Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Strong opinions

Various thoughts on the "100 best lines from novels" (according to the American Book Review, that is); a.k.a. life inside Jenny Davidson's brain for half an hour on a snowy Tuesday afternoon in January 2006. Violent disagreement and warm endorsement both welcomed below in the comments.

(Thanks to Kermit for the link.)

1. I hate, hate, hate the obviousness of the super-famous first lines. Predictably, the first and second ones given here are "Call me Ishmael" and "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." No fault of Austen or Melville, those are two fabulously good books, but it is very annoying to hear them quoted so often out of context, isn't it?

2. Authors whose names remind me of my teenage self, in a nostalgic rather than retroactively self-despising way: Pynchon, Nabokov, Woolf (the Woolf of Orlando--mentioned here--and Flush--not mentioned here--rather than the Woolf of my not-favorite Mrs. Dalloway).

3. Author I loved as a teenager and still love (1984 is a great novel!): Orwell.

4. Authors whose novels are bizarrely overrepresented on this list: Pynchon, Morrison.

5. I must get and reread The Stranger. James Sallis made me think of this, his Lew Griffin has an obsession with that book.

6. Why the weird attempt to represent a handful of foreign-language titles? It just draws attention to the English-language-ness of the list as a whole.

7. I did not like Ha Jin's Waiting and the opening sentence seems flat and affected in this context also. What I want to read is someone's little speculative essay about the principles of selection beyond the obvious--what do you think are the agendas of these list-makers? I must go and take a look at the rest of the site and see what I can discover.

8. Sylvia Plath is a great poet but The Bell Jar is an interesting & a historically important rather than actually a great novel. Sorry to say this, I have a minor obsession with Plath, but I reread it a couple years ago along with a lot of the journals (which are GREAT) and poems and I am not going to change my mind on this.

9. Other favorite novels of mine here: Katherine Dunn, Geek Love; Robert Graves, I, Claudius (and that really is one of the great opening sentences of English literature); David Copperfield (and I forgot that Catcher in the Rye was so explicit about its Copperfieldness ... hmmm...).

10. Eighteenth-century literature is well represented here. As it should be! The first sentence of Robinson Crusoe really is brilliant, more so in my opinion than the rather flashier Sterne Tristram Shandy also given here. (Oh, of course that one's great too, no reason to take sides...)

11. I am not sure I ever really liked One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was very much in fashion in the 1980s and you sort of had to like it. I liked some things about it. But I have absolutely no desire to ever read it again.

12. "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel" (William Gibson, Neuromancer). Now that's an opening sentence I wish I'd written myself. Must go and reread lots of early cyberpunk to get myself in the mood for the next (possible extracurricular, I don't really know where I'm going to fit this in because not only is it not my academic book it's also not the projected sequel to the novel I've just written but rather something completely different) novel I am burning to write.

13. "It was the day my grandmother exploded" (Iain Banks--mistakenly given the M. middle initial here, which I think is wrong--The Crow Road). Another one I'd like very much to have written myself. I love Banks although I find his science fiction novels for the most part virtually unreadable.

14. "Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress" - George Eliot's heroines are as annoying as they are worthy.

15. I have never heard of Raymond Federman and the opening sentence of Double or Nothing does not make me want to read it at all.

16. I have never read Gilbert Sorrentino but must remedy the situation before many months pass. Quite alluring sample here.

17. Novelists whose charms I am altogether blind to and that though I'm skeptical about the 'great literature'/schlock distinction would put firmly on the side of schlock: Anne Tyler, Anita Brookner.

18. Novelists who I am convinced history will deem wildly overrated and near unreadable due to baroque excess: John Barth, John Hawkes.

19. I wouldn't mind rereading The Tin Drum, what an exceptional novel (and it makes Midnight's Children look rather less extraordinary because somewhat derivative--don't get me wrong, that's a very good novel too, but perhaps not quite on the order of the former).

20. Other novelists I want to read or reread: Beckett, Perec (not on the list), Walter Abish.

21. Last but not least, my own personal favorite on the list (well, Defoe and Dickens are up there too): "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink" (Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle). A novel that everyone should read if they have not already. It is fabulously perfect. Just perfect.

32 comments:

  1. In response to:

    1. A professor this past semester gave us a list of 30 famous opening lines from 19c and 20c novels to examine the evolution of stylistics, although it soon descended into seeing who knew the most and the professor raving about the brilliance of each book. The last part sort of became the MO for the whole class.

    4. Morrison overrepresented? She's only on there once I thought. Or is once too much?

    9. I love Geek Love - in some ways I wish I'd been taught it, it'd be fun to approach in that academic context. I also love I, Claudius.

    10. Seeing the (in retrospect, amusing but lightweight) Tristram Shandy film makes me want to read the book. Unf. I have such a backlog that I think it'll be a while.

    11. You're killing me with the One Hundred Years of Solitude bit. Possibly because it's one-half of my thesis subject. I think it's the most beautiful novel ever written, and I don't even like speaking in superlatives.

    -GH

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  2. Sorry about the 100 years thing!

    Morrison is on twice, for Beloved & Paradise. I think she's a great writer, but this seems a bit random.

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  3. I agree on 6 - in fact, when I was describing the list to someone else, I almost labeled it "100 Best First Lines of Novels in English," but then realized it wasn't technically true. Opening up that can of worms seems dangerous.

    Also 12 - I just got finished reading the other 2 books in the same loose trilogy as Neuromancer and got a kick out of them.

    I haven't found the motivation to poke around the site more to try and suss what kind of organization it is, but let us know if you do... or else if I get around to it I will.

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  4. Hi, I scanned the list quickly, and a couple of my favourites are on there (eg L'Etranger). However, they have missed one of my very best opening lines of all time, which I am going to have to write from memory as it is late and I am not sure where in my many heaps the book is (so apols if not quite right):
    "We were half an hour out of Reno when the bats struck". Paragraph goes on in similar vein.
    Yes, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" by Hunter Thompson.
    (That opening paragraph was totally mind-blowing to a sheltered English undergraduate way back when. Rest of the book pretty amazing too.)

    Speaking as an editor of many years standing, I have long ceased to be amazed at the number of scientists who start out their articles with that opening sentence (sometimes slightly "amusingly" amended) from Pride and Predjudice, clearly thinking they are being frightfully original. What is the most cliched opening line in literature?

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  5. If there were an introductory essay about how the list was compiled, I'd like to see answers to two questions:

    1. How did the rankings work? If thirty people got together and came up with their favorite first lines, it makes sense that Moby Dick and Emma are at the top of the list: they're so memorable that they'd probably appear with the highest frequency. Thus, if rankings are organized by consensus, they'd rise to the top of the list because they're so obvious.

    2. Many of the first lines are about a narrator's self-conscious act of telling a story or writing a story. Self-consciousness works well in some of these examples; indeed, self-reflexivity has been productive of great stories forever. Nevertheless, I'm less impressed when Anita Brookner and David Lodge get rewarded for coy first lines about professors of literature and their troubled relationships to stories. Those openings are just too arch for me.

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  6. No, I don't think it's favorites, exactly; my best guess is that, say, 2 people (I wish they had published a rationale or authors or anything!) went through searching for those rather coy and self-conscious recent ones to supplement nineteenth- and early twentieth-century 'classics.' I was particularly horrified at the inclusion of the David Lodge one! But a list like this rewards gimmick at the expense of substance (or for that matter style in the more serious sense).

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  7. A lot of those quotes aren't even the best lines from those books; they just seem to be the first sentence or something close to it. But if we are compiling such a list, and it does seem to be made up of mostly opening lines, how on earth are we missing the first sentence/paragraph of Cannery Row???

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  8. I won't argue about how some of the opening lines are good, and some are not.
    But I think one point to be regarded is how some of those opening lines are no opening lines at all.
    On a quick run-through, there's of course, famously, number one. Melville's novel does NOT start with "Call me Ishmael", but with the Etymology, "Supplied by a Late Consumptive Usher to a Grammar School" which is one of the most beautiful passages in all of Melville: "The Pale Usher - threadbare in coat, heart, body, and brain; I see him now."

    Apart from that, there's Nabokov's two novels represented on that list: Lolita starts with John Ray Jr.'s Introduction, and "Pale Fire" with that of Charles Kinbote.

    All in all, to me the list seems more like "The first lines of the greatest novels" than what it pretends to be

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  9. No list really matters which omits the opening line of Lovecraft's Arthur Jermyn:

    "Life is a hideous thing."

    Wodehouse's openings are usually pretty great too. And a lot more likely to be read 100 years from now than Richard Powers or Toni Morrison.

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  10. My personal favorite is from The Risk Pool by Richard Russo: "My father, unlike so many of the men he served with, knew just what he wanted to do when the war was over." My love for it is heavily influenced by my love for the novel that follows it, of course.

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  11. My favourite of all time (excepting Dickins) is from Larry McMurtey's Lonesome Dove. "The black pigs were eating a snake."

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  12. Oops, McMurtry. Sorry for the typo, Larry.

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  17. I think she's a great writer, but this seems a bit random.
    --------------------------------------
    I haven't found the motivation to poke around the site more to try and suss what kind of organization it is, but let us know if you do... or else if I get around to it I will.

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  18. Speaking as an editor of many years standing, I have long ceased to be amazed at the number of scientists who start out their articles with that opening sentence (sometimes slightly "amusingly" amended) from Pride and Predjudice, clearly thinking they are being frightfully original. What is the most cliched opening line in literature?
    --------------------------------------
    they're so memorable that they'd probably appear with the highest frequency. Thus, if rankings are organized by consensus, they'd rise to the top of the list because they're so obvious.

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  19. Morrison overrepresented? She's only on there once I thought. Or is once too much?
    --------------------------------------
    All in all, to me the list seems more like "The first lines of the greatest novels" than what it pretends to be

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  20. Wodehouse's openings are usually pretty great too. And a lot more likely to be read 100 years from now than Richard Powers or Toni Morrison.
    --------------------------------------
    Those openings are just too arch for me.

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