Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A horrible misunderstanding of Ford Madox Ford

So the Campaign for the American Reader has a website called The Page 99 Test, which is headed by this quotation:

"Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you." --Ford Madox Ford

No source is given, so I don't know the specific context. Elsewhere, somewhere in his eccentric literary history The March of Literature, I think, Ford describes his "page 90 test", which I paraphrase as follows:

Pick up a new book. Turn to page 90. Read the first full non-dialogue paragraph. Judge accordingly.

The point of the test is to get a sense of the writer's prose, just the prose. The reader doesn't know who any of the characters are, or what's going on, and page 90 (or 99) is far enough in that mediocre writers have let their guard down. "Non-dialogue", because decent dialogue comes cheap. Ford was a literary editor, and was swamped with books. This was his method, an aesthete's method, a writer's method, of culling.

Not every reader cares about the quality of prose. There's no shortage of evidence for this proposition. But good prose is what Ford means by "the quality of the whole". Is the book well written?

I was surprised, then, to discover that at each post on the Page 99 site, a single page of a book is discussed by its own author. They tell us how page 99 is "representative" of their wonderful book. Many of the authors don't include a single sentence of their own work. Many others should not have. Strangely, not a single writer says that their prose is so poor that their book isn't really worth reading.

So the whole thing is just puffery. Trivia, marketing, probably best ignored. Is the Campaign for the American Reader a publisher front organization? Ford's long dead, I know, but please, leave him out of it.

The Campaign's home website tells me that it wants "to encourage more readers to read more books." I want to encourage more readers to read better books.


  1. The page 99 project would appear to be a rip off of Walter Abish's work of experimental fiction called "99: The New Meaning," published by Burning Desk (Providence) in 1990. Abish describes his enterprise in his author's foreword: "The titlepiece, "99: The New Meaning", consisting of no less than 99 segments by as many authors, each line, sentence or paragraph appropriated from a page bearing that same, to me, mystically significant number 99..."

  2. I think the chronology is against you - if they're related at all, the Abish novel is a response to Ford Ford.

  3. It's an interesting approach to criticism. Remember that Ford Madox Ford "discovered" D.H. Lawrence, so presumably the latter passed the p99 test (or had submitted such short work that it was inapplicable). I do wonder how Ford's own works would stand up to that particular scrutiny today, though. While he finds a loyal champion in Graham Greene, and while at heart I do have a certain sympathy for his project, I feel that both "The Good Soldier" and the Tietjens trilogy remain somewhat self-indulgent and isolated from their time. As a result, I have always thought of FMF more in terms of his critical and editorial prowess, than the particular values he proposed as a writer himself (I do see him as a bit of a victim of the Edwardian values which he seemed to find difficult, post WWI, to escape).

    1. let us simply "ding" your error--tetralogy rather than trilogy. plausibly you express a criticism exactly opposite of ford's work and his own stated intentions: that is to express a psychology of a particular time, to embody "the times" in a character.

  4. In the right mood, I think "The Good Soldier" is the greatest novel in English, so I think that his work admirably stands up to his own test (as does Lawrence - see "The Rainbow", p. 90, Penguin edition - wild!). Which, I should say, was not really meant as criticism but as a tool for dealing with the bombardment of new books.

    It's also my position, or taste, that some isolation from its time is a virtue in a book. See LOVELL BEDDOES Thomas for an example.

    I'll admit I don't understand the point about Edwardian values, or about Ford Ford's project.

  5. I recently applied the "page 99" test to Parade's End in preparing for the read along of this work I am hosting-

    Page 99 test and Parade's End

  6. Ha - excellent! I never thought to do that. The test comes out positive, that's for certain.

  7. Nice Gongora avatar, AR(T)!
    I decided to test this page 90 test, so I went to the best of the best: Dickens' Little Dorrit. From page 90:

    [The Circumlocution Office was (as everybody knows without being told) the most important Department under Government. No public business of any kind could possibly be done at any time without the acquiescence of the Circumlocution Office.]
    Because the Circumlocution Office went on mechanically, every day, keeping this wonderful, all-sufficient wheel of statesmanship, How not to do it, in motion. Because the Circumlocution Office was down upon any ill-advised public servant who was going to do it, or who appeared to be by any surprising accident in remote danger of doing it, with a minute, and a memorandum, and a letter of instructions that extinguished him. It was this spirit of national efficiency in the Circumlocution Office that had gradually led to its having something to do with everything. Mechanicians, natural philosophers, soldiers, sailors, petitioners, memorialists, people with grievances, people who wanted to prevent grievances, people who wanted to redress grievances, jobbing people, jobbed people, people who couldn't get rewarded for merit, and people who couldn't get punished for demerit, were all indiscriminately tucked up under the foolscap paper of the Circumlocution Office.

  8. The test has a clear result in that case, doesn't it? Continue Reading.

    I am amazed that promotional website is still going.