How would Angela's Ashes be received here today?

editing_for_authors
Editing for authors: because every writer needs a good editor.

khobar

Be constructive
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Mar 15, 2010
Messages
291
Reaction score
22
Location
Mesa, AZ
Website
www.richardpnixon.com
After reading how memoirs have to stand out in some way and grab the reader from the start, I've wondered how Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes would do these days. Take a look at the opening -

"My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

"It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.

"People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years."

Comments?
 

Siri Kirpal

Swan in Process
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 20, 2011
Messages
8,729
Reaction score
2,739
Location
In God I dwell, especially in Eugene OR
Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

I took a copy of that memoir home when my MIL passed away. That opening is the main reason I haven't bothered reading any more of it.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

cornflake

practical experience, FTW
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jul 11, 2012
Messages
16,174
Reaction score
3,733
After reading how memoirs have to stand out in some way and grab the reader from the start, I've wondered how Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes would do these days. Take a look at the opening -

"My father and mother should have stayed in New York where they met and married and where I was born. Instead, they returned to Ireland when I was four, my brother, Malachy, three, the twins, Oliver and Eugene, barely one, and my sister, Margaret, dead and gone.

"It was, of course, a miserable childhood: the happy childhood is hardly worth your while. Worse than the ordinary miserable childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.


"People everywhere brag and whimper about the woes of their early years, but nothing can compare with the Irish version: the poverty; the shiftless loquacious alcoholic father; the pious defeated mother moaning by the fire; pompous priests; bullying schoolmasters; the English and the terrible things they did to us for eight hundred long years."

Comments?

How does the bolded not stand out and grab the reader? In four sentences, McCourt sets up the entire book - it gives you setting, black humour, atmosphere, a ton of information, questions, everything, and it's stunning.
 

Haggis

Evil, undead Chihuahua
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Oct 14, 2005
Messages
56,217
Reaction score
18,298
Location
A dark, evil place.
How does the bolded not stand out and grab the reader? In four sentences, McCourt sets up the entire book - it gives you setting, black humour, atmosphere, a ton of information, questions, everything, and it's stunning.
It's also very Irish. I enjoyed the hell out of it.
 

cornflake

practical experience, FTW
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jul 11, 2012
Messages
16,174
Reaction score
3,733
I didn't enjoy the book so much; it's depressing as hell for the most part. I'm not suggesting he should've prettied up what was a bleak tale or anything, but I didn't love it.

It did stick with me for a good while though.
 

CassandraW

Banned
Flounced
Kind Benefactor
Joined
Feb 18, 2012
Messages
24,038
Reaction score
6,485
Location
.
I thought it was a fantastic book from beginning to end, and yes, that opening grabbed me.
 

khobar

Be constructive
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Mar 15, 2010
Messages
291
Reaction score
22
Location
Mesa, AZ
Website
www.richardpnixon.com
As someone with a strong Irish background, I loved the story. BUT - forget for a moment that you've read the entire book or know that McCourt won a Pulitzer, etc. If McCourt were just starting out and posted this same opening here and now asking for help, what then?
 

Sedjet

Lurker Extraordinaire
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Apr 1, 2014
Messages
143
Reaction score
19
Location
Melbourne
I haven't read the book; it's not my sort of thing. The opening you posted seems interesting though, and I agree it's done a good job of setting up the story.

Just because it's popular, and won awards, and had a movie made of it, doesn't make it perfect though. You could look at any published work and find things you'd change. Especially works that aren't current (i.e. written in the last couple of years).
 

Keyan

ubiquitous
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Aug 8, 2007
Messages
629
Reaction score
263
I think it works because he's Irish. It also works because the facts of the story are pretty grim, so the dark humor and flippant tone serve to both emphasize that and make it readable. I read the book before I was aware of his reputation or the Pulitzer, and found it gripping.
 

regdog

The Scavengers
Staff member
Moderator
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Apr 27, 2008
Messages
56,516
Reaction score
20,447
Location
She/Her
It's not the kind of book that gives one a warm and fuzzy feeling, but it is a brilliant account of what the man endured and survived.
 

CassandraW

Banned
Flounced
Kind Benefactor
Joined
Feb 18, 2012
Messages
24,038
Reaction score
6,485
Location
.
And to the extent that people would say "oh, no, that opening breaks xyz rules, so don't use it," i'd say it's a perfect example of why one shouldn't blindly follow xyz rules instead of using the opening that works for one's book.
 

Siri Kirpal

Swan in Process
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Sep 20, 2011
Messages
8,729
Reaction score
2,739
Location
In God I dwell, especially in Eugene OR
Sat Nam! (Literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

I should clarify my earlier post: I hate depressing stories with no redemption in sight.

Blessings,

Siri Kirpal
 

CaroGirl

Living the dream
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Feb 27, 2006
Messages
8,368
Reaction score
2,327
Location
Bookstores
Loved this book. I would love it as much if I picked it up today as I did when I read it first, many years ago. It's memoir (LOVE memoir), it's bleak and full of black humour, it's wonderfully written (not perfect) with a strong voice and wry tone.

I should clarify my earlier post: I hate depressing stories with no redemption in sight.
Of course, it's sad sad sad. But not without redemption, Siri. Frank McCourt went on to become a successful, influential school teacher, and prize-winning writer. And lived to the ripe age of 78.

I strongly agree with others who said this opening encompasses the whole of the book. The story, voice, and dark truth of it all. If you don't like the opening, no matter whether you're reading it yesterday, today, or tomorrow, you might not like the book. I, for one, was enthralled and moved to tears by this poor man's tragic story.
 

gettingby

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Apr 1, 2008
Messages
2,749
Reaction score
170
As someone with a strong Irish background, I loved the story. BUT - forget for a moment that you've read the entire book or know that McCourt won a Pulitzer, etc. If McCourt were just starting out and posted this same opening here and now asking for help, what then?

I'm not quite sure what kind of answers you're looking for here. Are you trying to say that you don't think this book would be successful if it came out today? It would still be a success. It is a great book. Instead of looking for what is wrong with books, I try to look for what made it good. There is more to learn that way than trying to find fault, especially trying to find fault in a book like this one.

Today, people still read it. It is still in print. It works just as well today as it did when it first came out. It is a great story.
 

khobar

Be constructive
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Mar 15, 2010
Messages
291
Reaction score
22
Location
Mesa, AZ
Website
www.richardpnixon.com
I'm not quite sure what kind of answers you're looking for here. Are you trying to say that you don't think this book would be successful if it came out today? It would still be a success. It is a great book. Instead of looking for what is wrong with books, I try to look for what made it good. There is more to learn that way than trying to find fault, especially trying to find fault in a book like this one.

I am curious what kind of comments/advice he might receive if he were not yet published/just starting out with Draft #X and came here seeking input on his opening. By extension, I'd be curious what his pitch would be, what his query letter might look like, and what the Share Your Work forum would say about it all.
 

CassandraW

Banned
Flounced
Kind Benefactor
Joined
Feb 18, 2012
Messages
24,038
Reaction score
6,485
Location
.
I think the comments and advice he'd receive would depend entirely on who decided to chime in on his work.

I know when I've posted something here, comments/advice were all over the map -- as were the comments I received from agents and in a writing group.

And I've often seen that happen with other people's work as well.
 

gettingby

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Apr 1, 2008
Messages
2,749
Reaction score
170
I am curious what kind of comments/advice he might receive if he were not yet published/just starting out with Draft #X and came here seeking input on his opening. By extension, I'd be curious what his pitch would be, what his query letter might look like, and what the Share Your Work forum would say about it all.

I guess I still fail to see where you are coming from. His work is great. Are you looking for people to have a problem with something? Because I don't see problems with this book. I'm sure he wrote a query letter like everyone else. He probably wrote a great query letter that eventually brought us to buying his book. What is the problem? Why are you looking for problems? Instead, try focusing on what made this book a success.
 

khobar

Be constructive
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Mar 15, 2010
Messages
291
Reaction score
22
Location
Mesa, AZ
Website
www.richardpnixon.com
I guess I still fail to see where you are coming from. His work is great. Are you looking for people to have a problem with something? Because I don't see problems with this book. I'm sure he wrote a query letter like everyone else. He probably wrote a great query letter that eventually brought us to buying his book. What is the problem? Why are you looking for problems? Instead, try focusing on what made this book a success.

???
 

Helix

a tale they won't believe
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Mar 31, 2011
Messages
8,275
Reaction score
2,248
Location
Far North Queensland
Website
snailseyeview.medium.com
I am curious what kind of comments/advice he might receive if he were not yet published/just starting out with Draft #X and came here seeking input on his opening. By extension, I'd be curious what his pitch would be, what his query letter might look like, and what the Share Your Work forum would say about it all.


It looks to me as if you want people 1) who aren't Frank McCourt (and have never played him on television) to construct a query letter for a book they didn't write and which was published almost two decades ago, and then 2) to critique this query letter. All of this is to take place without reference to the actual query letter that McCourt wrote (if he did write one).

I'm not sure that's a useful exercise. YMMV.
 

khobar

Be constructive
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Mar 15, 2010
Messages
291
Reaction score
22
Location
Mesa, AZ
Website
www.richardpnixon.com
It looks to me as if you want people 1) who aren't Frank McCourt (and have never played him on television) to construct a query letter for a book they didn't write and which was published almost two decades ago, and then 2) to critique this query letter. All of this is to take place without reference to the actual query letter that McCourt wrote (if he did write one).

I'm not sure that's a useful exercise. YMMV.

I asked a very simple question.

The frame of reference for my question is also very simple: at the time of Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt was neither a celebrity nor had lived an extraordinary life which, according to today's experts, is typically the kiss of death for any would-be memoirist.

I don't believe in typical. ;)
 

cornflake

practical experience, FTW
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Jul 11, 2012
Messages
16,174
Reaction score
3,733
I asked a very simple question.

The frame of reference for my question is also very simple: at the time of Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt was neither a celebrity nor had lived an extraordinary life which, according to today's experts, is typically the kiss of death for any would-be memoirist.

I don't believe in typical. ;)

What experts are those?

The story, as presented in his opening two graphs, is stunning, engaging, a blend of dark humour and pathos, and clearly got peoples' attention.

The graphs also speak of a gripping tale. You seemed to suggest people would find the opening ordinary, or not compelling. I don't think that's the case.

If you can write like hell, and have an engaging story, well, there you go. Plenty of memoirs are published every year that aren't about "extraordinary lives." Cheryl Stayed was sad, went for a walk, did some drugs, "found herself." Also recently published was a memoir by a woman who was kidnapped off the street and held in a dungeon with other random women who were kidnapped, all held as sex slaves in an ordinary, suburban house for more than a decade while no one noticed until one busted down the door and was helped by a man eating a burger. Which of these stories is more extraordinary? Which is the more celebrated memoir? See the first six words of this graph? ;)
 

CaroGirl

Living the dream
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Feb 27, 2006
Messages
8,368
Reaction score
2,327
Location
Bookstores
Every day, people who aren't famous and have no "platform" get memoirs published. If you have an engaging voice, interesting story, and an agent thinks readers will buy it, you'll get a publishing contract and a readership. There's no magic at work here. Frank McCourt's story about growing up in extreme poverty in Ireland, with a drunk or absent father and desperate mother, and siblings who died around him because they were poor, spoke to people. He wrote about these events with an engaging style and a voice dripping with dark humour. His talent endures and if this memoir were pitched to an agent on this very day, I have no doubt it would be published and would sell. It might even win a prize.
 
Last edited:

Perks

delicate #!&@*#! flower
Kind Benefactor
Super Member
Registered
Joined
Apr 12, 2005
Messages
18,965
Reaction score
6,890
Location
At some altitude
Website
www.jamie-mason.com
The opening does (and did) draw me right in. Very atmospheric, and even better, it makes me immediately confident that I'm throwing in my lot with a talented writer.
 
Last edited:

Jamesaritchie

Super Member
Registered
Joined
Feb 13, 2005
Messages
27,863
Reaction score
2,306
I asked a very simple question.

The frame of reference for my question is also very simple: at the time of Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt was neither a celebrity nor had lived an extraordinary life which, according to today's experts, is typically the kiss of death for any would-be memoirist.

I don't believe in typical. ;)

I can't believe this is a serious question. Angela's Ashes is not an ancient book. It wasn't written in 1840. It was, and is, one of the most brilliant memoirs I've ever read. The writing is unbelievably good.

No one likes every opening, but this opening drew in millions, and still would today, all these centuries later. Once I read the first couple of sentences, I couldn't stop.

Two things are wrong with your nalysis of what the "experts" say. 1. McCourt most certainly did live an extraordinary life. 2. McCourt was an fantastic writer, a man who could get his life down on paper so well, so believably, so engagingly, that he could have written a phone book and had it published.

Nothing whatsoever has changed between then and now. Absolutely nothing. The experts said exactly the same things then as now, and they'll be saying the same thing a hundred years from now, and they're right.

Two thing always apply to those who are not some sort of celebrity, who are not, for one reason or another, famous. 1. That you have lived a life worth reading about. McCourt did. People loved reading about his life. 2. That you are an incredibly good writer, far above average, who can make that life so realistic that when a character spills a bowl of soup, the page gets wet. McCourt did this, as well.

Not everyone who isn't a celebrity has a life worth reading about. For ordinary people, a life worth reading about is, as one agent put it, about the journey from a bad there to a good here. This certainly fits McCourt.

But maybe one in a thousand, or one in ten thousand, who do have a life worth reading about have the talent and skill necessary to put that life down on paper as well as McCourt did, and being able to do this is essential.

At any rate, Angela's Ashes has an opening that did, and still does, draw readers in, it has a wonderful story, and it's written as well as anything I've ever read. And seriously, 1996 was yesterday, so asking if McCourt were here today has no meaning. He is here today.
 

Featured Book