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Thursday, September 21, 2017

What Makes Great Literature?

I have worked in broadcasting for 40 years in different cities, in varied genres, and I think I know what makes great radio. It's relevant, pertinent, compelling, authentic content. It can be delivered and presented in many ways, but the test is how it resonates with the listener—is it worthwhile and memorable. This I know. 

But what about literature? What makes great literature?


I remember a New York Times article that tried to answer that question. It listed several aspects that contribute to a great book: It's a good read; It's quotable; It's memorable; It touches people. Those seem rather pedestrian to me.

In a recent interview, literary rock star Karl Ove Knausgaard said good books had as the main attribute an element of "resistance." Bad books, he said, one could "glide through like a knife through butter." That cliche surely wouldn't show up in a "good" book. But, nonetheless. He suggested that literary rebellion is superior to familiarity. That may be part of it. But is it that simple?



How about these attributes: The high quality of language; The complexity of theme; The element of universality; It's re-readable. Pretty good. But the truth is, great literature is hard to define. 

If this is true, then how are the big literary awards chosen?  Why does a book get a Pulitzer, a Man Booker? How is a Nobel chosen? What are the criteria?

A blog post a few years ago by author and academic Anne Trubek was critical of the awards. She asked why are the elements of what makes a great piece of literature not clearly explained? Trubek recalled a conversation with a board member of the National Book Critics Circle about the organization's annual fiction award and why a certain work was not chosen. 

The reason? 

Characters. 

The characters, at least one, must be highly memorable. In this particular book, they were not. This may be the ultimate criterion. Fiction, memoir, creative nonfiction—it doesn't matter. Characters are key. Are they unforgettable? Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird. Dean Moriarty in On the Road. Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Charlotte in Charlotte's Web. Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking.


It might be silly to think that one element of a book holds such weight. But when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, characters are the ultimate test of what makes great literature.


Monday, September 11, 2017

The Power of the First Sentence

I've been thinking a good deal about the first sentence. It's the one writers belabor. It's the starting block, the firing of the starter's gun, the beginning of everything. Sometimes it's perfect at first blush. Sometimes it's tweaked once, twice, a million times. It carries weight, but maybe more than it should. Still, it is the first ingredient of our story's recipe and it must be...just...right.  



Author Joyce Carol Oates thought a great deal about first sentences. "The first sentence can't be written until the final sentence is written," she said. That may or may not be true, but knowing where you're going after writing that first line is critical.

What are your favorite first sentences? Share in the comments below. 

Here are some of the famous ones...

"Call me Ishmael." — Herman Melville, Moby Dick.

"Maman (Mother) died today." —Albert Camus, The Stranger.

"He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days without taking a fish." — Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea.

"Last night at 3:00am President Kennedy had been killed." — Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke.

"For the heart, life is simple: it beats for as long as it can." — Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book I

"The sun shone, having no alternative." — Samuel Beckett, Murphy.

"We were somewhere on the edge of the desert when the drugs started to take hold." — Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 

It can also be for song lyrics.

"So, we already wrecked the rental car." — First line from The Decemberists, "Mistral." 

And the most famous...

"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. 


"First sentences are doors to worlds." — Ursula K. Le Guin


My recently published memoir, October Song, starts like this: "It was late in the fading light of the first day of the long trip, somewhere on the Tri-State Expressway about forty miles southwest of Chicago."

I'm working on a manuscript about the nature of home. A few tweaks remain. But I think I'm staying with the first sentence. 

"My boyhood home was on a hill, a Cape Cod in Western Pennsylvania near a forest of wild cherry and locust trees." — David W. Berner, The Consequence of Stars

And what about you? Other writers? I asked. 

"Anastasis Manoulakis loved cats." — Phillip Duke, The Village. 

"Dawn crept in like a ninja in feety pajamas." — Dave Kurman, Pavlov's Dog

"Crap—she's up, the living room lights are on at 2:30 a.m." — Helen Donovan, You Never Know.

"For the record, I am completely against having ice picks shoved into my eyes in order to scramble my brain." — Sue Rovens, In a Corner Darkly: Volume 2

"You see her posters on telephone poles all over town." — Alvarado O'Brien, The Missing Girl.

"Dan smiles at my wife again." — Nigel Cooper, The Pursuit of Ordinary.

"I was getting used to being ignored." — Bruce Wilkerson, A Glance at My Other. 

"Lightning slashed across the storm-swept sky." — Ashley Ledigo, Emajen (Children's literature)

"I don't quite know how to put this." — Stuart Walton, Give Us This Day.

"My Australian girlfriend took a luscious lick of her ice-cream and said, 'Why is that man wearing gloves on the hottest day of the year?' — Peter Bartram, Murder in the Morning Edition.

"Tuck fought the growing urge to vomit." — Danielle E. Shipley, The Legend of Allyn-a-Dale.

"There's a graveyard visible from his window, and it grows a little bigger every day." — Steve Conoboy, A Graveyard Visible.

"On the second Monday of September, Judy Talton put on the new jeans she'd run through three washing cycles and the fatigue jacket she'd found at the Salvation Army resale shop, went to the Student Union and, for the first time, took a seat on the Freak side of the Tune Room." — Rita Dragonette, The Fourteenth of September.

"I'm not psychic." — Steve Bellinger, Edge of Perception.

"I refuse to let my story end with an arranged marriage." — Kim Schultz, Three Days in Damascus.

"He was running as fast as he could through the clearing towards the woods." — Greg Kopp, The Journey of Delphos: Kopp Chronicles. 

"I have come to learn that you mortals like to blame animals for your worst indiscretions as if human reason is the bridesmaid of infallibility." — David Wozniak, An Obliquity.

"Pulliam folded back the sheet and set his bare feet on the hardwood floor." — Floyd Sullivan, Called Out.

"Moods are the weather of the soul." — James Hartley, Cold Fire, Shakespeare's Moon Act II.

"The night sighed and Bethany felt the chilled touch of her dead mother's hands on her shoulders." — Dave Rank, A Godawful Thing.

"Pardesh, look: it's a Humphrey Bogart." — Bull Garlington, The African Queens.

"Mike and I were standing in front of the Music Box Theater on Southport Street in Chicago, looking at posters of the Dirty Dozen." — Roger Prosise, Housing Projects, Mansions, and Schools: An Educator's Odyssey. 

"My Da's uniform hangs in the closet, squeezed in between scratchy wool coats and my Ma's ratty fur,  but my Da went straight to the hospital after the Great War, and never came home." — Bibi Belford, Crossing the Line

Don't you love these? Do you have favorites not mentioned here? Bring them on.