Lately I've started to read several novels that I've been really excited about, novels with wonderful concepts and solid, evocative writing -- at least in the first chapter or two. And then something happens. The story stops moving forward, the voice grows stiff or foggy and hard to follow, and the book just turns into a real slog. In fact, lately it's the rule rather than the exception that this happens. It's like watching someone tread water or churn butter, except there's no butter. What's going on?
Surely some of this is just me, because usually these books are well-praised and admired. Maybe I don't have a lot of patience for the slow bits. But I have a couple of alternate theories. Maybe the writers sold their books on the basis of the beginnings, and then panicked at the prospect of writing 300 more pages. Or maybe the writers are still early in their careers and have spent a lot of time writing short stories and simply don't know what to do after page 50.
Or maybe it's just that great concepts are over-rated, and the abilities to write clearly and compellingly and to sustain a storyline are very rare things indeed.
I've learned not to name names on this blog when I'm being mean, because writers have a way of Googling themselves and I really don't want to ruin anyone's coffee break. But one example is All Shall Be Well; and All Shall Be Well; and All Manner of Things Shall Be Well, a novel with a terrific review in the New York Times, and a great set up: a cranky medieval re-enactor goes to Europe to search for his missing son. The prologue and first chapter are just perfect: funny and tender and arch. But I'm on page 92 now and working hard to persuade myself to keep going. I think I will, because I just love the idea so much. But what happened to all that clever energy?
Here's one last theory, based on evolutionary biology: it doesn't matter what happens after page 50, because if the reader has gotten that far, he's already bought the book. There's a lot of pressure to make the blurbs, the cover, the title, and the first chapter really great, but not so much on the middle. Perhaps eventually, like tails on primates, the middles of books will disappear altogether.