Posted tagged ‘Muriel Barbery’

Fifty pages

April 17, 2011

Imagine this: You will examine one square inch of a painting and decide from that whether you want to see the whole painting or not.

Or this: You will listen to ten seconds of a symphony and decide from that whether you want to hear the entire symphony or not.

Seems a foolish way to approach a work of art. At least, it does to me. Such things must be appreciated wholly. They are created as integrated units, each part contributing in some way toward the overall goal, impression, creation. (Or with a composer like Beethoven, an entire career of composition integrated and informing the later works.)

So I am astonished when I hear people say they will give a new novel fifty pages to hook them or give it up.

What?

A novel is only completely understood (if then) after you reach The End. You can’t say you’ve truly experienced the novel until you’ve taken in the whole of it. A beginning can’t make sense without its ending. A writer (a good writer, a serious writer whatever the genre) integrates all of the parts of the work to feed the ending, to inform the whole. Everything builds. Everything belongs. Everything leads. And as is often the case, no single part can make thorough sense without the experience of the whole. (And even then, it may take several readings for the whole to make sense, but people who disdain reading books more than once — they exist out there, believe me! — are another sore subject for me.) The ending casts a light back on all of the pages preceding it. One cannot be appreciated without the other.

How to explain this fifty-page sampling phenomenon? Is it just short attention spans among the readers? (Maybe they should only read short stories.) Is it the nature of the books they favor? Books that aren’t complicated or insightful, that can be read for surface impressions only? Is it the calibre of the writing they are judging rather than the story? Is it the reader’s freakishly busy life that doesn’t allow them time for whole books unless they are instantly accessible? Where is the savor in that? The pause and reflection? What is it? And where did this “sampling” attitude come from? This attitude seems like an insult to the writer and even an insult to the intelligence of the reader who holds it. It seems like a lack of respect. It seems specious. And why the first fifty pages? If you’re going to merely sample a work, why not at least learn what is best to sample and give that a try?

Some might argue that the first fifty pages of a novel ought to be the best pages, that the writer must put every bit of talent into those pages, and thus the work can be more or less judged on that. I don’t think so. Or rather, I think all of the novel must have every bit of talent worked into it. And again, a part does not equal the whole. Nor, I think, can you judge the whole based on the part. When I pick up a novel, I feel as though I have entered a relationship with the writer, one that I am obligated to see to the end. I will give up several hours of my life to your work, and you, hard-working writer, will give me your creativity and insight and story telling skills. You’ve held up your end of the bargain; now I will honor my obligation. Reading a novel is not like speed dating.

I recently read the novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. I saw it mentioned in a blog I respect (Sharp Sand), and I began reading about it as I waited for the book to become available at my library. One thing I read several times about the novel is that you must push through the first fifty pages in order to begin enjoying the work, that it is turgid going at the beginning. I didn’t find this to be the case; I was captivated from the start. It is a novel of ideas and philosophy. It is a novel that is best read multiple times. The references it makes to literature, philosophy, class struggle, and history are mostly lost on me, though I will pursue them. It is a novel that has a bittersweet yet completely correct ending, one that I couldn’t have imagined without all of the ideas dealt with throughout the story and one that I certainly couldn’t have foreseen from the first fifty pages.

Imagine, though, a reader who slavishly followed the first-fifty-page rule with this novel. This great work of writing and thought and story telling and characterization would have been lost to this kind of reader. What an absolute waste! (It is well after the first fifty pages that the odd title gets explained, and then, of course, it makes perfect sense, elegant sense.)

Can you imagine picking up any novel by Faulkner and adhering to this fifty-page rule? His works require effort to appreciate. And they certainly can’t be judged through sampling. Or one of my favorites: Iris Murdoch. She is another writer of ideas. Her plots are sometimes only there as the structure to hang ideas and complex characters on. They often are confusing and contorted in the first half, building to who knows where at the time. I think the same could be said about most novels in one way or another.

Approaching a novel is not like approaching a box of assorted chocolates. At least to me it’s not.

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The thumbnail image above is a tiny corner from the painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth. You can see the whole painting by going to that link. Could you have judged the worthiness of the painting from the thumbnail?