Chief among this nation’s public intellectuals must be Professor Stanley Fish, teacher of English and jurisprudence, and author of many books, including Surprised by Sin and How Milton Works.
In addition to his other attributes, Fish is an avid reader of crime fiction, which makes him a saint in my opinion. Last week, in his regular “Guest Column” in the New York Times – a piece that I am told was also on NPR -- Fish spoke about how he chooses a crime novel.
Imagine, he says, you are hurrying to catch a plane and have just a few minutes to grab a novel at a bookstand. What do you use to make a choice? The back-cover copy? No, he says. “Back-cover copy is written by an advertising flack who probably hasn’t read the book.”
We’ve all been on that date, haven’t we?
Blurbs? No. Fish recalls telling a very famous mystery writer that he was correct to have praised a book. The writer said he couldn’t remember the book, might not have read it, and might have been doing a favor for his publisher. “Members of that club, it seems, pass blurbs out to each other like party favors.”
Fish says, “The only thing left – and this is sure-fire – is to read the first sentence.”
He cites a sentence he particularly liked on first reading. And the book proved just as good. “Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.” This, though Fish does not say so, is from What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George.
As it happens, mystery listserves for the last couple of weeks have been involved in a thread about what turns readers off in the beginning of a book. Four things have risen to the top of the “I don’t like it” list:
Italics. Readers say italics hurt their eyes, except in very small doses, as for a character’s interior thoughts. If several whole pages at the beginning are italicized, readers may put the book back on the shelf.
Prologues. To many people, prologues don’t seem to be a real part of the book. Several people admitted to skipping over them.
The author trying too hard. Being too cute. Too violent. Too self-conscious. Too whatever.
Flashbacks. Some readers skip over flashbacks. Since the author must have thought the content was important, this is scary.
We’ve all read good flashbacks and prologues. But the upshot of the readers’ responses is a call to caution for writers. Think about it first. And do you really need those italics?