Monday, October 26, 2009

The Long and the Short of It

I don't believe in the long novel. It's a subjective opinion, I know, but it's the truth and there's no use denying it. At this point in my life as a writer, I don't have anything worth saying that can't be said to good effect in two hundred pages or less.

Of course, I don't really think about page count when I'm writing. When the needs of the story are fulfilled then the work is done. There's nothing I hate more than reading a great book and hitting a flat spot, usually fifty to a hundred pages long, that just kills the momentum of the novel. It happens so often that I don't even bother to slog through them anymore. I just pinch a cluster of pages (usually about fifty) between my thumb and forefinger and turn them in one go. Then I repeat as necessary.

This isn't to say that I'm incapable or unwilling to read a great big doorstop of a book. In fact, the last two books I read were 800+ and 1000+ pages , and I enjoyed every word of each of them. But these were exceptions for me, and I believe by and large that most writers think they have much more to say than they actually do, and their novels often suffer for it. I would love to hear others' opinions on this, so please feel free to post a comment.


  1. hey don, i agree with you, and i'm not just saying that as a former coworker and friend. haha

    i think many, many books now adays dither on way too long with meaningless crap that can bog an otherwise good book down. take steven king for example. i think most of his later books are terrible and unneccessarily lengthy. he's the kind of author who spends 3 pages describing a door knob. who cares? will this help the story that i know the exact size, texture, and gleam of said door knob? or he'll spend a half dozen pages desribing one character down to the last cell and by then i no longer care. like many long winded authors he seems to have pages and pages of desolate nothingness sinking his story and eventually a comma seems more entertaining than suffering through another page. now, i'm not trying to pick on stephen, he was just the first example that came to mind.

    sadly many authors fall victim to the write a tome syndrome. like you i do enjoy a good long book and have read plenty, but you need to hold my interest. there are plenty of good novels around the 200-250 mark that are detailed yet paced well enough that you don't fall asleep. sure, some of them can be too short and could use a little more filler, but i think the trend is definitely in the do too much rather than do too little category. ultimately it is not about how many pages you use but how you use them. as you said, when it's time for the story to end, it should end. i think most good writers take a sorta organic approach to their stories and let them grow and develop as they will(to an extent obviously)and you can usually tell who just let it flow and enjoyed what they were doing and who tried to force a square peg into a round hole. haha

  2. Criticized by his brother William for "stating" something in a novel, Henry James replied "I hope I never do anything so basely abject as 'to state'."

    But James did coin the term "loose & baggy monsters" to describe Tolstoy's novels (and Russian novels generally), chiming in with his friend Turgenev's complaint about "War and Peace" -- "He repeats himself -- and he philosophizes!

    Is it a healthy symtom, "trim the fat", or a sign of a general social obsession in a society still characterized by overconsumption (now with underproduction)? a sort of aesthetic guilt over the indulgence & attention necessary to read, or the expenditure of time & emotion necessary to write, a long novel?

    The main difficult for one producing a long novel today is the absence of the audience's time to digest it, as well as the absence of vehicles suited to production. In the 19th century, novelists were writing first the paycheck from hefty monthly publications rather than for instantaneous appearance on a shelf; they had to build up the audience & meet their expectations. The individual pieces of a long novel lack the sort of condensation, or the particular type of expansion, that provided discipline. Once publishers undertook publication of whole volumes, editorial staffs flourished. Now, the editors are simply publicists, often for their own reputations, rather than dedicated people with a sense of obligation to maintaining & advancing a regional, naitonal, or international community & tradition.

  3. In other words, 19th century authors were serializing their work for monthly consumption (if I understand you correctly, Jay) and building an audience as a seasonal mini series like The Sopranos does (or did) today. As a matter of fact, the 800 page tome I recently read was I am a Cat by Soseki Natsume, which was serialized in a monthly format in the early 20th century for a Japanese newspaper. The effect is quite different (though it shouldn't be) than a modern 800 page book created, as you say, for instantaneous appearance.

  4. I disagree with you. Almost all of my favourite books are 300+ pages and many are much longer. I guess it depends which sort of books you like, but I enjoy reading a complex plot - this can't be achieved in a short book.

    Fingersmith and A Fine Balance are my favourite books - neither could have pages removed without ruining the complexity of the story.

    There are many books which do require a good edit, but they are just as likely to be short books.

  5. I'm sorry, but it's a myth that a complex plot can't be achieved in a short book. Gene Wolfe has done it in Fifth Head of Cerberus, and Philip K. Dick has done it with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. Or, if you prefer to leave genre, and travel into "literary" fiction. Salinger's Franny and Zoey is complex and short, as is Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49. Elegance and complexity are not mutually exclusive, but as you say it depends on what sort of books you like.