Interesting blog on the Guardian Books website today by Robert McCrum. He talks about Ford Madox Ford’s advice that the literary quality or narrative power of a novel should never be judged by the opening alone but by reading a random page from within the book — which has been called the page 99 test Â (i.e. open any book at page 99 and see that is comparable with the opening).
He quotes Philip Larkin’s observation after being a Booker prize judge that modern novelists concentrate far too much on grabbing a reader’s attention with the opening — the books had ‘a beginning, a muddle and an end’.
I guess no-one would say they would want to buy and read a book that had a stunning first few pages but which proved to be unrepresentative of the rest of the book. However, experience on the City University course suggests that novelists, particularly debut novelists, need to concentrate intensely on those first pages to have any hope of attracting an agent’s attention.
At the end of June, as mentioned at the time, we had an evening where we all read extracts from our novels to an invited audience of literary agents and other industry people. Because we had an hour for the reading, we each had four minutes each, which was rigorously enforced. For most of us that worked out about 600 words — or about two pages of a novel. Mostly we all chose the opening of our novels — or, if not, something that would work well as one.
It was interesting to listen to people’s polished four minute extracts. We workshopped them over the course of a few weeks and they were all excellent and sounded great when read on the night — it was fascinating to see the improvement as some took shape. It was also interesting to see how much the extract reflected what we knew of the rest of the novel in progress.
My own reading was, I think, fairly unrepresentative of the rest of what I’d written. The style was fairly typical — quite a lot of dialogue, not much exposition, although I’d edited out a lot of the more ‘literary’ description for timing purposes.
However, it may have misrepresented the genre as it was a firing scene set in a City office block — a corporate location that’s never returned to after the first few pages. The rest of the novel is about alternative lifestyles, art, beer, food, wine, dissolute afternoons spent drinking in pubs, relationships that break down, others that simmer, communities and sex is a recurrent theme, as I was reminded by Jennifer more than once.
So a scene in a modern office block meeting room with people sat behind desks talking corporate speak is very atypical of the novel — but it’s important as it’s a starting point that the characters react against and that drives the rest of the novel.
Just before the reading I got some advice from an agent to reverse my first two scenes and start the novel referring to the artistic elements rather than corporate. That was my initial instinct and it was very satisfying that she’d picked up the tone and theme of the novel from the few thousand words she’d read. (Obviously it’s her job to do that but my writing must have had enough quality for her to engage with it.)
But it was too late to change my extract for the reading — which I’d chosen after much indecision on the basis of its conflict and dramatic impact. So I’d have failed the page 99 test myself — at least on genre expectations.
However, the way novels and novelists are judged by agents and publishers Â is on the first few pages — at least to determine whether they want to read more or reject the work. And that might be pragmatic because that’s what readers have traditionally done when browsing novels in a bookshop.
I read a worrying report in the Wall Street journal via a retweet from City coursemate Michael Braga about how e-books and the dire economy are making it virtually impossible for literary writers in the US to make a living — even if they’re published their advances are pitiful.
This is partly blamed on the effect Â of e-books. These cost the customer less and publishers are proportionately reducing the income to the author. This seems unfair as its the publisher who’s saving the costs of printing and distribution. The writer still has to do the same amount of work as with a physical book.
Another effect of e-books is that they tend not to be browsed, as are physical books. Readers are said to be more likely to buy an e-book based on marketing (like film and TV tie-ins, Richard and Judy and so on) or from recommendations (such as published reviews, reader reviews on Amazon, word of mouth and so on).
This has led to fears that the reading market will concentrate more on blockbuster fiction and there will be much less opportunity for authors to grow into a career over the course of three, four or five books. Currently the view seems to be that a new author has to sell a lot of copies of their debut and, if they get the chance, second novel or else they will be dropped.
There is a counter view in the WSJ article that e-books, because they’re cheaper, will expand the market and, because they require much less capital investment in the product, will change the publishing industry from being largely controlled by huge multi-nationals to one that has many more independent small publishers. My own guess is that it may polarise the market at either end — a few mega-publishers and a lot of small ones. The fate of the literary writer is likely to be to start off at the small scale end and perhaps move across to big publishers once they’ve established a track record.
If the market changes like this then it means the role of the agent may also change. I’d guess they will still be as important to writers as ever but their skill may be required more to get a writer noticed and to build a reputation. There may be a situation where fewer and fewer publishers are willing to take chances on unknown writers but technology such as e-books and print-on-demand may mean it’s not as difficult as in the past for authors to be published.
The investment involved previously in getting a book onto a bookshop shelf has been a quality filter in itself and, to return to the original point, a reader might feel that if the first few pages are good then it’s likely that the rest of the book won’t be too dire, having been through a professional production process. If e-books are the future then covers and opening pages may play a lesser role than the general ‘buzz’ that gets book noticed in the first place.
I guess what the conscientious writer should do is to write the whole novel to the best of their ability and then go back to the beginning and work on that again once the book has been finished. This is what I’m planning to do and I’m not intending send anything to an agent until I have something that’s as good as I can make it all the way through.
This is a bit Catch-22 as it would be helpful to have some professional feedback to both motivate and give a realistic assessment of the whole endeavour. And I’m finding it’s taking forever. However, I wouldn’t want to end up with one of Philip Larkin’s muddled middle books.