Here’s an intriguing blog in which writers are invited to make some comment about their own work based on a reading of all, or part, of its sixty-ninth page.
I don’t know about anyone else, but for years now my browsing method has involved opening any book that catches my attention and reading a paragraph at random. Three or four lines will usually tell me if this is a writer I’ll want to spend time with. It may seem like a cavalier way to judge an author’s work, but we pretty much apply the same test when we hear someone sing. It only takes a few bars to tell you that you’re in competent hands and sometimes, if you’re lucky, you’ll sense the hairs rising on the back of your neck.
Ford Madox Ford once wrote, “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.”
Unfortunately a spot-check offers no protection against the phenomenon that I call ‘literary novel fade’, where I spend the first hundred pages of a novel thinking that this qualifies as one of the best books I’ve ever read, only to find that I’m dragging my way to the end as the writer’s grip on the narrative dynamic proves unequal to the intelligence of their prose. Usually it’s big-name, prizewinning stuff.
Speaking of which, I see that Jeanette Winterson’s publicists are now describing her new novel The Stone Gods as ‘literary science fiction’, implying the existence of a whole dark-matter universe of illiterary science fiction populated by the Lems, the Vonneguts, the Simaks, the Silverbergs, the Butlers, the Bradburys, the Besters, the le Guins…
I don’t know if Winterson herself is behind any of this. I hope she’s not one of those writers who decide they’re going to ‘use the form’ of sf while vigorously distancing themselves from those whose form it is. It’s meant to imply a kind of superiority but it reads more like cowardice, an unwillingness to be measured against the journeymen and women of a genre.
‘Twas ever thus… in my yellowing copy of John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, the author bio states rather disdainfully that in 1946 he went back to writing stories for publication in the USA and decided to try a modified form of what is unhappily known as ‘science fiction’.
My 1964 paperback copy was published by Penguin. As is Jeanette Winterson. In fact, Penguin is probably second only to Victor Gollancz in its history of publishing quality science fiction in the UK.
So you’d think by now they’d know better.
A complete list of the books included in the Page 69 test can be found here.