Monday, January 09, 2006

Long novels

As usual I'm out of my time. I keep trying to enjoy long books and in general I can't or don't or won't. Take your choice. Sometimes there's a good reason for books to be long. I just finished California Girl by T. Jefferson Parker and really enjoyed and admired it. The excellence of concept and execution justified its length. I also recently read The Road to Paradise by Max Allan Collins. More than justified its length. Wonderful novel. There are always exceptions.

But with most long novels--and I mean anything over 85,000 words--I usually see ways the book would have been stronger if it had been shorter. The eighties were the doorstop decade. Heft for the sake of heft. In one of my old Mystery Scene columns I invented an example of heft for it's own sake: "He touched his hand to the doorknob, remembering as he did so a an odd fact he'd read once about the history of doorknobs and how the first of them to be decorative appeared in the Ming Dynasty of..." This may be an exaggeration but not by much.

At least we've left that period of heft behind us. But there are still a lot of long books that are long for reasons of marketing rather than literary quality. Two or three sub-plots, great. Five or six, I can't follow. Or simply get tired of. I'm back in college plowing through War and Peace.

Maybe all this is peculiar to me. When I think of my favorite novels, they're all pretty short. Off the top of my head I'm thinking of Gatsby, Appointment in Samarra, Ethan Frome, Valdez is Coming, I Am Legend, the Ax, The Chill, How Like An Angel...I could probably think of thirty or forty of my favorite novels and most of them would be uner 85,000 words.

I'm not saying I'm right about this. I'm just saying that's my preference.


Blogger Bill said...

I'm with you all the way, Ed, and in fact I've been complaining about long books for many years. (And this from a guy who loved From the Terrace and who still reads Dickens with pleasure. Someone in publishing has the idea that people like long books, and when the books aren't long (as in the case of Robert B. Parker), the publishers make them look long by using big margins, thick paper, and large fonts.

5:11 PM  
Blogger Richard S. Wheeler said...

I was told in the 80s to write long novels because distributors wanted them: it meant a higher price on the cover, and more profit stuffed into limited rack space. Commerce has damned literature. A novel should be only so long as it takes to tell the story, and not a word longer.

5:45 PM  
Blogger mtmorgan said...

I agree completely with Mr.'s Gorman, Crider and Wheeler. I don't understand why a book or movie for that matter(find me a recent major release sub 2 hrs.)always has to be of epic length.

5:47 AM  
Blogger Tribe said...

I don't disagree with you necessarily, Ed. But...what could have been cut from Gravity's Rainbow?

12:06 PM  
Blogger Gormania said...

I should have said clearly that I was talking about popular fiction not literary fiction. I don't always like that distincton but I think literary fiction is much less (if at all) driven by marketing decisions. Not that old Tom Pynchon wouldn't happy as hell if I told him all the ways I wanted to improve his book. "Now, Tom, you take out chapters 6 through 24 and you'll have yourself a spiffy little beach book!" Tribe would you write me directly at I can't figure how to use those damned little boxes that pop up when I try to contact people. Thanks, Ed

1:15 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

"Now, Tom, you take out chapters 6 through 24 and you'll have yourself a spiffy little beach book!"


7:32 AM  

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