Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Novel That Announces Itself

Over the past couple of weeks, our daily newspaper has been publishing short excerpts from a range of novels and nonfiction books. I'm not entirely sure that this has done some of the novelists a service. Yes, it's good to be noticed, but if you compare the experience for readers to something like picking up a book in a shop and reading the first couple of pages, I haven't seen one novel yet that I'd even borrow from the library, let alone buy.

But the exercise did highlight something for me about what I don't like to read. The novel that announces itself, importantly and somewhat pompously (to me) in the first couple of paragraphs. Like this:
Michael is sitting with Madeleine in the lounge room of her flat. There is a guitar on the floor. Everywhere, Michael imagines, in all the houses, on all the floors, there are guitars. The guitar and the decade go together. Once, it was the Age of the Piano. Pianos, he imagines, marked the leisurely passing of time in a more leisurely age than this.*
Zzzzz. I know there are some of you out there who will have no problem with this as an opening. You'll be intrigued to know who Michael is, why he is imagining these things. Not me. But I think my big complaint about this is the "announcing" tone of voice, that says, "Look at me, I'm thoughtful and deep and literary. And besides, I'm in first person."

How about this one?
This story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse. A small mouse. The last mouse born to his parents and the only one of his litter to be born alive.
"Where are my babies?" said the exhausted mother when the ordeal was through. "Show to me my babies."
The father mouse held the one small mouse up high. "There is only this one," he said. "The others are dead."**
This is a story that definitely and deliberately announces itself. The storytelling tone is part of the voice and style, and I've read articles where the author says the tone was how she chose to tell the story. Mind you, there was some criticism of it, with comments that said it sounded too old-fashioned.

Tone is something that is not much discussed in fiction writing. We tend to talk about voice, which can be confusing. Whose voice? The voice of the main character? The voice of the author? The voice of the story or narrator? What voice do you get when you use third person omniscient? Will it always be a narrator's voice? Take a look at Hemingway sometime. How would you describe the voice in "Hills Like White Elephants"? I'm not sure there is one. But I could certainly describe the tone, how it sounds to me. Passionately dispassionate! So much emotion, kept rigidly at arms length. But I'm afraid, to me, my first excerpt above sounds like "Look at me, look at me!" writing. Feel free to disagree!
* The Time We Have Taken by Steven Carroll (and yes, I know it won the Miles Franklin)
** The Tale of Despereaux by Kate Dicamillo


Tracey said...

For me, one of the things the opening should do is establish tone, so the first would lead me to believe it's a literary novel, and we're going to have these digressions all the way through, ie don't expect a fast read. Okay, if I'm in the mood for it, but I won't touch it if I'm not, if I'm after something that's going to sweep me up in the drama. And lit novel -- Miles Franklin -- no big surprises there.

The second tells me to expect authorial intrusion all the way through, which I'm not a great fan of because it means I can't settle into the novel in the same way. It reminds me that I'm not one of the characters, which is usually what I imagine when I'm reading, but that I am reading a work that someone else has constructed, and I'd better not forget it. As I've said, not a big fan, but even worse for me is the book that uses authorial intrusion without setting it up in the beginning, so that a few chapters in I'm immersed and feeling like part of the plot, and then the author intrudes and rips me out of the story. It may be a second-person address, or something more self-conscious, but at that point I feel like throwing the book against the wall. So I'd rather know up front, but then would tend not to read it anyway!

(I must say "Show to me my babies" sounds like she's channelling the colonel in House of sand and fog.)

Maniac Scribbler said...

The only thing that piques my attention in the first one is...what decade? And what decade would guitars be tied to (maybe I'm dating myself, but whatever. haha)?

ManiacScribbler =^..^=

Sherryl said...

Tracey, it's funny but once you get into Despereaux, you don't notice the storytelling voice. It's all very immediate and not distant, as can happen with that style.
And the mouse mother is French, which is revealed in the next sentence, I think.

Sherryl said...

Maniac Scribbler - the book is the third in a trilogy, and I think it's set in the 60s. The decade of sitting around with a joint, playing the guitar and exchanging flowers perhaps?

Kristi Holl said...

Tracey's points above say it all for me. I want the opening scene to be the tone of the story so I know what to expect. Sometimes I'm in the mood for really slow, long, involved sentences (but with humor), so it's Jane Austen for me. (Especially after a stressful day.) Other times I want something else entirely. I don't like author intrusion either--that's the "look at me!" thing that I find irritating. But I loved Despereaux, probably because I AM old-fashioned. Loved the movie too. Lots more meat than the average kid cartoon these days. But all the "stream of consciousness" MG books I've started lately (and not finished) have left me cold.
Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid blog

Sherryl said...

Kristi - maybe that's exactly why we stand in bookstores, reading the first couple of pages. Do we like the sound of what the book is offering us? And by sound, I mean tone, voice, story promise, character ... If you like literary fiction, I guess you also add use of language. I'm learning to scan the library books I borrow at the moment. Too much white space and it's going to be an easy read, which I'm not in the mood for right now.