Ours is a world governed by the first impression. Beauty may be only skin deep, but often that’s as deep as we go. Marketing in our consumer culture is essentially about recreating that first impression over and over again. Sometimes the effort is explicit. AT&T becomes Cingular, which becomes AT&T again. Federal Express gets a new logo and a truncated name. At other times it’s more subtle. A new campaign to re-create our relationship with an old brand. Every time a fast food chain throws out a new slogan and jingle, they’re doing it. Coke and Pepsi battle to make a good first impression over and over again.
As individuals, we’re often willing participants. New clothes, new hair, spectacles or contacts. I grew a beard this spring, producing a new look and, in my own way, a new first impression. We see something different and we want to try it. Or we see something old presented in a new way and we have a new response to it.
I’m not suggesting this is all bad. At times there is real value in re-inventing ourselves, especially when the people in our lives are participants in our transformation. The stimulus might be superficial, as in the case of a fellow’s new beard. Or it might be profound — illness often inspires to change our lifestyle: stop smoking, eat differently, exercise more. As people, the ability to adapt at need is hardwired into us.
As readers, we accept this readily. In many cases, we celebrate our willingness to limit ourselves to the first impression. “If a novel doesn’t grab me on page one, I move on to the next book.” Or, “Page one? The first paragraph!” Or even, “One sentence, that’s all you get.” Bouncing around the blogs and review sites, you’ll often see this approach to new work touted. The Page 69 Test is a variation on the same theme, one I think is fun and cool and interesting. But a variation on the first impression all over again.
I do it myself. I don’t want to sound like I’m somehow above all this first-impressiony goodness (or badness). I judge books by their covers too, or at least by their first few pages. I give something a quick hit, then move on if it doesn’t grab me by the balls and give a hard squeeze.
Among publishing professionals, it’s part of doing business. When your slush pile is a mile high you don’t often have time to go past a first impression. If it means you miss something, well, the pile is pretty damn deep. Something else will pass the first impression test, sooner or later.
But as readers, don’t we have the luxury of being more patient? When I’m at the bookstore, my paycheck is only on the line in reverse — it doesn’t depend on me getting through a slush pile and finding the one gem among the gravel.
How many classic novels would never have a chance today because they don’t hit the pavement in third gear and accelerate from page one? I see a few books on my own shelves, books I dearly love, that I got a chance to read only because they were published fifty or a hundred years or more ago. The Scarlett Letter. The Lord of the Rings. Crime and Punishment. Just to name a few.
And yet I have to admit, I’d probably give many of these same books, if published today, short shrift. What are the stakes? I’d be asking as I learned that Hobbits started out as three tribes an age ago. Then I’d put the book down and pick up a contemporary novel with a marketing-driven approach to story telling. Start on page one and don’t let up, keep making new first impressions, because if you ease off even a little, someone who made a more recent first impression will move ahead of you. How many slush pile readers today would get through the introduction to The Scarlett Letter, despite it’s critical value to the story?
Perhaps the problem is not the first impression, but what we’ve come to allow as an acceptable first impression. Plot. Drama. Energy. Movement. These are all okay. Atmosphere. Lyricism. Poeticism. These are not.
Among readers of so-called genre fiction, good writing on its own is often viewed with suspicion, as if it’s some kind of trick. I all but made a pariah of myself on DorothyL by suggesting that good writing could be its own reward and that not every sentence of every novel needed to be plot, needed to be fever pitch story advancement. Sometimes through good writing we see other things of equal or greater value. The idea went over like a bad Super Bowl ad, and taught me to open my big mouth, if nothing else.
There’s nothing wrong with strong story. I don’t want to suggest there isn’t. Hell, I LOVE strong story. I just worry if in our impatience for story we aren’t losing sight of other things. Shorting ourselves as readers. Coke and Pepsi have to do what they have to do. But we’re readers and sometimes writers, not corporations pitching the same thing again and again to the same audience.
On the one hand we say that a work can’t be considered great until it’s passed the test of time, but on the other we don’t want to take the time to give a work a chance. That, to me, is the tyranny of the first impression.
What do you think? Is impatience a virtue I’ve become blind to, or could we stand to slow down a bit?
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