Good Riddance to Long Books
As soon as I picked up the parcel, my heart sank. The sheer weight of it gave the game away. Already I could unhappily picture myself struggling to hold it in one hand without straining a wrist while standing on the Piccadilly Line.
I’d ordered it after coming across a couple of positive references to it in quick succession: Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Written in the 1980s, set in the 1870s, it’s a cowboy story that won a Pulitzer in its day and still has its enthusiasts. I just hadn’t thought to check its length.
In fact the paperback isn’t much smaller than a box of Kleenex and runs to 839 pages. That’s scarcely less than my paperback of Ulysses
and more than other whoppers I’ve read lately, The Magic Mountain and Our Mutual Friend. With respect to McMurty his reputation isn’t quite in the same league as that of James Joyce, Thomas Mann or Charles Dickens, so while I was prepared to tackle those on trust, I’m simply not sure I have the will to face 839 pages of cowboys by an author I don’t know.
How did we get here? A brief history of the novel-by-length begins in the 18th century with Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding and particularly Samuel Richardson giving a lot of bang for your buck; Clarissa comes in at just a shade under a million words. The Victorian versions became less episodic, which cut the length a little, but they remained typically pretty chunky: Great Expectations and Vanity Fair are both just under 200,000 words, Midddlemarch just over 300,000.
Then in came modernism – more personal, immediate and urgent – and out went ‘all that David Copperfield kind of crap’, as J.D. Salinger famously put it in The Catcher in the Rye (73,000). For a time books became much shorter and, I’d argue, more readable. A Passage to India is 92,000, Sons and Lovers 91,000, Mrs Dalloway a mere 44,000.
In The End of the Affair, Graham Greene’s writer protagonist describes his working method: ‘I have probably averaged 500 words a day for five days a week. I can produce a novel in a year, and that allows time for revision and correction.’ Adding that all up, the expectation would be to come in well under 100,000 words. Greene’s book in which he recounts this runs to 48,000.
So for most of their history novels were getting progressively shorter. But then came the 1960s, and drugs and free expression. Suddenly the only rule was that there were no rules. The most LSD-addled author of them all, Ken Kesey, followed his hugely successful and readable debut, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with a book that was just huge: the famously difficult Sometimes a Great Notion – which is more than twice as long as its predecessor. And yet his hippie-era counterpart Richard Brautigan wrote novels that were barely more substantive than a puff of (dope) smoke.
We live in the ongoing aftermath of that torn-up rule book. Since the 1960s a novel can be so slight that it’s really just a long short story, or it can be a giant: Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy is twice as long as Ulysses.
But lately the biggies have been increasingly dominant. The trend towards ‘bigger is better’ can be traced back to late and greatly lamented Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Booker win in 2009. It’s perhaps best summed up by Hanya Yanagihara’s monster-selling and monstrously hefty 2015 A Little Life, whose title belies its length, 215,000. Its fans seem to take it on in the same determined way others undertake a Seven Peaks challenge. Or there was 2019’s Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellmann which amounted to a single 425,000-word sentence over 1,000 pages. Both were Booker shortlisted.
So how refreshing it was to see the Booker prize take another turn last month – putting the short in shortlist, as it were – with a record-breakingly succinct nominee: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan is just 116 pages. And Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker is only 36 pages longer. One of the judges, M. John Harrison, said: ‘I’m quite in favour of short books. I quite like the brevity of them. I think compression is a real skill.’ The Daily Telegraph concluded: ‘Brevity appears to be back in literary fashion.’ Thank heavens.
For me, naturally parsimonious, books are one of the few items for which I prefer to pay more for less. I once bought a copy of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery online thinking it was ‘…And Other Stories’. It wasn’t – and I’d spent a tenner on a 12-page story. But I didn’t mind – I liked the format.
And I hate fat anthologies. They’re so ungratifying to read. Patrick Hamilton’s deliberately slight but razor-sharp novellas, say, lumped together in threes, making them seem wrongly clunky. I recently read Mikhail Sholokhov’s lengthy And Quiet Flows The Don but I’d so much rather have been able to buy it in four separate volumes as it was originally published.
On closer examination Lonesome Dove isn’t that
long, it’s in large print and only runs to 160,000 words – merely the length of two or three regular novels. So it’s a buy-one-get-one-free kind of edition. It’s just that I’d be happier to pay double for half as much.