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Archive for March, 2012

It hardly needs saying that many people do judge a book by its cover, particularly nowadays. But unless the author is well known, their book is likely to be marketed as belonging to a particular genre or category of fiction, rather than as an individual novel. As a consequence, the chances are that the cover will be very similar to lots of others in that particular genre.

So the potential reader turns to the back cover in search of recommendations. But again, unless the writer is an established name they are unlikely to attract reviews and recommendations from other well-known writers or the mainstream media.  And the blurb will often do little other than to confirm that the book fits neatly again with what is expected of the genre.

So the reader thumbs through the book to get an idea of whether they like the style of writing. Some readers even have a particular page number that they turn to and read. But however a reader chooses a book they will almost certainly read the opening line.

These are a dozen of my favourite opening lines of novels – Not only because they draw you in to reading the book, but also because they manage to give a strong flavour of what is to come. There are of course many more  – and long before Creative Writing Courses and the boom in Marketing and Promotion, the Great Writers of the past recognised the power of the opening line.

  1. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  2. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”  Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
  3. “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”
    -George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)
  4. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
  5. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
  6. “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” – Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925)
  7. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  8. “A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” – Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951)
  9. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
  10. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
  11. “All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  12. “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” – Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

The opening line of my own novel, “Avon Street” is – “Thomas Hunt left his home in the early hours of that February morning in 1850 and made his way through the maze of Avon Street alleyways.” -perhaps not up there with greats, but I hope it draws some readers in and gives them a taste of what is to come.

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“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.”

George Orwell

It sounds a little harsh, but anyone who writes will recognise at least some truth in what Orwell says. To an extent writing is vain, if only in having the belief that you can write something that is worth reading. It is certainly selfish. Writing is a totally absorbing activity. You can be sitting in a room surrounded by people you love, but when you are writing your mind is somewhere else and you are cut-off, in your own world. So why write?

Orwell  identified four reasons as to why writers write, and what determines how they write or what they write about. Again he didn’t mince his words:-

  •  “Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one…
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story…
  • Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
  • Political purpose. Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Having just had my first novel, “Avon Street” published, perhaps it’s an odd time to wonder why I write?  But at the moment I’m trying to publicise my book and wondering how far I want to go, and how much I’m willing to let my goals change, when all I really want to do is get on with the next book.  But family and friends keep asking how the book is doing, and it’s made think again about what people expect – and what I expect?

Much as I admire George Orwell, I think his list, perhaps intentionally (to make a point) ignores many other motives . Some writers, also feel a basic need to form bridges of communication with others to overcome the feeling of “separateness” that comes from being an individual human being. For others writing is a coming to terms with what has happened in the past.  For many, writing is a form of exploration, of challenging their own perceptions, of trying to empathise with others and to understand a complex world which sometimes makes little sense – and to define for themselves what it is to be a human being with a sense of consciousness.

Perhaps Orwell was too noble-minded to identify money  in his list of motivations, or perhaps times have changed, but it  cannot be ignored nowadays, though many see writing as a more spiritual quest, in search of the Muse, or God, or some higher purpose in our nature. For others it is a way of exploring thought processes and the relationship between conscious and unconscious mind. And let’s not forget the sheer sense of enjoyment that the process of writing can bring.

Other writers have their own definitions. Monica Dickens said,

“Writing is a cop-out. An excuse to live perpetually in fantasy land, where you can create, direct and watch the products of your own head. Very selfish.”

Some write, because through writing they can build new worlds, worlds in which, at least for a while, they have some sense of control. As John Fowles said,

“There are many reasons why novelists write – but they all have one thing in common: a need to create an alternative world.”

There is also the question of when are you entitled to call yourself a writer. When I started writing fiction, I honestly had no interest in being published, yet as soon as I had finished the first draft of my novel it seemed pointless simply leaving it in a drawer, so I started sending it off to publishers and agents. Slowly publication became almost an obsession, and so my goals and expectations began changing. As Lee Child asked,

“If you write a book and no one reads it, is it really a book?’

Yet if you write, you are a writer and publication is often just a matter of luck or fortuitous circumstance. As Kate Mosse said,

“There’s only one difference between published and unpublished writers and it is this – the first group see their work in print on the shelves of Waterstone’s or Tesco or online at Amazon; the second group are yet to have physical evidence of the hours, weeks, years spent fashioning words into their patterns.  You are already a writer.”

Perhaps some or all of thes motives for writing (above) are common to every writer, but the strength of their influence will be different from writer to writer and they will rarely remain the same. Orwell was right when he said,

“It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.”

Each individual writer’s motivation is complex and personal – and it changes over time as expectations change. In truth there are as many reasons for writing as there are writers – and writing will always have something new to say, or find a new way of saying it. But it seems important to remember why you started writing and what you expected then, rather than chasing new rainbows.

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In the relatively short history of the Novel many have changed the lives of individuals, but (in my opinion) few have changed the world, or at least helped shape and change Society’s attitudes and values.  These are the novels that have, for the most part stood against persecution, de-humanisation and the exploitation of the many by the few. They have perhaps helped us evolve a little and remain as relevant today as when they were written.

I have drawn up a list of 20 novels. They are largely of my own choosing though I must thank Reine and Dovegreyreader for their valuable suggestions of titles I would otherwise have missed.

 

  • “Robinson Crusoe” (1719) –  Daniel Defoe – Many books can lay claim to being the first novel and for shaping what came after, but “Robinson Crusoe” certainly popularised the form. By the end of the 19th century, no book in the history of western literature had been so widely translated or been printed in so many different versions, and the adaptations  still continue today. The novel also had a moral compass which challenged many of the commonly held values of the day.
  • “A Christmas Carol” (1843) – Charles Dickens – Collectively Dickens’ novels had an undoubted impact on Victorian society by giving faces and voices to the poor. He perhaps more than any other writer changed his world and helped shape the future. Many of his novels could be included here, but I have chosen this novella because it is here that Dickens’ overall message is expressed most succinctly, at least for me, particularly when the Ghost of Christmas Present  reveals the two children and says, – “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.
  • “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1851) –  Harriett Beecher Stowe  –  This book was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century. It increased awareness of, and help change attitudes to slavery, eventually helping to bring about the abolition of slavery.
  • “Ulysses” (1922) – James |Joyce – Probably the most definitive work of modernist fiction, not least for its use of stream of consciousness writing. It may not have changed the world, but it certainly changed the world of literature.
  •  “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (1928) – D.H. Lawrence – The novel that changed the laws of censorship. Penguin second edition, published in 1961 carried the following dedication,  “This edition is dedicated to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’ and thus made D. H. Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom.”
  • “Brave New World” (1931) – Aldous Huxley – The novel demonstrates the loss of individual identity that can come through assembly line production, indoctrination and the abuse of technological “advancement.”
  • “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1929) –  Eric Maria Remarque – One of the major themes of the novel is the difficulty of soldiers to revert to civilian life. Commenting in the preface Remarque says that  he,  “will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” The book was banned and burned by the Nazis prior to the Second World War.
  • “Testament of Youth” (1933) – Vera Brittain – Not strictly speaking a novel, but “Testament of Youth” was a biography that gave whole generations of “civilians” a new understanding of the impact of War. Up until its publication many still viewed war as a wholly heroic enterprise, without contemplating its effects on those who went through it, nor the suffering undergone by their families and loved ones.
  • “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) – John Steinbeck – The book was subject to many  public book-burnings,  but Steinbeck changed attitudes on the plight of the poor and migrants following the great depression. Steinbeck wrote, before writing the book: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this the Great Depression and its effects.”
  • “The Citadel” (1937) A.J. Cronin –  Exposed the inequity and incompetence of medical practice at the time. In the novel, Cronin advocated a free public health service in order to defeat the wiles of those doctors who he said “raised guinea-snatching and the bamboozling of patients to an art form.” It played a major role in the development of the National Health Service in the UK.
  •  “The Little Prince” (1943) Antoine de St Exupery – There are many novels which could be cited as providing guidance on a way of living or “spiritual” awareness. I chose this one because it is my favourite and because it communicates across generations and age groups.
  • “Diary of a Young Girl” (1944) – Anne Frank – Ann Frank’s Diary stands as a symbol and reminder of the effects of persecution on ordinary lives and still communicates with young readers.
  • “If This is a Man” (1948) – Primo Levi – Not just a testimony of suffering and cruelty in the concentration camps – but also a demonstration of how mankind can be dehumanised through degradation.
  • “1984″ (1949) – George Orwell –  Gave us the concepts of “Big Brother” and “Doublethink.” Revealed the dangers of Nationalism, Censorship, Surveillance, Manipulation through propaganda and alerted people to the dangers of an over-powerful state and totalitarian government.
  • “The Catcher in the Rye”  (1951) – J.D. Salinger – Adopted by generations of youngsters as the book that speaks to them and for them.  The anti-hero, Holden Caulfield, searches for a sense of belonging, and identity, in a Society in which he feels alienated.
  • “Atlas Shrugged” (1957) – Ayn Rand – This book is not to my taste, but it has to be included because it helped found and sustain the new economics, which rejects ethical altruism in favour of unfettered capitalism, and  puts the concept of self, before society. Rand termed her philosophy “Objectivism”, describing its essence as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life.”
  • “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) – Harper Lee – Deals with issues of race and class discrimination, but in a way which is almost uniquely accessible to younger and older readers alike.
  • “Catch 22” (1961) – Joseph Heller –  The novel plays with time-lines and perspectives in a very individual style and demonstrates better than many other books, the insanity of war. It also perhaps shows, that if not for their own absurdity and inefficiency mankind would have wiped themselves out years ago.
  • “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (1962) – by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – Never before had an account of Stalinist repression been openly distributed in the Soviet Union. This book also forced Western countries to acknowledge their hypocrisy in ignoring breaches of  human rights behind the “iron-curtain.”

 

  • “A Novel” (1962 to Now) – Unspecified because perhaps only time can judge which novel written in the last fifty years will have helped change the world and shape our futures?

 

 

 

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