Asuccessful first novel first words of successful novelists

February 07, 1994|By Dave Edelman

FIRST WORDS: EARLIEST WRITING FROM FAVORITE CONTEMPORARY AUTHORS. Collected and edited by Paul Mandelbaum. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 502 pages. $24.95.

MOST authors' careers begin long before their first novel or short story anthology hits the bookshelves. Often what the reading public recognizes as a writer's freshman work is actually the latest in a long series of unpublished manuscripts doing penance in a trunk in the attic.

First Words," an anthology edited by Paul Mandelbaum, Story magazine's managing editor (and a former Baltimore magazine senior writer), attempts to bring some of these youthful embarrassments out of the closet. It's probably the most complete collection of juvenilia assembled in the last 20 years -- and certainly the most up-to-date.

Included are childhood writings by authors such as Amy Tan, Norman Mailer, Pat Conroy, William Styron, Michael Crichton and John Updike. The contents range from kindergarten scribblings to college literary magazine submissions, from odes to the family dog to melodramatic meditations on death.

Judging such works on their own merit is clearly an impossibility, an opinion affirmed by the editor himself in the introduction: "Juvenilia draw their greatest significance from the fact that they were written by someone who has gone on to achieve fame." Indeed, it would be in bad taste to fault the authors for such shortcomings as 9-year-old Stephen King's atrocious spelling and grammar in his fairy tale "Jhonathan and the Witches."

Instead, Mr. Mandelbaum tries in "First Words" to thematically connect each author's juvenilia with his or her adult body of work. It's the editor's theory that childhood works often share a "creative agenda" with adult works, and that a careful dissecting of crayon-scribbled poems and junior high school newspaper stories will reveal the nascent tendencies of an author.

Unfortunately, this turns out to be a tedious strategy that adds little enjoyment or insight to the pieces presented in "First Words." Many of the italicized editorial comments in the margins stretch literary interpretation to the snapping point; they're often as fantastical as the juvenilia they critique. When 4-year-old Paul Bowles talks about playing with a spider in one of his letters, for instance, the editor inserts the following note: "Seventy-three years later, spiders are still objects of [Bowles'] scrutiny. . . he named his 1955 novel 'The Spider's House'." What even the most devout Paul Bowles reader is supposed to learn from this note is a mystery.

With the exception of a few almost-publishable stories written at college age, the bulk of "First Words" holds little academic value for the serious reader. The book's appeal is as a curiosity for collectors and ardent fans of the authors. And since Mr. Mandelbaum has chosen such a wide variety of representatives from every style of fiction writing, there's not an avid reader in the United States who won't find an author here worthy of flipping through.

"First Words" best serves fiction writers themselves, however. Reading a literary giant's grade-school science fiction epic brings these authors out of that nameless celebrity dimension they normally inhabit and grounds them in the real world of query letters, rejection slips and professorial critiques. It's an encouraging reminder for anyone who's forgotten that a unique literary style can't be inherited; it can only be earned at the expense of a lot of sweat, sore fingers and used printer ribbons.

Dave Edelman is a Baltimore writer.

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