Friday, February 5, 2010

Literary Litmus Tests

I’m easily romanced by the cover art of a book. Yes, I judge a book by the cover. If I’m in the library and they have two copies of the same book, I always chose the one with the prettier cover. Next, I’m influenced by dust jacket copy—you know, the blurbs on the inside front cover of the book. Assuming both are good and I don’t know anything bad about the author, I am tempted.

My daughter on the other hand is much more prosaic. (It must be the math major in her.) She has an uncanny ability to pick up a book and open to the worse page/scene in the entire novel. Imagine: I’m drooling over cover art that looks like it belongs in a museum, and I’ve pointed out to Ariel the lifting melody of the words on the dust cover.

Ariel takes the book, opens it, and says, “Are you sure you want to read this book?”

I nod, eagerly.

She says, “In this chapter a character named Todd strangles the family dogs in his neighborhood.”

“What?!” I grab the book. “But he seemed like a nice boy.”

Sure enough, Todd is a dog strangler. Okay, this didn’t really happen—usually the scenes she finds are worse. When I flip through a book, I never find the weird/perverse scenes. Ariel says they are almost always 2/3s of the way through the book. Hmm, this must be some odd literary rule that no one ever told me. I wondered if there were more such rules.

This morning I read a friend’s blog. She talked about the “Page 99 litmus test” (Thanks, Rowena. Here’s a link if you’d like to read her original post: ). She quoted Ford Maddox Ford who said, “Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you."

As a writer, I got a little nervous. What was on page 99 of the novel I was currently querying? I opened my document and scrolled to page 99. On that page, the main character Henry finds out that his grandfather tried to kill him when he was a little boy. Whew, that works—totally non-boring scene. Now all I have to do is find an agent, a publisher, and great cover art. Yep, should be easy...not.

Note: I really wanted to title this post "Literary Litmi," but "litmus" is Scandinavian in original not Latin. bummer.


  1. You forgot to say how Ariel reads the end of the book to see if "it's worth reading."

  2. Mrs. K, last semester you opened up Ariel's textbook and saw a bizarre equation. (Gnashing of Teeth. circa May 8) It's actually an equation for the page where the worst scene is. a0 is the year that the book is set in, n is the number of pages in the book, L is the weight of the book, an is the page where the plot begins, theta is the angle the book makes when you stuff a sock into it to keep your place, and bn is the page at which you put the book down and return it to the library unfinished. See, differential equations ARE cool.

  3. Duncan, I knew there had to be a reason that math exists. Now I know. Thanks! lol.

  4. Wow! I am going to try it on Elizabeth Peters' The Snake The Crocodile and The Dog......


    hmm....Emerson cursing..oh well:)

    Grace Duke

  5. Thanks for linking and for sharing your page 99! I have a habit of being drawn to books by covers, too, and titles. But I usually open to a random page and read a bit, as well--I don't trust first pages to show how the quality will pan out over the long haul!

  6. I don't think that the literary litmus test works for books like The Lord Of The Rings, which is 1043 pages, not including the various appendices, which add another 130-some pages. Page 99 doesn't give you any real clue as to what the book is about, perhaps page 299.