Monday, April 02, 2007


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?


Sara N Paretsky said...

Barb, Thanks for reporting the Fish column. I agree with much of it, especially the italics, which are a publisher decision that I find hard to combat--this post will accompany my response to editorial comments on my next book!

I read the opening sentence and a paragraph in the middle of the book to see if the writing holds up. However, I also read the plot summary on the back. If it's a serial killer or a book that "brings new meaning to the phrase 'police brutality'," as one blurb put it, I know it's not for me. What do other people look for, I wonder?

Libby Hellmann said...

I read the first page for voice, and I also skip to the middle of the book to see if the writing is there. Prologues don't bother me...nor do italics... I do look at blurbs, though, and -- having done a fair amount myself -- will try to "read between the lines." And I read the summary of the plot on the jacket or back.

Maryann Mercer said...

I usually open the book at random and read a paragraph or two. If it intrigues me, then I read the back cover and the front flap. The overuse of blood and gore as plot devices helps me put down a book fast. Unless someone has recommended the book, the jacket copy and that random paragraph are the two things that help make the sale.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Maybe I'm some kind of freak. I like italics. When I seem them in print, I get the impression that the author is purposely emphasizing those particular lines, so I'd better pay attention. And I do. *Shrugs* at other short-attention-span readers.

Sean Chercover said...

I read the first 'graph, and if the voice is promising, I continue reading the first page or two. I also flip to a few random pages in the middle, and look to see if the voice is holding up. I usually also read a bit of the jacket copy, to at least get the set-up of the story.

I admit that Prologues bug the hell out of me. I like italics sprinkled about, but not for pages at a time.

And I'd be lying if I said I don't ever look at the blurbs. I do.

Joy Arnett said...

I agree wholeheartedly with you! If the first sentence doesn't grab me then I pick up another book and continue reading first sentences until I am "caught". Funny, the book I am currently reading is the book you mentioned by Elizabeth George. What did it? The first sentence made me want to know how this child could wind up shooting someone. I can't put this book down. I am thoroughly caught up in this marvelous story!