• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Then You Should Have Put a Ring On It


One more thing from that stroll down memory lane. One young man asked me how much I read of a manuscript before I reject it.  I told the students that after all these years, I pretty much know by the first paragraph. The young man said Ooof. I thought I was demonstrating my confidence as a reader gained over many years, but of course from their vantage point I had just become the rim greaper.

Then he asked what I look for in a first paragraph to keep me reading. Baby teeth, silver charms, brass buckles, nameless women, faceless men. I want that thing called language, just one startling simile. Or VOICE. Or tap shoes, orthodontia, a character named Buck, or Puck, or Peanut, or Slim. I want I want I want to see five rats walking down the street, I want you to bring me the tattoo of Lena Dunham, Johnny Carson’s cravat, the last great kiss, or good kiss, or mediocre kiss or dry mouth or vermouth. I want a writer who is in so control so I can relax.

How much of a book do you read before you quit?

10 Responses

  1. A lot more. But, then again, I’m not you. I remember the first time I read Crime and Punishment; it was a required reading assignment. I thought I was going to die at fifty pages in. And then, something happened: I was hooked. The next time I read it, I couldn’t figure out what took me fifty pages.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Anymore, first sentence. There is so much to read there is no need to be bored. It’s an adventure. And a satisfying one thanks to those weird creatures and their weird need to tell stories, and their even weirder need to talk about it which in itself is another story. You just can’t go wrong anymore, but you sure as shit don’t need to eat or read shit. excuse my language. Love you!

  3. Three or four books and a mag or two at the same time provide alternatives. Draggy gets benched a time or two, then goes to the shelves. Anonymous is correct.

  4. First few sentences, looking for that mojo. Or something. I also scratch an itch when I buy books I’ve never heard of, haven’t read reviews of and don’t know much about except for the descriptive burp blurb on Amazon or because something about it catches my eye on a book shelf. It calls to me. Hey, You!, that sort of thing.

    These turn out to be some of my favorite books. Case in point is one I’m going to give to a friend. Snow Hunters, by Paul Yoon. Nice title, eloquent and beautiful story. I knew this after the first page.

  5. Damn. Right on the money. This essay ought to be passed out on opening day in every MFA literary program in the country.

    You’ve got a good dozen years of head pounding the wall cut right there in those few words, just like a writer needs to demonstrate.

    Beautiful. Just, elegant.

  6. “How much of a book do you read before you quit?”

    It depends. If it’s a non-fiction work that I’m reading because it has, or I think it has, some information I want, I’m in for the whole thing. If it’s a recognized classic that I’m reading because it’s a recognized classic and I think I should read it, I’m usually in for the whole thing — fact or fiction, prose or poetry, if it’s a recognized classic, it’s pretty much already got a ticket to ride on my reading train.

    If it’s a novel, short-story collection, or poetry collection, particularly if it’s modernist or post-modernist, the bar is set higher. Much higher. The writer has to be able to take me past the first page without fucking up, and there are few who can do that. For writers who can do that, who can get me past the first page, I’m almost always in for the whole thing. Get me in bed, and we’ll fuck — just, good luck getting me in bed.

    So, what do I mean by a writer fucking up? (And by the by, isn’t fuck a great word? Don’t fuck up and we’ll fuck, fucker.) It’s what you said, Betsy — it’s in the language. How does the writer use it? Can the writer use it? Is the writer aware of the language as a musical instrument that needs to be played? Yes? Good — but can the writer play more than Chopsticks? Does the writer know more than three chords? Does the writer have a touch for the harmonies and the overtones? This thing that this writer wants me to read, this written artifact, is this going to be a pop tune or a symphony, rhythm-and-blues or opera? And whatever it is that it’s going to be, is it going to be true to itself, internally consistent in some seamless fashion? Or if the seams are there, are they the sorts that readers are supposed to see? Is their perceptible presence intentional?

    Okay, that’s all well and good, all that stuff about the musicality of the language and its harmonious forms — can I be more concrete, give more practical examples? Not easily. For one, I don’t want to specifically diss any writers, even if I don’t identify them by name, by quoting from their work here. For another, part of how this hypercriticality works — and it’s a muchly mixed blessing, as I am not able to read for the enjoyment of the story the way I could when I was younger and less experienced, because now, for me, the language gets in the way — part of how it works — a large part, in fact — is that, if you read enough, and you read for how skillfully the writer uses language, you just get an ear for it — you get to where you can hear the false notes that are not the mistakes from which jazz might be made.

    I’m not intending to mix metaphors, with all this mixing I’m doing between concepts of language and concepts of music. The two are closer than writers sometimes realize.

    The kinds of disharmonies, or false notes, or mis-steps, or mistakes that will cause me to set a piece aside before the end of the first page include:

    1) the writer breaks the flow of the narrative, even just a tiny bit, to insert some bit of information (adjective, adverb, clause) of the sort the writer learned in the workshop needs to go in; this happens frequently in contemporary American fiction, and the writer is wrong; too bad;

    2) the writer strains for effect; this also happens frequently in contemporary American fiction, and to some extent in poetry, and is also a lesson picked up in the workshop; it is part of the misplaced emphasis on voice (“find your voice!”) taught to neophyte writers in the hundreds of writing programs that have spread through America’s institutions of higher education much as black mold will spread through damp drywall; this search for voice convincing writers who have nothing to say that they should find some interesting way to say it, thereby reinforcing the lesson that a pretty but empty bag is still just a pretty empty bag;

    3) related to #2 above, the writer does not know how to create an effective metaphor, and has not learned that it is better to have no metaphor than to have a metaphor that does not work; and further, that language is by nature metaphorical;

    4) the writer does not know how to punctuate (commas and hyphens, though small marks, have large roles to play); and

    5) the writer thinks, or doesn’t think, to deploy some fact, but doesn’t get the fact straight.

    Now that I’ve pretty much shat on contemporary American literature — and there is no mistake I’ve included above that I haven’t committed myself — before I go, I’d like to mention two writers whose work I’ve recently come to know, and who’ve impressed the hell out of me. One is a poet named Shaindel Beers, who knocks it out of the park every time she goes up to bat. You can Google her and learn more. The other is a writer named Megan Tabaque. She’s a grad student in playwrighting, which for some reason is nowadays often referred to as playwriting, but her play is not the thing — her first published short story is “A Skating Team Competes,” and is available online in Shirley Magazine’s fifth issue. It’s not a perfect short story, but it’s pretty damn close. It shows how you can do some of those things I bitched about above, and if you do them well, you can avoid their being mistakes, and write a piece that burns up the page.

  7. If I can stop reading, I do. Whether on the first page or one page from the end, I’ll bail the moment I lose interest or the writing loses rhythm. So fickle.

  8. Thanks, Betsy! Saving this for myself and my authors (one of whom I sent your way a few weeks back). It’s astonishing how many writers don’t understand how crucial those first few pages are.

  9. I need to feel hooked by the first page of a novel or by flipping through a nonfiction book. I don’t want to work too hard to understand who is speaking, what is happening, what the emotional tone is..I don’t want the writing to be so literary that I assume the story will be boring but beautifully described. Also,. if the writer is setting a scene that is TOO chaotic, that pulls me out of my willingness to suspend disbelief because I feel I am being commanded to pay attention

  10. oh I just forgot something: If I had followed your criteria for rejecting a manuscript, I would never have finished The Life of Pi! I struggled to find interest in the first fourth..until the tiger landed in the boat and I was hooked. I am glad I kept reading!

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