Monday, January 23, 2006

From Stephen Marlowe

Early in February, Stark House will be publishing a double volume containing two of my early novels, VIOLENCE IS MY BUSINESS and TURN LEFT FOR MURDER, one from the Chet Drum series, the other a stand-alone gangster novel. Several weeks ago, just before the book went to press, the publisher e-mailed me wanting to know if I'd like to include a short story in the volume because it was running a bit short. I declined with thanks, saying that each novel was the length it decreed itself to be, and short–-hopefully–-meant terse and even, with luck, riveting.
At about the same time, you ran a thoughtful piece about how you preferred short novels to long. In fact, you said that you rarely read long novels. And I began to do some thinking about the short and the long of novel writing.
I've written both. The Drums and most of my stand-alone noirs are short, rarely more than, say, 75,000 words, often a deal shorter. But I've written what the French call pavées--paving stones--that is, really long novels. For example, my antihistorical take on Columbus, THE MEMOIRS OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, runs a quarter of a million words, and so does THE DEATH AND LIFE OF MIGUEL DE CERVANTES, my fantastical biography of the creator of Don Quijote.
Their subject matter decreed their length, just as the subject matter of the two novels in the Stark House double volume decreed theirs. A novel is as long or as short as it has to be, and I'll always let the writer–-or the book itself–-make the decision. The novel's subject and substance determines its length, and the wise novelist not just necessarily but willingly goes along with it. It is much like the novelist's need to make the reader suspend his disbelief.
Here are a couple of pairings of novels to show what I mean.
THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE by Stephen Crane and GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell.
MOBY DICK by Herman Melville and and THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA by Ernest Hemingway.
Is Stephen Crane's novel, for its brevity, the better Civil War novel, or is Margaret Mitchell's, for its length? The first deals with a single battle from a single viewpoint, the second with what happens to an entire culture when engulfed by war. Which is the superior work of fiction ? I'll make no value judgment here, but I'd go to the wall saying neither the shortness of the first nor the huge length of the second would affect my judgment if I did.
Melville's long novel is about men and the sea, and about so much more than that–-the almost metaphysical confrontation between good and evil without the author ever saying which is which, the tragedy of revenge served not cold but hot, even the moral significance of the whiteness of the whale. Is Captain Ahab evil? The whale? Both? Or is it the dance of death between them that is evil? It is for us to decide.
Hemingway's short novel is about one man and the sea, but it is also about one of Hemingway's "double dichos"–-man can be defeated but not destroyed or man can be destroyed but not defeated.
Each of these exemplary sea novels reaches down to a more profound depth, a truth, that its words alone can't touch, and each is successful in its own way, and in its own length.
Is the short better, or the long?
The only answer I can give is that length has nothing to do with quality except to verify it by being the right length for the particular novel.
And the long and the short of it is that I'm happy to go with the writer every time–-provided the writer knows what he's doing.


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