The Jane Eyre Test

I read a lot of books; this should come as no surprise. I also don’t always finish every book I start. Again, not a great shocker. As a writer, reading widely is something I find to be very important, but occasionally I’ll realise the book I’m reading has nothing to offer, even by way of the popular “what not to do”, but at the same time I like to give the author a fighting chance. So, I use what I call the Jane Eyre test, so called because the way everyone sold Jane Eyre to me was, “it’s a bit slow to start, but after about 100 pages it really gets going.” So that’s my test. 100 pages, and if I’m not gripped by then, and I can find no other reason to keep reading, I put it down and move on to the next one.

Most writing advice books, blogs, interviews, what have you, will advise new writers to begin with something gripping and exciting. Fast pace and the inciting incident within the first three chapters are encouraged. But a lot of older novels didn’t do this; Frankenstein begins with a series of letters from Walton to his sister, Dracula begins with Jonathan travelling for a reason so inconsequential I can’t remember what it was, and Jane Eyre begins with (gasp) a 10-chapter recount of her childhood, which she even acknowledges is a bit lengthy. Some of these older, slower-paced novels may not even pass the Jane Eyre test.

Does that mean they aren’t worth reading? Does it mean they aren’t good novels? I can’t answer that; I can only say that, by my standards as a child of the 90s-2000s, my higher demand for things to grab my attention early make such novels less appealing. Some authors trust their readers to stick with it because it’s going to get good later. Other authors don’t want to take that risk. And, while risk is less of an issue in novels than in the film, television, and video game industries, it is still a factor worth considering. There is a whole other discussion in risk-taking in writing, which we can save for another day.  I suppose it’s not too bold to claim that people have shorter attention spans and more things grabbing their attention these days, so slow beginnings in books perhaps aren’t the way to go anymore, lest your novel be deleted off the reader’s kindle in favour of something punchier.

Again, I can’t say whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, only that it is a thing worth thinking about. In my opinion, I think slow moments always have their place, and that place is later in the book, once you’ve already roped your reader in. But what are your thoughts? Are you more fair than I am, and read further before giving up? Are you harsher than me, and put the book down after the first page? Do you find slower-paced books difficult to wade through, or do you find them more engaging than the faster-paced, attention-grabbing novels? Do you agree that it’s an old versus contemporary discussion, or do you reckon I’m over-simplifying?

Let’s discuss.

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