so often it doesn't hurt to pick up a book who's cover doesn't thrill you, and actually look at the writing. You might end up finding something special that would otherwise have escaped you.

Update: I'm not the only one talking about book covers today. For a much more in depth examination of 'Chick Lit' covers, check out Diane Shipley's latest piece at The Guardian.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Author Labels

I've been doing some thinking about author labels. By this I mean the terms used to describe authors as being within a subgroup, like 'Gay Author, Jewish Author, African American Author."

This started when I was reading The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris by Edmund White. White discusses this labeling while talking about the history of American authors from minority groups coming to Paris to write. He described how they, and certain gay, French authors, avoided being labeled in this fashion, and objected to the idea of being so labeled. He doesn't agree with this and proudly labels himself as a 'gay author'.

Before I read his thesis, I was firmly on the side against such labeling. I saw it as a means of limiting an author's audience, relegating their work to a small specialty shelf in the corner of the book store or library, where it won't encounter those not already interested in that community. Further, it has a history of being used to intentionally limit those books to a specific audience. The shelf I see most in bookstores is the 'African American Literature' section. How many white people do you see browsing that section? How many great books are hiding in there, waiting for a wider audience? A very few, and a lot.

White softened my view but I don't think he quite changed it. I liked The Flaneur a lot, and his pride in his identity helped to create the book. If all being labeled a 'gay author' meant was that he was not hiding the fact that he was gay, then I'm all for it. But I don't think that's what it means. It means he has given them an excuse to put his book in the special interest section, 'gay literature' or 'queer literature' or whatever label a bookstore uses to indicate that a book is for people who are interested in the genre. And then, people who are interested in, let's say Paris, the main subject of the book, won't find it.

In this interview, Tony Kushner handles the problem in an interesting way. He identifies as an 'American author' a 'Jewish author' and a 'gay author'. I like this. No one is just one thing. In my opinion Kushner is also a 'moved-to-New-York-and-it-will-always-be-with-him author' but that doesn't work well when typed.

By encouraging several different labels, Kushner makes it harder to relegate him to the specialty shelves. Kushner also points out that, when writers like Roth and Bellow were avoiding the label 'Jewish author', they were doing so because prejudice at the time was stronger, and to be a 'Jewish author' or some other author with a qualification applied to 'author' made them less of an 'American author' and thus to be taken less seriously. Perhaps it's still true, though I think less so.

The real problem these days isn't the authors labeling themselves. That's fine and positive. The problem is when the genre gets printed on the book, on the spine or near the bar code, and then the author gets stuck in their special section. Edmund White would respond that the author shouldn't try to hide who they are on account of this, and I agree. But that doesn't mean I have to like it.

Authors should describe themselves however they want, and the more authors produce quality writing within a given 'section' the more their work will stand out. In this day and age, with bookstores struggling, it's hard to tell the bookstores to take a step away from a practice that has long helped them stay profitable, but it'd be nice if they let the 'specialty' books out to play more often.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The New York Review of Books, plus Yeats

Well, after a longish trip to Scotland (leaving me with the desire to write a post about reading and traveling, after all, EVERYONE else is doing it), I'm back.

This is just a quick note to self, and a caution for the rest of you. If you feel that there are already too many books that you want to read, stay away from the New York Review of Books blog. Every time I look at their site, my list expands.

They only make it harder by publishing books that are physically quite appealing. So far, I have not picked up a book of theirs that I didn't like, or love.

Also, while I'm linking things. Bookslut comments on a NYTimes article about the Yeats exhibit at The National Library of Ireland. I saw that exhibit earlier this year, and it was wonderful. Everyone should take Bookslut up on their suggestion, and listen to the free readings online. I'm excited about the possibility of this exhibition traveling to the US, here's hoping they come to NYC.