Thursday, April 28, 2011

Would Poisonwood Bible have sold if written by a debut novelist?

I recently finished Barbara Kingsolver's Poisonwood Bible, a beautiful, haunting story of a family of six who travel into the Congo for missionary work in the sixties. Kingsolver takes us into their lives showing us their world and how it unfolds through the eyes of the minister's four daughters, and his wife. This book is one of those books that is simply perfect in description, characters, and dialogue, plotting, suspense, and satisfying conclusion. Loved it.

Despite the fact that Poisonwood Bible is a veritable modern day classic and thanks to Oprah, quite the bestseller to boot, I wonder, had this been the debut of a new novelist, would it have sold?

Everyone from my agent, to editors, to writing-guides emphasize the importance of your opening pages. The first sentence must hook the reader! The first page, action paced! Go go go! This is not the Jane Austen, Dickens era of slow story telling. We are constantly reminded to make it fast-paced, to keep the action going lest the reader put it down and reach for another book.

To put it frankly, Poisonwood Bible starts off boring. The first chapter is told from an unknown perspective, likely a being spying down from a tree- the verbiage is muddled and I had to re-read the first page at least three times because while it was all very pretty, it was also very confusingly worded. My husband agreed, not moving past the first page for the one month the book has sat on his nightstand. It's too slow, he complained.

And yet- if you pull through beyond that first chapter, you are well rewarded with stunning prose and storytelling rivaling the greats. But if this book was queried by an unpublished writer seeking representation, I cannot imagine anyone giving this book a chance. What a shame that would have been.

Maybe a debut book should start of action packed go-go-go and then once you've created a fanbase and people are willing to take a chance on you, you can dive in and do a story like Poisonwood Bible- slow to start, but beautiful and well worth reading until the very last drop.

What's your take on the current pressure on action-paced narration? Do you feel very pressured to make the first few pages pop in your manuscript?


  1. Great point. I absolutely feel pressured to pack those first few pages. And yet, I've read plenty of books that started off a bit slow. Steinbeck's work comes to mind. So many greats would never have been published by today's standards.

  2. Thanks for sharing your perspective! Maybe as writers we give an author the benefit of the doubt and keep reading? I admit I will put a book down immediately if the quality of the writing is bad, but if the story is not whizzing through at a fast clip, I will still give it 30-50 pages to grip me as long as the quality of the writing is good. You are so right, I can think of a few classics that would not squeak into publication today!

  3. I do think older books have a different, often slower style -- but that's what was popular at their time. We are all beholden to the trends and preferences of our time. So what we're writing now probably wouldn't have been published back then either, and may not be what's wanted in the future. Nothing to be done but adapt.

    The stories that really stand out will always be read, I believe.

  4. You are right Kristan! The current climate dictates what sells and its always been that way. I just hope that publishers can also recognize that a book may not be according to the specific guidelines that are popular now but might also do well on its merits as an amazing book that will be loved if given the chance!

  5. I loved the audio version of this book, and never expected that at all. Nice review. I'm a new follower.

  6. I Aisha - I'm catching up because I haven't been blogging much for about a month.

    I loved this post of yours! Having just read "The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating" slowly and carefully I had to laugh when you talked about action packed narration. This book was SO far from action packed and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Sometimes we just need to slow down and smell the roses.

    Don't get me wrong, I do love an action packed thriller!

    I think there is still room for both...

    best, catherine