What do you think of the first page of my novel?

Some incorrigible Internet wag went ahead and posted the first page of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest on Yahoo Answers under the title, “First Page of my book. What do you think?”

(The whole post has since been deleted, so here is a scan of the first page of Infinite Jest, in case you don’t have your own dog-eared copy right there next to your loose-leaf English Breakfast and cranberry scone.)

You know what comes next, of course. Helpful readers began to chime in, offering their writing advice on a novel that Time magazine named as one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923:

You know your story needs more work, so you don’t need anyone to tell you what you already know.

No discernible voice/tone in this writing. Rambling descriptions. I, frankly, do not care where each and every person is seated. I don’t care what shoe you’re wearing. If you take out all the unnecessary details, you’d be left with about seven words.

Honestly, my first thought was, “There are so dang many HYPHENS!” and I couldn’t concentrate until I didn’t see any more.
Even then, though, I couldn’t keep my thoughts on the chapter. It seems to me like the writing is so formal that it’s just a tad bit boring. Maybe a little less description could be nice.

I recommend checking out “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B White… that should help to clear a few things up.

But I swear this is not a point-and-laugh post about them dumb vulgarians who can’t recognize friggin’ genius when it’s footnoted right in their laps, because, hey, it’s not like there’s not a lot to criticize about Infinite Jest in general and that scene in particular — Wallace opens the novel with a long, excruciatingly detailed scene of Hal meeting with three Deans (“– of Admissions, Academic Affairs, Athletic Affairs. I do not know which face belongs to whom.”) in which nothing much happens for several pages.

And besides, one commenter wrote this:

this is bloody brilliant. I actually want to send you 30 bucks right now to read the rest lol 😀

Another managed to nail what is perhaps the defining characteristic of Wallace’s writing style, though she presented it as a negative:

This needs some serious work… your writing is not formal, as Danielle thought… it is written in informal language that imitates the qualities commonly believed to be characteristic of formal language.

“. . . written in informal language that imitates the qualities commonly believed to be characteristic of formal language.” That’s David Foster Wallace in a nutshell.

I did this once at a fiction workshop — we were supposed to bring in openings to our short stories (uncredited) so the group could critique them without personality getting involved. I typed out the opening of Ray Carver’s short story “Cathedral”:

This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died. So he was visiting the dead wife’s relatives in Connecticut. He called my wife from his in-law’s. Arrangements were made. He would come by train, a five-hour trip, and my wife would meet him at the station. She hadn’t seen him since she worked for him one summer in Seattle ten years ago. But she and the blind man had kept in touch. They made tapes and mailed them back and forth. I wasn’t enthusiastic about his visit. He was no one I knew. And his being blind bothered me. My idea of blindness came from the movies. In the movies, the blind moved slowly and never laughed. Sometimes they were led by seeing-eye dogs. A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to.

The reaction was even worse than with Wallace — workshop participants offered endless, heartfelt advice to spice up the language and to get rid of all the repetition, maybe give the narrator more personality (could he have, like, a southern twang?)

I swear I didn’t do this as a gotcha (at least not entirely), but more to prove a point, which is that a. most advice writers receive about their own work is complete shit and actively counter-productive (big surprise, I know), and b. the act of putting writing between the covers of a book gives it an instant imprimatur for most readers (myself included). Hand out a story that you say you wrote last night and people will unload on your defenseless little story. But tell them the story is ranked as one of the best short stories of decade, and they clam up or scratch their heads, assuming any problems they have with the writing lie with them.

A few weeks before, in that same public fiction workshop, I had encountered a piece of writing I considered nothing short of brilliant. I have done my time in writing workshops, and the makeup of this particular workshop was no different than any other — a few terrible scribblers with tin ears and cliched ideas, a big group of competent enough writers (I was in this group), and a few who clearly had what it takes and who lacked only experience and technique. But this woman was different. She wasn’t a regular (this was a weekly fiction workshop open to the public, but was dominated by an ever shifting but core group of dedicated writers), and this was the first (and only, it turned out) piece she ever submitted. It was the first two chapters of a novel, as I recall.

It was a challenging piece of writing to be sure, filled with elaborate word play and puns, ornate language, and long, architecturally unsound sentences. It’s plot was convoluted where it wasn’t nonexistent. One long section that I can still vividly recall more than 15 years later depicted the coming of dawn as winged angels carrying the sunbeams down to earth — it was like Homer crossed with a Raphael painting and doused in blotter. The writer it most reminded me of was Nabokov.

The group hated it. It was overwritten, confusing, weird. “I gave up halfway through,” someone confessed. Someone else only made it through three pages. It went on and on. And just be clear, I don’t think that everyone in the group needed to love it, or even like it. But to fail to recognize that — whatever one’s personal taste — this writing had a vital spark that was worlds apart from the warmed over detective stories and derivative science fiction we read in that room every other week seemed to me criminal. Afterward, I went up to her and told her that she had to forget everything she’d just heard for the last hour. They were wrong. Simple as that. She had to keep writing, regardless of the response she got, because eventually her work would get into the right hands. Maybe she already knew that, but I felt I had to say it. I have no idea if she ever did finish that book, because she never came back to that workshop.

I took that as a very good sign.

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2 Responses to What do you think of the first page of my novel?

  1. Lovely post, my darling.

  2. pt dismal says:

    i second that, twinkly. i mean the darling part.

    no, really, serious and sane reflections on writing, how hard it is, and how much doing it well matters…..i thought this blog was supposed to be funny…..

    ptd

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