Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Life (or Death) Sentence & Pronoun Abuse

Stanley Fish has a sprightly Op-Ed piece in today's NYT: Murder, I Read. (Sarah Weinman at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind annotates the entire piece--and filets Fish in the process.)
You’re at the mystery section of an airport bookstore and the loudspeaker has just announced that your flight is in the late stages of boarding. You have maybe three or four minutes to make a choice. (That is your assignment, if you choose to accept it.) How do you go about deciding?
By reading the first sentence of the book. (Well, duh!) He gives some examples of real-life losers, then offers this as a near-winner:
“Stromose was in high school when he met the boy who would someday murder his wife and son.”
Pretty good, huh? Fish goes on:
High marks for compression, information and what I call the “angle of lean.” A good first sentence knows about everything that will follow it and leans forward with great force, taking you with it. As you read this one you already want to find out (a) what was the relationship between the two in high school (b) what happened that turned a “boy” into a murderer, and (c) what sequence of events led to his murdering these particular people? The only thing wrong is that the author is as impressed with the sentence as he wants you to be; it is written with a snap and a click of self-satisfaction.
Actually, the only thing wrong is that the sentence--from T. Jefferson Parker's new STORM RUNNERS--has a glaring grammatical error. (I leave the comments about Fish's snaps and clicks to Weinman.) Did the boy later murder his own wife and son, or Stromose's? How the hell did that imprecise "his" get by Parker's editor? Or the William Morrow copy editor? Or the PW reviewer? Or Stanley Fish? Or Sarah Weinman? I know I sound like an old schoolmarm, but does no one care about good grammar and precise language anymore?

[OK, rant over.]

On the other hand, Fish makes a statement so important that it bears repeating:
A good first sentence knows about everything that will follow it and leans forward with great force, taking you with it.
Damn straight! Wannabe writers, such as some who comment on Miss Snark, kvetch that agents often don't read very far into manuscripts before rejecting them. Well, yeah. That's because if the writing is bad at the beginning--where, presumably that's where it's best--there's no reason to read any further. Jeff Kleinman made this point at the Agents' Roundtable at the VaBook Festival last Saturday.

When I read slush, I could tell if a manuscript was any good by its first paragraph. I'm sure that almost any agent or editor would say the same.


Sarah said...

Technically you're right - it's grammatically incorrect - but because (at least to me) it was clear that the opening chapters, and most of the book, was told from Stromsoe's POV and so it was Stromsoe's wife and son being murdered. So if context and intent is clear, does that trump absolute grammar? I guess the copyeditor didn't flag it...

Bella Stander said...

Context apparently trumps grammar, which I suppose is why the copy editor didn't flag the sentence (or maybe she did & was overruled). However, it doesn't stand well on its own.