Does size matter?

I recently commented – although, admittedly, in a somewhat unfocussed manner – on the assumption often made, without any justification, that, in fiction, the shorter a work is, the better. Some works, I tried to argue, need to be long. Yes, it is no doubt true that certain works are unnecessarily long, and are padded out with much that is superfluous: but in such cases, the novel is flawed not because it is long, but because it is padded out. And even amongst such works, there are some in which a certain level of “padding” is unavoidable:  these are works such as Moby-Dick, or The Brothers Karamazov – works in which the scope is so broad and the ambition so over-reachingly high that it is not even to be expected that all shots will hit the target: some, indeed, may miss quite glaringly. However, even these failed shots – which emerge as “padding” – are integral  parts of the whole. To criticise such novels for being “overlong” or “padded” – and they often are – is to misunderstand their nature: in works such as Moby-Dick or The Brothers Karamazov, rules that apply to keep lesser novelists in check become gloriously irrelevant.

It is in this context, I find myself somewhat bemused by an article by Robert McCrum, former editor in chief of Faber & Faber, lamenting what he claims is the modern trend for longer novels. He gives very little evidence for this claim:

In these lean times, fiction is putting on weight. Take three of the major novels out in the next few weeks. Never mind the quality, which is variable, feel the width. Angelmaker (Heinemann), Nick Harkaway’s second novel, weighs in at 576 pages. My copy of Capital (Faber) by John Lanchester tips the scales at 577pp. The Bellwether Revivals by Benjamin Wood (S&S) is a 420-page debut. Even the Costa winner, Andrew Miller’s Pure (Sceptre), runs to a chunky 352 pages.

The fact of three novels being a bit on the long side does not really indicate much. And that McCrum regards a novel of 352 pages as “chunky” merely indicates to me that his idea of what constitutes “long” is somewhat different from mine. It would, I imagine, to be quite easy to find some recently published high-profile novels that are short, even on the McCrum scale, and present them as argument that novels are actually becoming shorter. It would be a foolish argument, admittedly, but no more so than the one McCrum presents.

Now, I do realise that I have myself been criticised at times for making certain claims without providing sufficient evidence; but I am merely an amateur blogger whose spare time is extremely limited: why a professional man of letters writing in the arts pages of a prestigious newspaper shouldn’t have the time to put together a bit of evidence for his arguments I really cannot imagine. I frankly have no idea whether the current trend is for longer or for shorter novels, but since it is McCrum’s starting point that novels are, indeed, becoming longer, and should really be shorter, a bit more evidence to support his premise may have been welcome.  

McCrum pronounces ex cathedra:

What’s hardly in doubt is that where novelists used ascetically to follow a regime of “less is more”, now they’re piling on the carbs.

When exactly did novelists follow “ascetically” the regime of “less is more”? The novelists of the nineteenth century – a period that many would consider to be the high water mark of the novel – certainly didn’t; Ulysses and A la Recherche du Temps Perdu – often acclaimed as the greatest novels of the twentieth century – certainly don’t either. The Master and Margarita, The Magic Mountain, Life and Fate, One Hundred Years of Solitude – even Midnight’s Children, a book that seems to me entirely meretricious but which was the recipient of the Booker of Bookers – are all big, hefty tomes.

Of course, yes, it is also quite easy to list a great many very fine novels that are short, and a great many very fine novelists – Graham Greene, R. K. Narayan, Muriel Spark, etc. – who did indeed pare away the slightest hint of excess fat. But, just as the existence of a single black swan is sufficient to disprove the contention that “all swans are white”, the existence of a single War and Peace disproves “less is more” as a universal principle. And, given the sheer numbers of supremely great works that are of immense length (certainly on the McCrum scale in which a novel of 352 pages counts as “chunky”), “less  is more” cannot, I think, stand as a general principle either. If anything, it’s quite the opposite: I’d argue that most (though certainly not all) of the novels we nowadays consider to be amongst the greatest are very long novels – Don Quixote, Tom Jones, Clarissa, Moby-Dick, Bleak House, War and Peace, The Idiot, The Golden Bowl, Ulysses, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, The Magic Mountain, The Master and Margarita, etc etc. But yes, there are also, as I said, many works of a very high quality that are short, so I won’t press this particular point.

But in pressing his point, McCrum ends up saying some very strange things indeed:

[The] trend towards fiction of between 350 and 500-plus pages is new.

Really?

We should recognise that some of English literature’s best-loved classics are exceedingly short.

Indeed – but who exactly doesn’t recognise this? He continues:

The recent celebration of Dickens’s 200th birthday has given a new lease of life to Nicholas Nickleby and Bleak House, which are 800pp and more than 1,000pp, respectively. But the Dickens story everyone loves is A Christmas Carol, which is 160 pages, even with illustrations.

Yes, and … and what’s his point? That A Christmas Carol is better than Nicholas Nickleby or Bleak House for being shorter? Or, perhaps, for being loved by more people (if indeed, it is loved by more people)?

Further contentions follow. The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl – two of the very greatest masterpieces of fiction that I have come across – are, apparently, “orotund”, a word I understand to mean “pompous” and “verbose”. No doubt McCrum commands a wider range of vocabulary than do those who give us in Amazon’s review sections such simple-minded put-downs as “It is boring” and “It sucks”, but dismissing works of the stature of The Wings of the Dove and The Golden Bowl merely as “orotund” seems to me to display no greater a level of critical awareness. And while, as an admirer of Henry James and as an aficionado of ghost stories, I love The Turn of the Screw, to declare it categorically and without supporting argument as “the master’s masterpiece” seems to me to be the sort of thing every schoolchild should be taught to avoid.

McCrum continues:

Stevenson used to say that “the only art is to omit”. Tell that to Messrs Harkaway, Miller and Wood.

Or, indeed, to Dickens. Or to Tolstoy. Or Dostoyevsky. Or Joyce Or Cervantes. Or  Melville. Or Proust. Orotund, no doubt, the whole lot of them.

And so on. Further unsupported personal opinions follow, dressed up as Facts Universally Acknowledged. The greatest short novel, for instance, is Heart of Darkness (The Death of Ivan Illych? Notes from Underground? Death in Venice? Billy Budd? The Aspern Papers?); or the greatest American novel of the 20th century is The Great Gatsby (The House of Mirth? Light in August? The Heart is a Lonely Hunter? Invisible Man? Humboldt’s Gift?)  Now, this sort of nonsense is perhaps not out of place in a casual conversation over a few drinks in the pub, but coming as it does from a prominent figure in the world of literature writing in the pages of a prestigious paper, it is hard to see it as anything other than symptomatic of a decline in the standards in public discourse.

McCrum does not, to be fair, explicitly say that shorter novels are necessarily superior to longer novels: he restricts himself to saying: “Short books, in brief, form a vigorous alternative tradition.” An “alternative tradition” to what? Presumably, to long books. But if A is an alternative to B, it follows that B must similarly be an alternative to A; and so, one may just as reasonably say “Long books, in brief, form a vigorous alternative tradition”. But leaving that aside,  is this really a point worth making? Who, exactly, is disputing that short books can be of a high literary quality? McCrum started his article taking issue with long novels; but merely to argue the uncontentious point that short novels can also be very good is hardly an argument against longer ones. So on what basis exactly is he taking issue with longer works?

The whole concept of long fiction and short fiction being somehow in competition with one another, of one being superior to the other, strikes me as a red herring. A novel should be as long as it needs to be: its length is determined by the nature of its content, and also by the author’s aesthetics. Chekhov could compress an entire world into about twenty pages: that is fine, but there is no reason why Chekhov’s literary aesthetics should be applied to others.

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14 responses to this post.

  1. As you say, there’s really no value to be extracted from a debate about whether short books are better than long ones; you might as well debate whether books set in the present day are better than historical ones etc. The only issue is whether the novel is served by its length, or whether one feels the author has misjudged, either by excessive brevity or prolixity, the span of their material.

    I don’t think McCrum is making very illuminating observations here; it’s almost as if he’s been set the question in a University entrance exam and has to make the best of an enterprise that is misjudged from the outset. Having been reading one of John Updike’s brilliant collections of literary criticism recently, perhaps my antennae are currently particularly attuned to the lazy and the slapdash.

    Which is not to say that there aren’t cases where size does matter; Proust’s monumental work has to be that long because that so fundamentally reinforces the central themes of the book that the impact would be greatly diminished were this not the case. At the other end of the scale, Lampedusa’s “The Leopard” crams so much into a slender volume, but it never feels rushed.

    On the other hand Bolano’s “2666” feels like a great book in search of good editor; to make a point about the sheer scale and monotony of mass murder, a good writer should not require several hundred pages of repetition.

    Reply

    • I haven’t yet read anything by Bolano, but, from what I hear – both from you and from others – 2666 is not the place to start.

      I do feel that far too much is said on matters of writing (and not merely on the question of length) that is merely prescriptive. I find it depressing when the value of a book is measured in terms of predetermined criteria – as if there were a set of rules, and quality only results when those rules are closely followed. The mantra “less is more” seems to me particularly pointless little sound bite.

      Reply

  2. Chunky to me is somewhere from 650-850 pages. I like nothing better than sinking into one of those Victorian multi plot novels for a few weeks. All a matter of taste, but the trend does seem to be towards the shorter.

    Reply

    • I agree: for me, a novel has to exceed some 500 or so pages (I am bad at estimating word count) before I think of I as a long novel. I suppose that’s what comes of familiarity with those Victorian baggy monsters!

      Reply

  3. I read that article too and was going to leave a comment saying much the same thing, but in the end thought better of it. Here is a paraphrase of what I was going to write:

    So what you’re saying is that you’ve recently received some books to review which are quite long, and a man in the 40s and 50s wrote some books which were quite short, and in the Victorian era some writers wrote both long and short books? – Yes, it’s an interesting theory and one which I shall now go away and contemplate at my leisure

    .

    Reply

  4. I could not agree more that the “debate” over long fiction is silly. I did get to wondering however, according to Wikipedia, the longest published novel ever, may have been Artamène by Madeleine de Scudéry and Georges de Scudéry. It was over 2,100,000 words. It was published in pieces between 1648 to 1653!

    Reply

  5. Posted by alan on February 20, 2012 at 11:01 pm

    Why not give up commenting on newspapers and comment about other blogs instead, e.g new english review (plenty for you to disagree and agree with there).
    Problem for the Guardian is they can’t afford decent copy, what with people willing to write for free, er…
    This is a real tragedy as it will lead to the decline of something more important – what used to be the lifeblood of newspapers – investigative journalism. These days a lot of articles just seem like thinly disguised advertising copy.

    Reply

    • In my defence, this article did appear in the Books blog section of the Guardian, and it did annoy me that someone so prominent in the literary world, given such a high profile platform, should have nothing coherent to say. But you’re right – I really should be looking beyond the pages of the major newspapers.

      Reply

    • I do, incidentally, feel that the “kulcher” pages of our national broadsheet newspapers should aspire to a higher quality. I know we tend to look back on the past with rose-tinted spectacles, but I’m fairly sure the Books pages didn’t use to be this bad: I remember eagerly reading the books pages of Observer when Terence Kilmartin was literary editor, and the articles and essays that appeared were of a much higher standard than the guff we get now. There has been a dramatic lowering of standards in public discourse on arts and culture, and, while it is true there’s not much I can do about it, I can at least rant a bit on my blog! 🙂

      Reply

  6. Sorry, if anyone is curious the link to the above mentioned novel is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artamène

    Reply

  7. What’s ‘lean times’ to begin with? Describe things, McCrum, make your case. When I read this article I found it so assinine; it’s nothing more than a man’s confession of ignorance and lack of patience.

    I understand some people may find exasperation over reading long novels, but even when I was at my wit’s ends in the middle of Terra Nostra, I never cursed Carlos Fuentes for writing such a long novel. It is the novelist’s prerrogative to write what he wants, how he wantsit , how much he wants. The novelist owes no one nothing. Although one can regret the final object, to act like a weekend editor saying, “Oh this passage should have been shorter; oh this paragraph needs paring down,” is sheer arrogance.

    Reply

    • Hello Miguel, my post was, I admit, a bit of a sledgehammer to smash a rather puny nut, but I do become tired of teh arts pages of our national newspapers crammed full almost entirely with unthinking, superficial nonsense such as this. The particular article I was addressing is by no means on its own: virtually every article that appears in broadsheet arts pages is similarly superficial and unthinking, dragging the level of public discourse on the arts ever lower. I’m sure it didn’t use to be like this!

      Reply

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