100 Best First Lines in Novels
The following is the second excerpt from my Critical Paper I compiled as part of my requirements for my MFA from Antioch University of Los Angeles. It follows the two sections I posted on Monday.
GET A LOAD OF THESE: THE 100 BEST LINES IN NOVELS
In January of 2006, Charles B. Harris, publisher of American Book Review, “contacted several people ‘in the field’ (reviewers, critics, literature professors, a handful of writers) and a few non-specialist readers (the famous ‘general reader’) and asked them to help [him] construct a list of nominated first lines [of novels],” and then had them vote on the “top” 100 (Harris 3). Of course, like all lists, theirs is hotly debated. One thing is for sure; it’s a fantastic starting point for discussion and analysis. It is, perhaps, the most referred to list on the topic, and while the references are not always complimentary, they at least acknowledge the process of selection. Its existence alone is enough to spark debate and help call attention to the importance of first lines.
Harris concedes that, “‘Best lists’ are often criticized as subjective, arbitrary, and hierarchical. ABR freely admits that our list is all of these things,” (Harris 3). Still, the number of “jurors” they included, and the fields from which they gathered the lines, ensures a less subjective list than, oh, say, “Aaron Gansky’s Top Ten Best Opening Lines in Fiction.” Granted, not every editor, not every writer, not every reader could be included. And for every “juror” that voted, three could conceivably be found to disagree. Such is the nature of the beast. Regardless, because no exhaustive list could be assembled, this would seem to be a strong place to start.
There were no specific guidelines drawn up, no rules given to the jurors. Instead, American Book Review hoped to learn from the assembled list—to take the data, analyze it, and find specific trends. Included with the lines was feedback from various of the “jurors” who were asked to nominate and vote on the lines in regards to the criteria they used to select their lines. The answers were as sporadic as the list itself. Perhaps Thomas Grimes put it best when he said, “Mystery and music, as well as a sense of authority, an attitude toward the world, are, to me, the hallmarks of the greatest first lines in the history of novels,” (Harris 7). As beautiful as this is, it is problematic. While many of us can agree on what “mystery” is, and the attitude toward the world (what we’d call tone), music is still a matter of ear. I like rock and roll, but my wife has still caught me singing along to Tim McGraw (a fact I’ll vehemently deny for purposes outside this paper). Others swear by rhythm and blues. Still some prefer jazz. Isn’t this roughly asking if Hendrix is better than Pavarotti? Maybe—but either way, we can still critique the degree to which they execute the music in their particular genres.
The advantage to looking at this list is the sheer number of lines. We may not like every line on it, but we’ll like a few, at least. And when we look at those few, we can begin to analyze what makes them ring for us, what makes them memorable and unique. Most of all, we can see what qualities, specifically, best draw us in to the world the authors have crafted for us.
It’d be presumptuous and narcissistic to think that’d I’d be able to delineate a list of rigid rules. Instead, based on the lines from the American Book Review’s list (and a couple others), I’ll attempt to demystify the ways to craft a memorable and enduring first sentence.
SIZE MATTERS: NOVELS V. SHORT STORIES
Beginning novelists, especially those who’ve only worked in short fiction, sometimes think that, because a novel is longer, it allows for a slower pace. They may feel that they’ve 350 pages to fill, and that they need to take the same amount of material as a short story and expand it, so the first line isn’t as important in a novel as it is in a short story.
While it’s true that short fiction seems more demanding in this way, it doesn’t mean that the novel isn’t. Both novels and short fiction should set up an aspect of the fictive world that is enticing and arresting to the reader.
Because short stories are shorter, they typically focus on fewer events and characters. Therefore, the first line usually introduces the protagonist, the setting, or the conflict, whichever seems to be of the most important to the story at the outset.
A novel’s first line may focus on any of the above as well, but has a little more leeway. Because novels are longer works, usually with larger casts of characters and additional conflicts, the novelist can choose any of these to lead with. There is no rule that insists that the central conflict must be the first thing introduced. Or, for that matter, that the most interesting character should be the first person the reader “meets.”
The examples that immediately come to mind are Melville’s Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael” and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since” (100BestLines.asp, 1 64). Both of these begin by establishing the narrator, but some may argue that they are not the focal points of the novel. Ishmael chronicles the revengeful Captain Ahab’s efforts to destroy a white whale. Nick Carraway records the enigmatic Jay Gatsby, for whom the book is named. Both narrators are the first characters introduced, but neither Ahab nor Gatsby appear in the first sentences. Short fiction can do something like this, but often doesn’t, as it has at its heart a more devoted focus to few characters, events, and conflicts.
For the purposes of this paper, we’ll focus on the novel form—not because short stories are of lesser literary quality, but for the sake of consistency and possibilities.