Putting books to the page 99 test

A website launching this month applies the 'page 99 test' to new novels, but can the test really make or break a book?

The process of buying a novel is a strange business. Once you've - obviously - judged a book to be interesting enough by its cover to merit plucking it from the shelf, the next hoop to jump through is the first page. Authors know this all too well - they may not be able to influence how their opus looks, but they can certainly entice readers into their story. 

So some of those first lines have become the most famous in all literature. "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife," (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice) is clearly a classic. Charles Dickens' A Tale Of Two Cities kicks off with the memorable: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." And "It was a dark and stormy night" has become more famous than the book from which it is taken: Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Victorian thriller Paul Clifford.

But why should the first page be so important? Surely the real test of a book is when the story is fully underway. The eminent English writer and critic Ford Madox Ford certainly thought so: in 1939 he remarked "open the book to page 99 and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you".

His words were barely picked up on at the time.

Ironically, it's the first line of his book, The Good Soldier - "This is the saddest story I have ever heard" - which he's most famous for. It's regularly cited as one of the greatest in 20th-century literature.

But more than 70 years later, Madox Ford's words have well and truly hit the blogosphere. A trio of self-styled "readers, writers and web geeks" are launching a website this month - www.page99test.com - where published and unpublished writers upload their page 99s. Readers then click through to answer just two questions: would they turn the page, and would they buy the book? After they've written this mini-review of sorts, the name of the author and book - until this point anonymous - is revealed.

It's an intriguing idea. After all, good writers should give just as much importance to the construction of their sentences on page 99 as they do on page one. The plot of a good book should be just as interesting - in fact more interesting - part way through as it is at the start. After all, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four starts with the memorable "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen". But it's just as captivating on page 99: "Anything old, and for that matter anything beautiful, was always vaguely suspect."

So are the contents of page 99s a good test of a book's qualities in the modern era too? A quick flick through my bookshelves suggests so. Haruki Murakami's wonderfully wry Norwegian Wood has the memorable exchange: "I was always hungry for love. I was going to find someone who would love me unconditionally. I was still in primary school at the time." The crux of Chuck Palahniuk's dual identity story of insomnia, Fight Club, is in the line on page 99: "All night long you're thinking am I asleep? Have I slept?" But it's not a watertight theory. "Do you think we can risk the Extendable Ears?" is the offering of JK Rowling in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Of course, the test only really works with books you haven't yet read. Turning to the one currently on top of my (and, it seems, everybody's) to-read pile, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, it's striking how enlightening page 99 seems to be. Patty is unsubtly seducing Walter, although she appears to have a dodgy knee. They go back to his apartment whereupon the mood is somewhat cooled by Walter's college friend (we know this from the jacket notes) playing guitar and watching a war movie. Everything about Franzen - the dry humour, his take on contemporary love, the mini-tragedies that pepper everyday life - is revealed on this page. It took all my powers of self-discipline not to turn to page 100 and see what happened next. But I can't wait to find out.

Joanna Wiebe, one of the co-founders of www.page99test.com, thinks if a book is fantastic, then page 99 is always great. "But in that case, so is page 13, 155 and 224," she admits. "But page 99 is interesting because the concept is just plain and simple. Unlike the opening line, the whole first chapter and the ending, page 99 is just buried somewhere in the middle, where the writer and editor may not have dedicated a lot of time to it. So if that page captures your attention, you can assume that the whole book will. I've made it through maybe a third of all the books on my bookshelves. It's not for lack of trying. It's just that a lot of books lose my attention after the first chapter or two."

Still, attaching too much significance to page 99 does have a slight problem - different fonts and book sizes mean a page 99 in one edition might be page 112 in another. Isn't that an inherent flaw in Wiebe's whole idea?

"Actually, we think it's perfect," she says. "It means you can't refine that page for the purposes of 'tricking' this test. Obviously, the purpose is not to test the quality of page 99 itself - there's no point getting hung up on the actual page - but to sample the quality of the book. It's actually better if page 99 is different in different editions."

So perhaps a by-product of www.page99test.com might be that it encourages authors to think more carefully about the part of the book so often neglected by editors and writers. Philip Larkin memorably said that much modern fiction is a "beginning, a muddle and an end" - and it's a state of affairs that rings true for Wiebe, too.

"I love that quote," she says. "But are we trying to encourage more rounded books? Hmm. It's hard to be a writer, but we do think that writers who want to sell a lot of books to a target audience could benefit from refining the middle sections of their books to better please their readers. That is, if you're writing to sell, then do as Elmore Leonard said and skip the parts your readers skip. How do you know what readers skip? Upload your chapter(s) to our site and let them tell you..."

In the future, www.page99test.com hopes to publish full chapters, forwarding reader feedback to budding writers to help them in the minefield which is the publishing process. Wiebe is also working to build partnerships with Kindle, Nook and Apple to ensure writers who self-publish ebooks will be able to use their feedback to market themselves - much like a "readers choice" sticker on a book can help it get attention in a book store.

But in the meantime, it seems only fair to ask Wiebe to name her favourite page 99s.

"I should probably say page 99 of The Good Soldier, shouldn't I?" she laughs. "But perhaps my favourite is page 99 in Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, because it takes place at exactly the moment Waverly has started winning chess championships and the community is rallying around her. It's so well-written, exciting and stimulating."

Which, after all, is all you can ask of any book, on page 99 or not.


Published: October 18, 2010 04:00 AM


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