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Prose off: First sentences from Narrative, Granta, and The New Yorker v. Fleming first sentence

Tuesday 1/2/24

Let's look at some first sentences of fiction, shall we?

A first sentence is a very important thing. There is nothing easier in the world to do than to stop reading. Writing is about giving the reader reasons to keep going, and that starts right with the title, which is also a very important thing. The reasons become such--and the faster the better--that the reader ceases to feel like they are reading.

You never want a reader to think that they're reading. That is the great challenge of writing. It's something that's true about all great writing. A person isn't reading--they're having a life experience.

A first sentence is an undertaking of integration. It brings story and reader together. What you want to happen is have them interlock as part of the same whole. In order for this to occur, the reader must not be taken outside of the story. They can't leave that place. That world.

At the same time, a first sentence is a kind of story unto itself. It's a narrative. It holds more than it directly says--though it can directly say a lot--and the reader--the experiencer--immediately knows this and feels this. The story that follows may be held within that first sentence.

It reads as it reads, does what I've just said above; and at the same time, it reads differently when we either read it again--as in actually read it again--or recall it. Reads one way forwards, you might say, reads another way backwards.

This is a story from Narrative called "A Taste for Lionfish" by Megan Mayhew Bergman, who is a connected system person and is thus automatically hooked up by the people of the system, like Narrative co-editor Carol Edgarian, who will soon be featured in these pages in an Everything wrong with publishing post.

Let's look at that first sentence:

In twenty-four hours, Holland would be 3,894 miles away, outside Nome on Alaska’s Seward Peninsula, setting up camp on a ridgeline near the Red Knot breeding grounds.

First of all, this is just the bald statement of a fact. You'll see such writers do this a lot. It's meant to be ironic, as in, "There is more going on here than this simple bald statement of fact suggests!"

There actually never is. It's a kind of cheat they do, an attempt to distract you or trick you from realizing that there won't actually be anything of substance in the story. It's like people who always default to sarcasm because they can't deal in the reality of anything. People have defense mechanisms, and writers like this do, too; the thing is, their entire technique is a kind of writing version of a defense mechanism.

Remember what I said about taking a reader out of a story? That occurs here five words in, with the use of Holland after the comma. Okay, you named your character Holland. But no one's first association, when they see that word, is with a person's name. They're immediately going to think about the country. Everyone is going to do that. They're going to ask, "Wait...why is a country moving?"

A country can move in a story. A country could go off and have adventures as a land mass. But that's not what is going to happen in this story. We know that. You also just wouldn't see that sort of imagination from a system person with their MFA, who writes as all of these people write.

You're out of the story already, because you have to make this adjustment in your head. How much do you care after reading this first sentence? You are at best neutral, right? You might keep reading because that's what you're doing right now. But you've not been given a reason to keep reading. And that's a big thing.

Remember when I said that Best American Short Stories anthologizes only very bland, safe, predictable, boring work from the most connected people of the system? So does it surprise you when I now say that Meghan Mayhew Bergman has had two of her stories anthologized in the series? (She's also a Bread Loaf director; again--it's always the same shit, the same kind of person, the same background, the same hooking up, the same empty, meaningless writing.)

Of course it doesn't. It makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

Just like it makes perfect sense that fewer and fewer people read, and that hardly anyone reads what system people call "literary fiction." Your main culprit is the system itself: It doesn't produce--or foster, or even allow--writing that anyone might care about.

Next we have "Wings of Red," by James J. Jennings, from our friends at Granta.

Here's the first sentence:

An infamous kickball bounds high over a tall park fence.

For this sentence to work, the kickball would need to have a dubious history that people talked about. A kickball that gets into trouble. A kickball with a past. Again, you see the flat, bald statement? It's the cover-up for, "Look, I'm working with nothing, I have no imagination, I have no story to tell, so I'm going to try and play it cool."

What Jennings means, though, is the game itself of kickball is infamous--which really doesn't make any sense, but let's play along--because it takes just one big kick to send the ball over a fence, or down a street, where it can't be retrieved, thus ending the game.

But that's not an infamous kickball, is it? The writer made this choice to try and be creative. They force it. "Gonna be creative now, look at me writing!" And what you get is something awkward, bland, ineffectual, and that takes us out of the story from the start.

Does not work.

Want to do another from Granta?

This is the first sentence of "Ava," by Devon Brody:

Ava is asleep and turned towards me.

You're getting this, right? See how they all use this same bald/flat technique? They reach to the quiver, and there's nothing in it but air--because these people don't have any ability, they don't have a story to tell you, they don't have a narrative and characters for you to care about--so they do the "play it cool" statement thing.

You read that and think, "So? Who cares?"

And that's not what you want a reader to be thinking with a first sentence.

How about something from our friends at American Short Fiction?

Dave Eggers is a bad writer. He's also working with nothing. He's a kind of saint--and seen as a patron saint at that--of literary journals, so when he has anything--which is pretty rare, because he hardly ever writes--it's automatically slapped in, un-vetted, because of the name.

Most fiction is published un-vetted by these people--people like Carol Edgarian at Narrative, Adeena Reitberber and Rebecca Markovits at American Short Fiction.

It's "Oh, you have something for me, in it goes, can't wait" or "Do you have something for me? Love to put it in."

Someone will have a bunch of stories appear more or less simultaneously in a number of venues, and that's because they have a book coming out, and the system people publish their work for that reason--well, and because that writer is also a system person. It's automatic. It has nothing to do with the work, which is always bad.

This is the first sentence in the new issue of American Short Fiction of Eggers' "Keeper of the Ornaments."

His doorbell rang.

Yeah...thanks for playing, man.

But again, you see? Same exact technique. There is nothing here. None of these people are working with anything. Quivers full of air.

How about one more from their side of the fence?

This is the first sentence of Clare Sestanovich's "Our Time Is Up," from The New Yorker:

The mirrors reveal when it's time to clean again.

Ugh. You see how all of this shit is the same? Again, the bald/bare statement, with an attempt to be creative, that forced thing that people do when they're not naturally good at that thing. The mirrors reveal when it's time to clean again? Are you doing a reflection-centric pun?

You think, "Eh, this isn't worth it. I'm not interested in figuring out your little joke or riddle, which probably has nothing to it." You move on. Away from the story--not into it.

You might keep reading to give the story another chance or two. We could look at second and third sentences. Maybe we'll do that later. But you have a quota. It's there, in your mind. There are only a number of times you'll keep going after you're taken out of a story. Whether it's one, two, three, four. But it ain't forty-five, unless you're forcing yourself because you paid for the thing because it's a book, or something like that.

But in the daily ebb and flow of life, you move on.

None of this has anything to do with word count. A great first sentence can be one word long, if it's the right word that is able to do what I talked about above. It can be sixty words long.

This isn't a length in terms of number of words thing; it's an all of these others things thing.

I've been working on "Finder of Views" this morning, which is the second work in Big Asks: Six Novelettes About Acceptance, so I'm going to use the first sentence of this story, simply because it's been the business of today. I could pick any first sentence of any work on my side of the fence, but this is right in front of me, so here we go:

If there was anyone to whom he spoke about what he watched that he shouldn’t have watched and that he couldn’t stop himself from watching, Mason would need to be careful to avoid the phrase “splurge of cock.”

Immediately we have clarity, mystery, stakes, drama, consequence, grappling, guilt, tension, energy, conflict, a need for us to know more, indelible language with multiple clauses that are nonetheless easy to read because they move down the hill rather than up one, and edge but not gratuitous edge.

We know that the phrase in quotes isn't for shock value. Something too real and human is happening--we sense this already--for this to be any kind of ridiculous "Look at this, it says, 'Cock!'" kind of thing.

That verb choice: Splurge. We'd never expect it with the noun that follows. There is nothing predictable, and yet, it lands and lands naturally. This isn't forced. And the language is rich and fresh. We're on our readerly toes--we're not about to experience anything rote or that we can see coming from great distances. What is this person doing? And why?

And already we feel for this man.



But we also don't know how guilty he is of wrongdoing. He thinks he is, in a shameful way...but us? We're not so sure. He's also privatized something; in a very real way, he's alone because of whatever this thing is, what has occurred, what has befallen him--or all three.

That has all just happened.

Instantly--we're in.

The experience has begun.

Totally different.

You can't teach that. You can't fake it.

This other stuff? You can teach and fake that all day long. Then it's a matter of whether these other people are inclined to hook you up, for what that's worth.

It doesn't go very far, because these people don't have writing that can really go anywhere or do anything in this world. So then it's all about their little world. And the maintenance of.

Which means more and more and more of the same kind of writing, and the same policing, power-tripping, and hooking up.

And the keeping out of work that puts this work to shame.


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