4/4/14 – IN PRAISE OF THE LONG NOVEL
Pundits have it that the age of the long, rambling novel is over. Having just read two super long books with book clubs that couldn’t get enough of them, I beg to differ.
How often have we heard that readers have no time or attention span for a magnum opus anymore? If that’s not enough, the cost of publishing long works has become prohibitive—and, besides, multimedia beats the long descriptive passages of Victorian novels any day. Philosophical pondering and leisurely expositions died with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.
Just say it, and say it succinctly.
One of these lengthy book club books, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men surpassed 600 pages in the hardcover version, even without counting the appendix. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is nearly 800 pages long. I savored just about every minute of both reads. And, so, apparently, did everyone else in both clubs.
I was left wondering if the age of the long novel is, indeed, dead. For years we authors have been told to cull and condense, scrape and purge, edit till we drop. Long is out aesthetically. In fact, long, rambling, and undisciplined have become synonymous.
A recent New York Times by William Grimes (Get. Arts. Fast.) argued that shorter and faster are now all the rage in the performing and visual arts as well. Asking artists to “get to the point” not only challenges them to new artistic heights, but paradoxically captivates audiences/viewers as never before—not to mention leaving them more time to grab dinner. In addition, shortness encourages artistic risk-taking. ‘If you know that you are going to be out that quickly,” writes Mr. Grimes, “you are more inclined to roll the dice.” The same, I suppose, could be said of reading.
This defense of the short and sweet all sounds very plausible, but it just doesn’t hold up to either psychological or empirical reality. The whole cost issue seems to be increasingly bogus in this age of e-publishing, where cost of paper and shipping are increasingly irrelevant. The idea that people have no time today is equally suspect. We have time for what we prioritize, as the busiest people know. And some of us have time for extremely long books, as anyone under the age of 30 who devoured tome after tome of Harry Potter will affirm.
When a book is good, the pages can go on forever. We don’t want to leave the world the author has created, and, if anything, we feel downright bereft, and even a little adrift, when, seeing that last word approach, we realize we’re being forced back into reality.
Admittedly, even the most cherished long books succumb to distractingly excessive meandering, and, arguably, could use the hand of an editor—or a heavier hand than they received. I’d include both All the King’s Men and The Goldfinch in those ranks. Perhaps not every word in either novel is essential as in a finely crafted poem, and perhaps the works are not impeccable arcs with no spare word, sentence, or paragraph. But, to me, a little raggedness, even outright rambling, is both the prerogative and the joy of a novel, which can, if it chooses, be an unweeded garden that is often still so enchanting that you never want to leave it.
I enjoy, sometimes adore, shorter novels, and admire their taut artistry, but these shorter, faster reads don’t bring the same exhilaration that comes from living with all those words for so many hours. Still, ultimately, what is most cherished in these long books is the very same thing most cherished in all my favorite novels. It is not my awareness of a succinct arc of a story or the perfect placement of sentences but, rather, the captivating voice of the author, and the rich world this voice creates.
So, the paucity pundits may have to eat their words – as long as they leave an abundant supply around for the rest of us to spin into stories, of whatever length, that engage minds and touch hearts.