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When The Opening Paragraph Puts You To Sleep

Have you ever opened a book and, after a few sentences, thought, “Oh my gosh. What have I gotten myself into?”

It’s a question I have asked myself in the early pages of reading The Sot-Weed Factor, a 700-page beast of a novel.  At the outset, I was excited about the prospect of this novel. It’s a satire, and I love satires.

But Catch 22 this is not.

The Sot-Weed Factor opens its 700+ pages with this passage:

IN THE LAST YEARS OF THE SEVENTEENTH CENTURY THERE WAS TO BE found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.

That’s one sentence.

Okay, so the narration is long-winded. But what about the dialogue? Oh, yes, the dialogue.

One morning in July of 1684 Andrew simply announced at breakfast, “No need to go to the summer-house today, Ebenezer. Thy lessons are done.’

Both children looked up in surprise.

“Do you mean, sir, that Henry will be leaving us?” Ebenezer asked.

“I do indeed,” Andrew replied. “In fact, if I be not greatly in error he hath already departed.”

“But how is that? With never a fare-thee-well? He spoke not a word of leaving us!”

“Gently, now,” said Andrew. “Will ye weep for a mere schoolmaster? ‘Twas this week or the next, was’t not? Thou’rt done with him.”

“Did you know aught oft?” Ebenezer demanded of Anna. She shook  her head and fled from the room. “You ordered him off, Father?” he asked  incredulously. “Why such suddenness?”

” ‘Dslife!” cried Andrew. “At your age I’d sooner have drunk him good riddance than raised such a bother! The fellow’s work was done and I sacked him, and there’s an end on’t! If he saw fit to leave at once ’tis his  affair. I must say ’twas a more manly thing than all this hue and cry!”

Oh dear.

Barth is purposefully mimicking the 17th century style as part of his satire of historical fiction. The novel was published in 1960, and—as far as I’m aware—words like “hath” and “ye” and “thy” weren’t commonly used.

I still have hope that, despite John Barth’s writing style in this novel, I’ll be able to focus on the story and enjoy the satire. That will be the ongoing tension for me as I read The Sot-Weed Factor.

Anyone reading this book with me?

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26 Comments Post a comment
  1. I didn’t even finish reading what you showed us just then.

    Like

    October 15, 2013
    • bdallmann #

      Me neither >.<

      Like

      October 15, 2013
  2. The Copywr1ter #

    I almost passed out from not being able to take a proper breath whilst reading that passage

    Like

    October 15, 2013
  3. Rosie Baillie #

    Oh dear, I didn’t even finish the passage you pasted in! I had the same issue with The Host by Stephanie Meyer, it was so boring.

    Like

    October 15, 2013
  4. 700 pages of this might be quite a bit too much for me, but the quoted passages did put a smile on my face, especially the first one. I live in England, however, which probably explains that.

    Like

    October 15, 2013
  5. Reblogged this on 我的小小抒發空間~2013~.

    Like

    October 15, 2013
  6. I’m sorry I won’t be reading this with you. That little section bored me to death. I hope it gets better though. I know I HATE when the opening chapter of a book does that to me. PUSH ON!

    Like

    October 15, 2013
  7. I actually quite like the Olde Worlde style of writing. Perhaps the example you gave was a step too far, but I do quite enjoy a long, rambling sentence. Around the World in 80 Days is full of them – some half a page long.

    But I have also opened a book and read a couple of sentences and thought ‘This was a mistake’. People often say you should keep going before giving up on a book, but the start is usually going to have been worked on a lot more by the author, so it should be the best part in many ways. If that doesn’t grab you, it’s not your fault.

    Like

    October 15, 2013
    • I think I can adjust to the style, and even the dialogue, but long, rambling sentences are very difficult for me.

      Like

      October 15, 2013
  8. I read the paragraph, and then tried to re-read it… no luck.

    Like

    October 15, 2013
  9. Yikes, that is a BEAST of an opening there. You have to be dedicated to get past that and on to the rest of the book…which doesn’t look much easier. Hopefully there’s a good plot and plenty of humor to make it worthwhile.

    Like

    October 15, 2013
  10. Oh dear. That’s a joke that can get old real fast. I like Dickens’s long sentences but wow.

    Like

    October 15, 2013
  11. K. #

    This is why “sentence diagramming” should not have been dropped from school curriculum. Once you know how to diagram a sentence, you NEVER would write something that complicated.

    Like

    October 15, 2013
  12. Robert, you may have already done this but have you considered devoting a post to your most favorite opening paragraphs and/or lines?

    Like

    October 15, 2013
  13. kudos to you for taking this on. I think I might have checked out already. I wonder if the style is something you will get used to the longer you read it?

    Like

    October 15, 2013
  14. I’m not reading it, but I’m enjoying the excerpts. 😮

    Like

    October 15, 2013
  15. Oh my days, sounds like this is going to be a rough read. Good luck!

    Like

    October 15, 2013
  16. I haven’t had the wherewithal (yet) to try one of Barth’s longer works. The local barkeep caught me with a copy of ‘The Floating Opera’ and warned me off ‘The Sot-Weed Factor’. But I’ll get to it eventually.

    ‘The Floating Opera’ was narrated by an insufferable toff, but once you got through the (perhaps necessary) verbosity, there were genuinely hilarious moments. One of these involved a pair of dogs humping in the middle of a seaside funeral – the kind of humour that’s only funny when it’s ironic, which seems to be the function of all the Joyceian babble.

    Like

    October 15, 2013
  17. I tend to put books down if the first few pages don’t grab me. Ain’t got the time.

    Like

    October 16, 2013
  18. You asked so I shall tell. “The Corrections” by Jonathan Franzen is my nomination for a boring first page. I quit there so I can’t tell you whether it gets better. And they say that Hemingway wrote poorly.

    Like

    October 16, 2013
  19. hm..! i like taking chances with books, even if the opening lines do turn you off. A lot of times, it turns out pretty well after a few chapters. So i guess you can linger a little bit longer and see if the plot interests you.

    Like

    October 16, 2013
  20. I thought about it, but I probably won’t read it with you now 😉

    My first thought was in regards to the fact that that entire paragraph was one sentence. Wow.

    Like

    October 16, 2013
  21. I like writing like that. My wife, who is an avid reader but dyslexic, can’t stand the same books I enjoy (unless she listens to recorded versions). So, sometimes I read aloud to her, putting the emphasis where it belongs and the humor where I find it.

    Like

    October 16, 2013
  22. sally1137 #

    I’m reading it with you now. Finally got it in the mail this morning. Loved your commentary on long chapter names; that’s spot on! It’s taking me a bit to get into his voice so I can be immersed in the story.

    Like

    October 19, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. A Pontification On The Wordiness Of The Chapter Titles Within The Sot-Weed Factor, Written By 101 Books Blogger Robert Bruce, Using Less Than 400 Words. | 101 Books

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