Great Beginnings

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In 1992, the novelist Donald Newlove published a book-length essay called FIRST PARAGRAPHS: INSPIRED OPENINGS FOR WRITERS AND READERS. Newlove’s book is a delight: openings from a wide range of stories and novels interwoven with his brilliant, passionate, idiosyncratic commentary. Newlove’s premise is that in these openings we can sense “the first welling of life that gives breath to a piece of writing.” Georgianne Ensign’s GREAT BEGINNINGS isbased on similar intuitions about fictional first moves. While her approach is much more pedestrian than Newlove’s, Ensign has produced a valuable book that complements his tour de force.

Ensign divides her selections topically; among the sixteen chapters are “Setting the Setting,” “The Quotation,” “TheFlashback,” and “The Epistle.” Each chapter, that is, focuses on a particular opening strategy. Typically Ensign begins with a page or so of introductory comment, followed by a generous selection of openings from a diverse bunch of novels. An exception is her concluding chapter, “Hardy, Hemingway, and Dickens,” in which she analyzes the opening gambits of three quite different writers. Separate author and title indexes are included; ten facsimiles of manuscript first-pages are scattered through the book.

Whether used for browsing or intensive study, GREAT BEGINNINGS will enhance the reader’s awareness of the special burdens placed on opening lines to create what John Gardner called the “vivid and continuous dream” that we seek when we pick up a work of fiction.