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Reasons to keep reading

Sunday 10/23/22

One of the things writing is most fundamentally about is successively giving readers reasons to keep reading. Little is easier for a reader than to stop reading. This is one of the great challenges of writing. If we go to the movies, the film starts and we stay, unless we're trying to be one of those people who leave early so we can take to social media and boast about how we walked out. Once I was at the Brattle for a Godard film, and I had to leave on account of an urgent email from a Rolling Stone editor, but that was different. We go to the theater, and we're there for the duration. Same as a concert. No one stands up at Symphony and says, "I'm out!" and takes to the exit, save, depressingly, during Handel's Messiah, when the once-a-year people depart after the "Hallelujah" chorus (missing the best part in the process). Even the TV watchers might leave something on because we're a lazy race these days, us humans, and the remote is out of reach without getting up again. In those other examples, many people are part of the making of the work. It's just the writer with writing. You. It's all on you. No one else. Which is just one more reason why writing is the hardest of all skills to master. Allowing that you even have ability.

Recently I saw a word that no one would know in the title of a piece at a place I write for. A jargon word. One of those made-up sounding words that academia specializes in. This wasn't academia, though. I knew that people would stop reading there. They wouldn't even get to the first sentence. The title has to keep people reading. The first few words. The first clause. The first sentence has a tremendous responsibility in any piece, story, book, novel. Look at any of my first sentences. Do you see how they're all doing a lot without seeming to do too much and without being too busy? Do you see how they grab? How they funnel inward--or downward, if we're talking the text on the page.

A first sentence has to hold a lot. There must be much in it. This is not a length thing. The first sentence must signal a lot, without giving too much away. The first sentence has an encapsulation quality. It's the point person for the work. It's the North Star. The first sentence has two identities, but with the paradox that its actual identity has never changed. The first identity is when we first read that first sentence. The second identity is if we read it again after we've finished the work. Doesn't read the same then. It was actually telling us more than we knew at the time. There's a reason it was the first sentence of what we just experienced.

As these reasons to keep reading mount, that feeling the reader has to make a decision--to keep going or not?--goes away. It's replaced by total immersion. They are no longer reading at this point. They are having an experience. With the best writers, they're having a life experience.

The first sentence of "Fitty," which is also the first sentence of There Is No Doubt: Story Girls:

Carlene noted the clinking of metal against ceramic, the aqueous variant of a bullet locking into a chamber.

That's very clean. It's very A to B. Classic story style, and intentionally subject-verb. This will be a story long on plot and action--in the classic story style--but it's not actually classic story style at all, because of the nature of that plot and action. It has aspects beyond the seeming aspects and possibilities of the natural world, though it has huge implications for the natural world. It's a radical story in form and content, but a highly accessible story, as if a classic Saturday Evening Post story of the 1940s was also the most modernistic, vanguard story at the same time. But it doesn't need to read as Joycean. The story is too important to leave any reader behind. The analogy, at this juncture, could be an analogy of sense solely within the sentence. In other words, this could be a story about anything--flowers in a field--and that analogy could still fit there. But it's actually doing and portending a lot more. The biggest "more" possible, if one will. We don't know that yet. We already know the title. "Fitty" is an interesting word. What does it mean? Is it a name? A descriptor? A nickname? It's not the name of the person mentioned in the first sentence, who has her own interesting name, but not one that is forced. It stands out without standing out, if you know what I mean. Now, if Fitty is a name, then Carlene probably isn't going to be the main character, the focus. But we start with her, so she's pretty important.

The sentence holds much, portends much, but it doesn't give too much away. Our curiosity is piqued, though, with that analogy of the aqueous variant. It's not too on the nose, the language arrests--its rich, sonorous, plays to the eyes and the ears, while not going over heads--but it's there, and it registers. It lodges in the mind. Already. The word "aqueous" is key, because this is a story of flow--between floors of buildings and between worlds. And between relationships. We read the story, we have this extreme life experience, and then we reread that first sentence: it's the same, but it's also new. It shatters us as we read it a second time. We may well say "Oh my God..." aloud, knowing what we now know about these characters. No. Let's not call them characters. These people.

I do not believe that any other writer--certainly no writer of what is called "literary fiction"--takes this into consideration. I am not a writer of literary fiction. That implies tedium. Wankery. (Speaking of which: here's some fiction in The Baffler published by the ultimate hipster-bigot in J.W. McCormack. Bet you loved that. How long did you last before you stopped reading? Didn't get very far, did you? By the way: The reason you feel like saying, "You're trying way too hard, dude" as you read is because these people always suck so much at writing. That's why they're trying so hard to do their moves, and lard up their meaninglessness. They're trying to cover up their lack of anything to say, to give. It's not a story. It's never a story. It's insecurity and a lack of talent on a page. And you, reader, are the last person on earth for whom it's written. This isn't writing meant to be worth your time and energy. It's writing that siphons both, which is why you bail early, because you value your time and your energy, as you should. The better the writer, the more they respect your time and energy.) Though it's all so rote and boring. Lance Olsen. We could change the name, and drop in any other literary fiction writer and it would mean the same. It'd mean that the work meant nothing to anyone and could not.

I am not a genre writer. I am in my own category. No one writes fiction like I do, no one approaches fiction as I do, no one intends upon what I intend with fiction. These people in this literary fiction community are insecure and they are narcissists. They write for each other, which, again, is to say that they write for no one. They don't honestly read each other. They play grab ass, which is akin to the yearly dues for membership in this community. Insecure narcissists make the mistake of thinking that they're going to try and prove how smart they are by writing work for no one. They fault the masses. The uneducated masses. Who they believe they are better than. They don't actually believe it. They don't actually believe they're better than anyone. They think they're worse. And you know what? This is the one thing they're actually correct about. But they don't say it. They live what they call their lives trying to hide from this truth. One way that they do that is hate me and lock me out, because of what I represent to them. And they overcompensate by insisting--within their cliques--that the tedious garbage they do write has value. No one honestly believes that. But if you were a third party reader, and you had no agenda, no skin in this game, you'd stop reading immediately if you tried to read, say, Bradford Morrow. Mark Doten. You'd be done almost instantly, because they never give you a reason to keep reading. And that's what the best writing does--it give you one reason after another, and it never lets up with that succession of reasons. From the title, to the first few words, the first sentence, the first paragraph, and on and on, until that closing bit--mark--of text.


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