Friday, November 17, 2006

When you want it NOW

Not to get too personal and therapeutic on you all, but my psychiatrist and I have been exploring the possible long-term effects of the prescription of bronchodilatory inhalants for young asthma sufferers in the 1960s. After years of waiting for ingested medicine to take effect, or enduring the terror of an adrenaline shot at the doctors, an entire generation of asthmatic children learned the relieving pleasures of . . . instant gratification. Yay!

While asthma is long behind me, I ponder what the enthusiastic use of what I called "my spray" has done to the way I read. Case in point: The Book Thief. After the first twenty pages of Death's meditations stymied me three times, Martha suggested I try the audiobook instead, allowing me to get through Death's opening remarks less painfully--no pages to force myself to turn. And she was right: once the story itself gets going, it's pretty unstoppable. But those first twenty pages made me so resentful I wanted to give up. Where's my spray?!

I'm of several minds here (perhaps as a result of other abuses of the instant-gratification reflex). One, maybe it's just me--impatience is a subjective experience. And two: as Natalie Babbitt told me (after fielding many letters from children who struggle with the opening chapters of Tuck Everlasting), a writer needs to write the book the author needs to write. And three: sometimes (as Natalie said children also told her) the patience required in the beginning is amply rewarded in the end.

But I'm also reminded of what former NY Times "women's news editor" Charlotte Curtis was told by her first boss, at the Columbus Citizen: "Curtis, you didn't get your clothes off fast enough!," meaning her stories took too long to get to the point (quoted in The Girls in the Balcony by Nan Robertson). In our recent "What Makes a Good Book" special issue, Richard Peck offers plenty of advice for writers on how to begin a book:

It's far too tempting to warm up on your reader's time. I regularly find my first line somewhere on the sixth page, after five pages of starting too early and walking in circles and pleading with the reader. I've learned to pitch those first five out.


(I would add that writers should NOT start as if they took a writing manual's advice "to immediately engage the reader's five senses" far too much to heart, as in opening with "James could still taste the breakfast marmalade on his tongue as he piled grimy handfuls of dirt on the fresh corpse while the scent of magnolia from Grandmother's farm drifted across the sky along with the sound of the circling vultures screeching overhead.")

But (a) what advice do we give to readers? and (b) does it make a difference if the reader is a child or an adult? Martha suggested this morning that what readers need from a beginning is "to know that they are in good hands," that perceived confidence on the part of the writer can inspire the same feeling in the reader. I like that. I remember Hazel Rochman blithely telling her high-schoolers to skip the first chapter of Wuthering Heights. Right on (remember The Rules). And I know I just have to become more patient--but I do love a book that from the first page makes me feel like I've finally gotten some air.

5 comments:

Lisa Yee said...

Excellent observations.

Lynn said...

There is a professor on campus requiring her YA lit. students to read The Book Thief. Remarks from the students, who have all recommended I read the book (and I'll get it off of reserves over the holiday's) mirror your observation. If you can get past the first few chapters it is an excellent book.

When choosing a book for myself, I randomly open it to the middle and read before buying/checking out. But I have to agreee the beginning has to grab me or I either skip along until I find something that does or put down the book.

Melinda said...

I had to keep puzzling through the first chapters of The Brothers Karamozov, and nearly gave up on the book, before I broke through to the actual story, i.e. the carriage heading to the monastery. Once that carriage got rolling, so did the story.

I'm not sure what kept me trying, though. I think Dosty had enough authority and fluency to make me aware that I was in good hands and that I should keep trying.

Yet I felt like I was walking down a hall of portraits in those first chapters, and Dosty was saying, "This portrait is of Ivan." Egad.

That opening the book to the middle before buying it sounds like good advice.

rindawriter said...

The "instant gratification syndrome", for good or ill, may be more pervasive than we know in children and teens these days: I quote from "Charlotte's Webpage," a fascinating online article by Lowell Monke:

"Their (the children's" electronic experiences have led them to expect to see these things happening—all at once and with no effort on their part. This distortion can also result from a diet of television and movies, but the computer's powerful interactive capabilities greatly accelerate it. And the phenomenon affects more than just experiences with the natural world. It leaves students apathetic and impatient in any number of settings—from class discussions to science experiments."

http://www.orionsociety.org/pages/om/05-5om/Monke.html (a proenvironment website)

I myself suspect that children and teens are becoming increasingly impatient--and even intolerant--with longer introductory chapters in books simply because of growing up with so much stimulus from technological sources like computers, TV, movies, etc. I truly think such electronic stimulus affects their growing brains and not all positively either. I wonder: Is possible someday that many younger folks may simply not be able anymore to appreacite the unique pleasures of reading? They've lived so much with instant gratification that re-adusting to a book might be actually painful.

Not to say that I don't skip boring introductory chapters myself.....now and again...but, like a lot of sandwich eaters, I just dump the tasteless crusts and go right to the meat of the thing...

KT Horning said...

I once heard a well-known children's book editor say that you can usually skip the first chapter of any book, as most of them actually start with chapter 2.