Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Story or Style

I recently saw a list of great first sentences for crime novels. The received wisdom is that the reader needs to be drawn in immediately. Maybe, maybe not. If I’m reading an author I’ve never read before, that’s at least partly true.

But there’s no either/or for what draws me in. A whole concatenation of elements can go into moving me forward in a story.

Earlier this summer I finally broke down and read The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowlings). I read the first paragraph, and then read it again…and again. It’s a perfect example of a writer pulling me in. The language. The action. The story that beckons. It’s all there.

That doesn’t mean that every book has to have all those elements to draw me in. I can be intrigued by an interesting turn of phrase, a well-drawn image, a quirky personality, a fine description, or an opening image that promises an intriguing plot. (The fact that Galbraith managed all those in one damn paragraph is rare).

I used to be among those who had to read all of a book that I started, with rare exceptions. Then I started thinking that after 100 pages, if  I hadn’t gotten in the groove, I’d give up. Then it was 50 pages. And now it can be anywhere from a page to ten pages. You could say that I’ve gotten lazy, but I actually think it’s that I’ve gotten more discerning. I figure by ten pages if an author hasn’t given me a reason to move forward, she isn’t doing her job.

But sometimes I find myself cutting an author a little more slack, and the reasons aren’t always clear. It may be because I’ve read the author’s previous work and trust that they’ll come through. Or it may be that the book was recommended by a reader I trust. Or, maybe it’s that indefinable “something,” that tells me that the book needs a little time to develop. That also depends on the writing, though. If it’s poor, I don’t care whether the story develops.

In particular, I can be turned off by grammatical errors, bad dialogue, too much description, clich├ęs, and purple prose. But I can also decide not to read a book because I realize the subject simply doesn’t interest me. For a while it seemed like every other book I picked up was about a dead sister. Enough! I’m not keen on books in which real, historical characters become detectives. If something is preposterous, the writing had better be good from the first word, or I’m done. And if you’re writing a thriller, please don’t give me an older spy who is so alluring that a 20-year-old, gorgeous woman can’t keep her hands off him. Not that it doesn't happen in real life, but the writing has to be beyond good for me to believe it.

Style is a tricky thing. Sometimes I pick up a book I know is “good,” but I can’t get into the rhythm of the writing. Case in particular: Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pyncheon’s masterpiece. I’ve read the first 35 pages about ten times, before I bogged down. I’ve read some of his other books with great pleasure, despite their density. But GR stymies me. On the other hand, I know that when I read Henry James, the prose may be dense, but it pulls me along. Enjoying a book also depends on timing. I picked up Annie Proux’s Shipping News, started reading, and thought it was stupid. But I had sense enough to know it might be me, not the book. Six months later I picked it up, and fell into it easily. And loved it.

I’ve also tried the trick of reading a page well into the book to decide if the style grabs me. If I hadn’t done that, I might not have read A Gentleman in Moscow. I’d love to know what other tricks people have for deciding whether a book is worth their time.

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