As spring slides into summer San Francisco and I are both in that betwixt and between place – windy, warm, foggy, radiant. I am not sure what to write about this month, so I am turning to the ever generous, ever reliable George Saunders again.
His radical preference exercise was a delight. He invited his Story Club readers to randomly pick four stories at random and quickly read the first paragraphs of those stories. Then, viscerally, without analysis, he asked us to rate those first paragraphs from best to worst.
I picked up four books and chose four stories:
- Grace Paley’s Faith in a Tree, from The Collected Stories
- Angela Carter’s The Tiger’s Bride from The Bloody Chamber
- J.D. Salinger’s For Esme with Love and Squalor from Nine Stories
- Adam Johnson’s George Orwell was a Friend of Mine from Fortune Smiles
Here are the first paragraphs from those four stories:
“My father lost me to The Beast at cards.” (Angela)
“Just recently, by air mail, I received an invitation to a wedding that will take place in England on April 18th. It happens to be a wedding I’d give a lot to be able to get to, and when the invitation first arrived, I thought it might just be possible for me to make the trip abroad, by plane, expenses be hanged. However, I’ve since discussed the matter rather extensively with my wife, a breathtakingly levelheaded girl, and we’ve decided against it–for one thing, I’d completely forgotten that my mother-in-law is looking forward to spending the last two weeks in April with us. I really don’t get to see Mother Grencher terribly often, and she’s not getting any younger. She’s fifty-eight. (As she’d be the first to admit.)” (J.D.)
“Just when I most needed important conversation, a sniff of the man-wide world, that is, at least one brainy companion who could translate my friendly language into his tongue of undying carnal love, I was forced to lounge in our neighborhood park, surrounded by children.” (Grace)
“In the morning, Prinz leaps onto the bed and stands on my chest, the handle of his leash in my mouth. For a little dog, he has large, wet eyes. I can smell his breath – wurst – and I realize I must have left a link of sausage on the cutting board. Though Prinz is capable of obedience, he succumbs to criminal tendencies. I am no longer a prison warden – I retired after the Wall fell – but I can tell a subversive personality when I see one. And it’s the charming ones you have to look out for.” (Adam)
My gut preferences were:
FAVORITE: Grace – for the charm, her language “forced to lounge”, the “man-wide world”, “tongue of undying carnal love” all in a neighborhood park surrounded by children. A woman’s world encapsulated with a wit and depth that’s delicious.
CLOSE SECOND: Angela – for the sheer power embedded in her one sentence paragraph. The stakes are vivid and immediate. The three characters are summarized in one sentence – “My father” “me” “The Beast” (whose name is in initial caps). I am mesmerized by this sentence and must read more immediately.
DISTANT THIRD: Adam – for a pretty dumb reason – I don’t like dog breath. Yuck. Also I saw The Lives of Others, which was a brilliant movie. Would this story be different enough to merit my attention? Not sure.
LAGGARD: J.D. – I sort of cheated here. I didn’t choose For Esme with Love and Squalor at random. It may have been my favorite story in college. But J.D.’s first paragraph is a ramble. It doesn’t tell us what the story is about. And my grown up eyes find “level-headed girl” an unforgivable phrase. So, J.D., 19-year-old me loved everything about this story. But 59-year-old me, not so much.
What did I learn about myself as a reader (and as a writer) from this exercise? I saw that I am compelled by discovery. I want to uncover truths. About plot – especially when plot drives character and values. But even more I want to explore the truths about being alive – especially as a woman.
Thank you George for giving us such an interesting way to discover ourselves as readers and writers!