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First Impressions

by David Westheimer


Here are some useful hints for avoiding bad reading and viewing.

The first thing to keep in mind is that nothing ever gets better. Not books, not television shows, not movies. If it opens badly, it can only get worse. Shut your book, switch the TV channel or take a hike from the theater. This is more true of television than movies and more true of movies than books. In TV, you may take it as a given that the management is making every effort to engage your attention immediately and weld you to their product lest you switch to another station. If what you see up front is bad and that’s their best shot, forget it. A movie often has the same aim but the management knows you’ve paid a nice buck to get in and are not quick to decide. Also, in a movie house you can’t change channels.

You need not be so hasty with a book. Though the author may be trying to entrap you with his opening words, if those first pages glaze your eyes you might do well to let the rest go on without you. If the book has literary credentials, however, you should give it a little more time to grow on you. A good writer may craft his words carefully and lay groundwork instead of beginning with a grabber. Myself, I can recall only once that I wanted to put a book down after a few pages but plowed on as it got better and better. That was more than 20 years ago. The book, D. N. Thomas’ The White Tower. Dody, who liked it, told me stick with it. I’m glad I did.

The quit rule does not apply for 19th-century classics. Back then, writers wrote as if they and their readers had all the time in the world and could be maddeningly leisurely about introducing story and character. Dickens, for example. The first 50 pages or so, he’s just getting the fuzz off his quill pen. If you have a little patience, I can’t recommend a more entertaining writer.

If the characters in a novel have preposterous names, beware. It may be because the writer is trying to make up in character names what he/she is unable to do with narrative skill. A capable writer doesn’t need that.

Dickens, of course, was an odd-character name master. Uriah Heep, Barnaby Rudge, Mr. Bumble, Mrs. Pipchin, Ebenezer Scrooge. I can’t think of any contemporary novelist as happily inventive with names. Al Capp, who did the old “L’i’l Abner” comic strip, had the gift. Lonesome Polecat,

Pappy Yokum, L’i’l Abner himself. I’ve tried to have fun with a character name myself. In a novel named Going Public, I named a character “Jael Nayler,” wondering how many readers would get the joke. I never found out if any of them did.

Jael was the Israelite woman who invited the evil Canaanite general, Sisera, into her tent and after he fell asleep drove a nail into his head and killed him.

Oh, one more generality about movies. If it’s one you can sit though and has multiple evil characters, remember this. The baddest die lastest.


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