Inexplicably, I find myself reading “A Tale of Two Cities.” In tandem with “The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile,” which I can’t help wishing Charles Dickens could have read, too. While he had no trouble staying out of the rejection pile, it still could have helped him. For I feel, once again, that the things that make Dickens so annoying are also what make him so unforgettable. He writes like a man paid by the word, yet even his major characters get only one trait apiece. Darney is noble (in a moral, as well as literal, sense). Sydney Carton is cynical and gloomy and alcoholic, which is actually all one thing, we just don’t have a word for it in English. Jerry Cruncher beats his wife and robs graves, over and over and over and over. Lucie Manette is barely a person, though we are supposed to believe in her goodness and her yellow hair. The sentimentality, as always, makes me cringe.
So why am I reading it? The short answer is that I recently found a brittle, yellowing copy in a pile of books that someone was discarding on Cranberry Street, but that is not sufficient explanation; there are numerous books I’ve found on the street and not gotten around to reading yet. I think it was an opening scene that grabbed me: a graphic description of riding the London-to-Dover mail coach in 1775. By the time Dickens was writing this, that method of transport was still in living memory, but barely. Thus he felt the need to describe in loving detail how it smelled and felt, the mud and the layers of clothing everyone was wearing, the distrust fellow travelers had for each other, the arrival at the inn. The Channel crossing is passed over silently; that, I can only suppose, was not too different in 1775 and 1859.
There is a strange fascination in reading books written long ago that look back to an earlier period, for they carry the whiff of their own time even as they purport to be about another, something we perceive in a way we cannot with historical fiction written in our own age. “Ivanhoe” has this quality, as does “Middlemarch,” more discreetly. Eliot writing about the 1830s would be like me writing about the 1970s now. Able to be called to mind, yet strangely distant. In 100 years people will read “Wolf Hall” and think it really reeks of the early 21st century — but what is it that will give it away to those future people? I can’t see it now, try as I might.
As for “The First Five Pages,” I can only say it is exactly the right book at the right moment. Sometimes I wonder if I would have saved time and agony had I come across it sooner, but I think it was not ready for it until about now. It is about editing fiction, but that’s far too faint praise. It is about how to look at your own fiction and see the marks of amateurism. And better still, how to fix them. It’s a marvel.