Monday, December 7, 2009

Opening sentences: Conservative prose of the future

[Updated below.]

Item 1

Steve at No More Mister Nice Blog meditates on an ugly, ugly possibility: Jonah "Doughy Pantload" Goldberg, legacy conservative blogger and author of the incoherent-from-the-title-onward Liberal Fascism, just landed a $1 million advance to write a book whose opening sentence might be something very close to this:

One of the most important points of this column over the years -- other than my belly, my dog, fair Jessica, my need for a raise, the fact that I have the upper-body strength of an eight-year-old girl and the lung capacity of a Polish whoopee cushion -- is my aversion to cliched thinking.

Even worse, that $1 million advance isn't from Republican vanity publisher Regnery. It's from the same publishing house that gives the world The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Candide. (True, publishing is a business where, even on the best of days, the high-minded and the low-brow have to sit elbow-to-elbow at the lunch counter, but surely there's some limit to this sort of thing.)

Item 2:

Strictly speaking, this is about sentences, but not necessarily opening sentences. Slate recently marked the publication of Sarah Palin's Going Rogue (which I had, to my horror, for weeks been confusing with "Going Commando") by inviting its readers to submit sentences to its Write Like Sarah Palin Contest. The results can be found here.

Many of the finalists resort to the same formula that has overtaken the Bulwer-Lytton Contest, to its detriment, in recent years. They are over-long, studded with slightly odd but concrete references, leading up to a teeth-rattling non sequitur in the last phrase. And they don't sound much like Palin. unless every slightly-dotty run-on utterance sounds the same to you. Still there are some funny moments in which you can almost hear Palin's one-in-a-million voice. Worth a click.

Item 3:

Strictly speaking, this has nothing to do with first sentences or conservatives. (You got a problem with that?) The American Book Review has compiled their list of 100 best last lines from novels. (Fittingly, it's in pdf format--you don't make it to the last sentence of a novel without at least a little suffering.) The choices and rankings are second-guessed in the comments at Tbogg and Yglesias, among many other places.

No such list is complete if it doesn't include this:

"Yes," he said, and shivered. "Well, send her in."

I know, it's two sentences, but they bent the rules for Joyce, so they can certainly do it for Hammett. Although, as one of Tbogg's commenters suggested, ABR's list carries the whiff of literary snobbery, which likely didn't work to Hammett's advantage.

[Update: Item 4 (via Batocchio):

Moving somewhat back toward our opening theme again, here's the ABR's 100 best first lines from novels. On the whole, this list was less surprising, less delightful, and more baffling for me than their 100 last lines list, above. I suspect many these items made the list not because they were "best first lines," but rather because they were the first lines of a book someone on the nominating committee found especially memorable. Re-reading the opening line kick-started all the feelings that the book still offered up. By that criterion, my list might well begin with this:

I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning.

Make of that what you will.]


Anonymous said...

I've always been partial to "It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the phrase, 'as pretty as an airport.'"

Nothstine said...

Excellent point. Dirk Gently novels seem better thought-out at the beginning than at the end. DNA might have ended them with great last sentences, but by then you're confused by the plot you can hardly be bothered to notice.


Chuck Butcher said...

Ah Hammet. Under appreciated and ignored by literary snobbery.

Nothstine said...

Hey, Chuck--

If you enjoy Hammett [have we talked about that before?], I recommend Gumshoe: Reflections in a Private Eye, by philosophy professor and Hammett scholar Josiah Thompson, about his [Thompson's] time apprenticing as a private detective.