December 15th, 2010 / 3:58 am

First Sentences or Paragraphs #4: Norton Anthology of Short Fiction A-G Edition

[series note: This post is the fourth of five, in a week-long series examining  first sentences or paragraphs. It’s not my intention to be prescriptive about what kinds of first sentences writers ought to be writing. Instead, I hope to simply take a look at five sets of first sentences for the purpose of thinking about how they introduce the reader to the story or novel to which they belong. I plan to post them without commentary, as one might post a photograph or painting, and open up the comment threads to your observations as readers. Some questions that interest me and might interest you include: 1. How is the first sentence (or paragraph — I’ll include some of those, too, since some first sentences require the next few sentences to even be available for this kind of analysis) interesting or not interesting on grounds of language? 2. Does the first sentence introduce any particular (or general feeling of) trouble or conflict or dissonance or tension into the story that makes the reader want to keep reading? 3. Does the first sentence do anything to immerse the reader in the donnee, the ground rules, the world of the story, those orienting questions such as who speaks, when and where are we in space and time, etc.? 4. Since the first sentence, in the wild, doesn’t exist in the contextless manner in which I’ve presented these, in what kinds of ways does examining them like this create false ideas about the uses and functions of first sentences? What kinds of things ought first sentences be doing? What kinds of things do first sentences not do often enough? (It seems likely to me that you will have competing ideas about first sentences. Please offer them here. Every idea or observation gets our good attention.) The sentence/paragraph sets we’ve been or will be observing: 1. first sentences from Mary Miller’s Big World; 2. first sentences from physically large novels; 3. the first sentences from every book written by Philip Roth; 4. first sentences from the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction; 5. first sentences from Best European Fiction 2010.]

“The slaughter hasn’t started yet.”

– Lee K. Abbott, “One of Star Wars, One of Doom”

“That was the year Hunca Bubba changed his name.”

– Toni Cade Bambara, “Gorilla, My Love”

“What he first noticed about Detroit and therefore America was the smell.”

– Charles Baxter, “The Disappeared”

“Alberto Perera, librarian, granted no credibility to police profiles of dangerous persons.”

– Gina Berriault, “Who Is It Can Tell Me Who I Am?”

“A man stood upon a railroad bridge in Northern Alabama, looking down into swift waters twenty feet below.”

– Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurence at Owl Creek Bridge”

“The visible work left by this novelist is easily and briefly enumerated.”

Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote

“This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.”

– Raymond Carver, “Cathedral”

“I received one morning a letter, written in pale ink on glassy, blue-lined notebook paper, and bearing the postmark of a little Nebraska village.”

– Willa Cather, “A Wagner Matinee”

“I seem sixty and married, but these efforts are due to my condition and sufferings, for I am a bachelor, and only forty-one.”

– Mark Twain, “The Invalid’s Story”

“None of them knew the color of the sky.”

– Stephen Crane, “The Open Boat”

“The Governor’s wife thought the Governor was looking especially well this evening.”

– Susan Dodd, “Public Appearances”

“We didn’t in the light; we didn’t in the darkness.”

– Stuart Dybek, “We Didn’t”

“He was an orphan, and, to himself, he seemed like one, looked like one.”

– Stanley Elkin, “I Look Out for Ed Wolfe”

“The woman in front of him was eating roasted peanuts that smelled so good that he could barely contain his hunger.”

– Ralph Ellison, “King of the Bingo Game”

“We started dying before the snow, and, like the snow, we continued to fall.”

– Louise Erdrich, “Matchimanito”

“When Miss Emily Grierson died, our whole town went to her funeral: the men through a sort of respectful affection for a fallen monument, the women mostly out of curiosity to see the inside of her house, which no one save an old man-servant–a combined gardener and cook–had seen in at least ten years.”

– William Faulkner, “A Rose for Emily”

“This is not a happy story. I warn you.”

– Richard Ford, “Great Falls”

“The first children who saw the dark and slinky bulge approaching through the sea let themselves think it was an empty ship.”

– Gabriel García Márquez, “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World”

“When the time came at last and they removed the wealth of bandages from his head and face, all with the greatest of care as if they were unwinding a precious mummy, the Doctor–he of the waxed, theatrical, upswept mustache and the wet sad eyes of a beagle hound–turned away.”

– George Garrett, “Wounded Soldier”

“The day the cease-fire was signed she was caught up in a crowd.”

– Nadine Gordimer, “A Soldier’s Embrace”

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