The Page 40 Test

January 26, 2015 | 4 books mentioned 18 7 min read

coverIn a piece for The Millions last week, I used a single sentence from Anthony Doerr’s bestselling novel All the Light You Cannot See to demonstrate Doerr’s mastery of narrative prose. I was able to build an entire essay around one sentence chosen at random from Doerr’s novel because his prose is so consistently good that I could have picked essentially any sentence from the book and written the same essay.

But the exercise got me wondering: If I looked at the same line — the first sentence of the fifth paragraph on page 40 — in other books, would it offer the same window onto the author’s style? I began scanning my bookshelves at home, pulling down favorite novels and reading the first sentence of the fifth paragraph on page 40.

Though hardly foolproof, my “Page 40 Test” turned out to be an instructive exercise. Stripping away setting, narrative, and character development afforded me an unusual pinhole view into the mind of a writer at work. Some writers displayed infelicities of diction or grammar that I might have missed at full speed, but that, under close examination, helped explain a vague unease I had long felt about the author’s work. Other writers, I found, expertly built their setting, narrative, and character development into every sentence, while still others seemed to lose the plot midway through.

A work of fiction is more than simply a collection of finely wrought sentences. Plot matters, as do the characters and setting. But by paying close attention to how a writer constructs sentences, we can begin to see how the larger structure of the novel is built. Here are some especially telling sentences I found at the start of the fifth paragraph on page 40 of five novels from my shelves at home. Feel free to add sentences from your own “Page 40 Tests” in the comments.

coverThe Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor

“We ain’t got nothin’ but pullet eggs,” he said, fishing up another handful of beans.

One sentence, 15 words, and we are set down, firmly and indelibly, in a particular time and place. Given the dialect, this can be nowhere but the American South, and given what they are eating, and the apparent scarcity of it, it can only be the Depression years. City slicker that I am, I had to Google “pullet eggs.” They are eggs laid by a chicken less than a year old, meaning that they are unusually small. In our industrialized farming system, we rarely see pullet eggs, which are typically shipped off to the powdered egg factory.

But this sentence, which comes from the 1946 story “The Crop,” which O’Connor wrote while still a student at Iowa, is more than a sepia-toned portrait of a bygone age. The dialect is pitch perfect, and the verbal phrase at the end of the sentence displays O’Connor’s gift for masterfully inapt figurative language. One usually “fishes” an object from liquid or from an empty space (“He fished his cell phone from his pocket.”) It is just slightly off to say that someone is “fishing up” a “handful of beans.” Yet this wrongness is also exactly right. It gives the sentence its ring of authenticity and its voice, conveying the sense one has so often in O’Connor’s stories of a real person, an ordinary Southerner closely acquainted with the world she is describing, telling a tale.

coverThe Unvanquished by William Faulkner

Then they stopped — Joby and Granny, and while Granny held the lantern at arm’s length, Joby and Loosh dug the trunk up from where they had buried it that night last summer while Father was at home, while Louvinia stood in the door of the bedroom without even lighting the lamp while Ringo and I went to bed and later I looked out or dreamed I looked out the window and saw (or dreamed I saw) the lantern.

Who else but Faulkner could get away with a sentence like this? Actually, I’m not sure he does get away with it. As is so often the case in Faulkner, things start out crystal clear and action-packed, and then, as if the author has taken one too many sips from the tumbler of bourbon he supposedly kept on his writing desk, he gets unstuck in time. The second half of the sentence is a jumble of competing images and time frames, with too many whiles, too many lamps and lanterns and people looking out windows or perhaps only dreaming they are looking out windows. And just as soon as you work out the chronology, things get slippery again: If Joby, Granny, and Loosh are digging up the trunk in the middle of the night, then who are Ringo and I?

But this is the man who wrote, in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” So much in Faulkner is about the blurring of time and how our dream reality distorts, but also helps us make sense of, what we see with our own eyes. And all of Faulkner’s fiction, like this sentence, teems with life. Faulkner’s genius was that he could slip inside so many complex characters, but a part of the genius of his prose was that he let the messiness of life stay messy. It is possible to follow this passage — the dark night, the flickering lamplight, the narrator’s confusion about whether he saw or dreamed the lantern outside the window — but to do so you have to read carefully and recursively, piecing together clues the way the characters are doing. In other words, the only way to read a Faulkner sentence is to enter into it, become one more half-doomed character trying to make sense of it all.

coverThe Secret History by Donna Tartt

After class, I wandered downstairs in a dream, my head spinning, but acutely, achingly conscious that I was alive and young on a beautiful day; the sky a deep deep painful blue, wind scattering the red and yellow leaves in a whirlwind of confetti.

I love The Secret History, which remains the most accurate real-time portrait of my own generation of college students in the late 1980s, but I see in this sentence the root of the problems I have with Tartt’s later novels, both of which struck me as bloated and overwrought. The central drama of Tartt’s sentence is compelling and her imagery is original: the sky is “a deep deep painful blue” and the autumn leaves form “a whirlwind of confetti.” But what is up with that semi-colon? It does not, as semi-colons typically do, separate two independent clauses, nor does it function as a super comma linking a series of phrases that contain commas within them. It just floats there mid-sentence binding two tenuously related hunks of language, hoping it looks punctuationally sophisticated enough to ward off any questions about the sentence it is holding together.

Tartt could have replaced the semi-colon with a long dash or a plain old comma. The second half of the sentence still wouldn’t have meshed with the first, but at least the clash wouldn’t be so glaring. But a closer look at the sentence shows that syntactic coherence is the least of Tartt’s worries. How many characters have we seen in fiction wandering in a dream, their heads spinning? The next clause is even clunkier. First, Tartt has trouble articulating the quality of her hero’s consciousness. Is he “acutely” conscious? Is he “achingly” conscious? Hey, why not just use both? And what is it that our hero is so “acutely, achingly conscious” of? That he is “alive” and “young” on “a beautiful day” — three essentially empty vessels of descriptive cliché. This is the work of a writer several orders of magnitude less talented than the one who can turn a clear blue sky “painful” and conjure a “whirlwind of confetti” from a pile of dead leaves. That’s what that semi-colon is doing loitering there mid-sentence looking so guilty. It’s protecting the work of a gifted stylist from that of far more ordinary writer.

coverAll the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen

All the women in Sam’s life italicized things.

Unlike the earlier Faulkner sentence, this one by Gessen demands little from its reader. This is a sentence, and a book, that can be read on an airplane. Yet the language is not merely functional, the way it might be in a novel by, say, John Grisham or Patricia Cornwell. Gessen’s prose is smartly observant. This sentence refers to a line Sam’s ex-girlfriend once said to him — “Really? That’s ambitious.” — but more generally it speaks to a passion, and a queasily ironic relationship to that passion, felt by the earnest Ivy Leaguers in Gessen’s book who are testing out the ideals they picked up in college in the laboratory of the real world.

This brand of easily accessible cleverness is in many ways a defining feature of commercial literary fiction. Everything is clean and orderly — no wandering participles, no mystifying time shifts, no dabbling in the netherworld between dream and reality. The reader can glide from subject to verb without ever having to pause for thought, yet the prose encourages thinking. At the same time, it’s a little glib. All the women in Sam’s life, really? And what does it mean, exactly, to italicize a thing? Here, as in Flannery O’Connor, the imprecision is part of the art. It gives Gessen’s sentence its punch, its voice. But unlike the O’Connor sentence, this one is self-consciously clever. One can hear the two young Harvard grads blowing off steam over beers at a noisy bar in Brooklyn, working to top each other with their insights about women and life. Then, at the end of the night, one of them goes home and puts it in a book.

coverPassing by Nella Larsen

An on-looker, Irene reflected, would have thought it a most congenial tea-party, all smiles and jokes and hilarious laughter.

Passing, Larsen’s classic Harlem Renaissance novella about a black woman passing herself off as white, is a case study of one woman’s struggle to manage impressions. But Larsen’s prose, as this sentence shows, is also furiously managing the reader’s impressions. The unidentified “on-looker” here is clearly us, Larsen’s reader. And who are we? A paragraph earlier, a party guest announced that the one thing he would never abide in his wife is any hint of racial taint. “I draw the line at that,” he said. “No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be.” We, the smiling on-looker, not only see this as “most congenial” tea-party chatter, but apparently find it “hilarious.”

But we are also, as Larsen’s grammar makes clear, blind to everything that matters. The sentence seems to focus on the on-looker and what he or she thinks of the party, but the heart of the sentence, the only active part of it, is Irene sitting off to one side watching and reflecting. She is, in this sentence as in the novella as a whole, hidden in plain sight, tucked away in an independent clause that seems to carry no grammatical weight, but in fact governs the whole sentence. Why would we, the clueless on-lookers, be fooled into thinking this was merely another “congenial tea-party” full of other happy, socially prominent white folks like ourselves? Because Irene quietly, invisibly, at the cost of great mental strain, has used all her good manners and finishing-school diction to make it appear that way.

is a staff writer for The Millions and a contributing editor for Poets & Writers Magazine. His nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Salon, and The Economist. His fiction has appeared in Tin House, December, The Southampton Review, and The Cortland Review. His debut novel, Blithedale Canyon, is due out from Regal House in June, 2022


  1. This is really interesting. It makes one’s reading more acute and shows how much you can get from close reading a snippet of prose rather than tearing through a couple hundred pages.

    I think Ford Maddox Ford had a similar test. If I remember correctly, he would immediately go to page 99 in whatever book he was looking at and read from it to decide if the book as a whole was worthwhile.

    I think it’s a good test- in the particular is contained the universal.

  2. I didn’t find many books with 5 paragraphs on page 40, but I did find a couple of silverfish while doing this exercise. So that was productive!

  3. Thank you for sparing me an attempt at ‘The Secret History.’ I dragged myself through the similarly bloated, ultimately meaningless sentences that make up the first 70 pages of ‘The Goldfinch’ before realizing it wasn’t going to get any better and officially giving up.

  4. This is so interesting. I was surprised that Tartt’s sentence didn’t hold up as well as I thought it might.

    Loved the comment about the misused semicolon loitering with intent to separate the Gifted from the Meh. Nice piece!

  5. The fifth paragraph part of the exercise rules out many books. Also, page 40 is too early in most books to do this — flabby writing and inattentive copy editing is more likely to show up by page 100.
    Plus, The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor is not a novel.

  6. @Tom & Chris: That’s interesting. I rejected a few books because the fifth paragraph of page 40 was a scrap of dialogue (“Hi, Jimmy!” – that sort of thing) or some generic stage-management kind of sentence. But I didn’t find many books that didn’t have at least five paragraphs on page 40. Are you counting dialogue exchanges? I counted each exchange of dialogue as its own paragraph if it was indented.

    But really, the page 40 part isn’t important. The important thing is taking truly random sentences from a number of books and reading them closely. The important thing is forcing yourself to read sentences closely, whatever tricks you employ to do so.

  7. It is indeed an interesting exercise, but i fear that you might be letting your preconceptions of the work guide your reading of the chosen sentence. For instance, I myself found the Tartt sentence to be, if not perfect, at least more than competent: Yes, the “dream” and “spinning” head are little more than clichés, but the acute, aching awareness of being young and alive on a beautiful day is an accurate description of a certain emotional state. To see this as ambivalent writing would be to say the same of John Williams when he, in Stoner, describes paradoxical emotional states such as feeling that something is at once both very near and very distant–something Williams does quite a lot. As for the semi-colon, it is indeed ungrammatical, but that’s neither here nor there, since you praised Faulkner regardless of grammar; the function of the semi-colon in Tartt’s sentence is to denote a shift in perspective, from the narrator’s awareness of her own mental state to the narrator’s description of exactly how beautiful the day actually is. I’m sure someone walking in a dream with her head spinning would find it hard to come up with the profound descriptions of the second clause.

  8. Librarians have been doing this for years.

    I always tell patrons to go to the page that corresponds to their age, and start reading. If they want to keep going, that book is probably a good fit for them.

    The age gimmick adjusts for shorter children’s books, and allows the author to get into their voice, without risking major plot spoilers.

  9. CJ, I say this with joking and not than malicious intent: you mean the protagonist’s awareness of his own mental state.

  10. “The Earwicker of that spurring instant, realising on fundamental liberal principles the supreme importance, nexally and noxally, of physical life (the nearest help relay being pingping K.O. Senpatrick’s Day and the fenian rising) and unwishful as he felt of being hurled into eternity right then, plugged by a softnosed bullet from the sap, halted, quick on the draw, and, replyin that he was feeling tipstaff, cue, prodooced from his gunpocket his Jurgensen’s shrapnel waterbury, ours by communionism, his by usucapture, but, on the same stroke, hearing above the skirling of harsh Mother East old Fox Goodman…”


    @CJ Writing from the perspective of someone living in a country awash in “more than competent” fiction, I can only agree with Mr. Bourne’s critique of the Tartt passage. I see your point about the shift in the narrator’s perspective, but I wonder if the protagonist/narrator’s semi-fugue state (broadly defined) would have been better served if it had it been more tightly linked to the environment it found itself in, i.e., “deep painful blue…wind scattering…day”, chucking the banal descriptors entirely. The semi-colon is, perhaps, not so much ambivalent as it is superfluous, even disruptive.

  11. “An on-looker, Irene reflected, would have thought it a most congenial tea-party, all smiles and jokes and hilarious laughter.”

    It is an on-looker, not a listener, that Larsen speaks of, one who would see only the group of people, not hear the words they’re saying. She makes the point that all seems benign there and that the onlooker would be disappointed to hear what was really being said.
    Don’t feel so put-upon until you’ve read a little more closely.

  12. “This brand of easily accessible cleverness is in many ways a defining feature of commercial literary fiction. Everything is clean and orderly — no wandering participles, no mystifying time shifts, no dabbling in the netherworld between dream and reality. The reader can glide from subject to verb without ever having to pause for thought, yet the prose encourages thinking.”

    I was in complete agreement with this assessment, until the last clause, which veers away from the obvious conclusion that this kind of writing really doesn’t encourage thinking. This type of commercial literary writing–Jennifer Egan also comes to mind here–is neat and streamlined, more or less unobjectionable, and objectionable for precisely that reason. It exists to confirm a set of attitudes and mostly ironic intellectual stances in likeminded readers, and all the potentially interesting edges are sanded down ahead of time.

    I haven’t read Gessen, btw, and don’t know how representative this is of his work–just got me thinking about other writers who I find essentially dull and overrated. Good article, btw, thanks!

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