I’m not usually given to tantrums, but I almost threw a novel across the room the other night. I even had a brief fantasy involving the temperature 451 degrees Fahrenheit, until I got a grip of myself and remembered the Nazis. The book was a highly acclaimed novel by the recently deceased author John Updike. It was littered with reviews from Important Literary Figures and there were as many uses of the word ‘genius’ on the cover as there are glittery stars on a Katie Price. But lordy, was it a chore to read. The first chapter included a description of a room that lasted for about three hours I’ll never get back. In the unlikely event that I’d chosen this book to read randomly (unlikely because I’ve read and hated two other Updikes) I would have slung it aside and moved onto something much more enjoyable. And let’s say a catalogue of drill bits and rawl plugs left behind by our electrician started to catch my eye at one point. But it was chosen by someone in my book group and I felt I ought to make the effort to finish the thing.
And finish it I did (she says smugly). What’s more, the subsequent book group meeting was one of the liveliest and most stimulating we’ve ever had. Unfortunately, for me the Updike book didn’t improve a great deal, although the start was very much the worst part. Some people liked it but we all agreed that this was a classic case of An Author No Editor Dared To Touch.
Sometimes though, getting beyond the difficult start of a book can bring rich rewards. The two examples that come to mind are Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières, both of which I hated to begin with and then went on to love. In the days before motherhood and writing (ie when I had some time) I tended to stay the course with every book I started. (And I say that as someone who almost ground their teeth to stumps, reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace). These days, if its opening 50 pages don’t grab me, I have no hesitation in tossing it aside.
All this got me thinking about the start of novels and how easy it might be for a good writer to be missed, simply because their opener doesn’t grab a jaded publishing type by the throat. And when you think that most agents are giving up their free time to read their submissions pile, you can’t really expect them to persevere and dig for gold. I’ve been looking long and hard at my openings and thinking about whether they can be stronger. After all, have you ever heard of a book being criticised because the opening was ‘just too gripping'?
There's nothing wrong with a slow burn if it's skilfully executed and some of the best books take time to really get your attention. But speaking as an unpublished author, it seems to me that it's only when you’ve reached the heights of literary stardom that you can afford to make your readers hang around.