Shorter is bett….

November 18, 2010

Robert McCrum asks why books are too long these days:

Whatever happened to brevity? Once upon a time, it was not just the soul of wit, there was a strong literary preference for the shorter book, from Utopia to Heart of Darkness. More recently, The Great Gatsby, for my money the greatest novel in English in the 20th century, comes in at under 60,000 words, a miracle of compression. The novels of that great triumvirate – Waugh, Greene and Orwell – average 60-70,000 words apiece; even 1984 is not much over 100,000 words.

I agree. I’m waiting for Jonathon Franzen’s new book to arrive but am slightly apprehensive that it’s going to take me months to read. I’ve now taken a leaf – or 100 – out of Coper’s book and begun skipping large parts of unecessary waffle. That helps avoid giving up on a book, which i don’t like to do, but it means i can get onto the next one without psychology going to work on myself for being a slow reader. It’s not all my fault. It’s Fr Time’s and the sod that wrote too much.


One Response to “Shorter is bett….”

  1. tbm7 said

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I think there are several drivers of the lengthy novel:

    1. Too many writers mistaking length for depth.

    2. Too many writers feeling the need to demonstrate their skill of the craft, rather than just getting on with telling the story. Nick Hornby has a nice metaphor about how, when he writes, he sees the purpose of his prose as being to create a window onto the world of the story; the glass must be clear, to allow the reader the best view of this world. But so many modern writers seem to be shouting “look at the glass, look at the glass!”

    (For me, the greatest example of both the above points is Phillip Roth’s ‘American Pastoral’)

    3. The demise of the editor and subsequent rise of the celebrity author. It’s curious, this. Because whilst we accept the role of a great producer in creating a seminary album, and nearly every great film is the result of a brilliant writer interpreted by a genius director, why do we believe that a great book can be the product of its writer alone?

    There is a reason I tend to read more short stories than novels – because, whilst they are of course shorter in terms of length, this in turn forces the writer to be more economical. There is no room, as there is in a novel, to write 15 pages on the history of glove-making (see American Pastoral). There is no margin for long, overly-furnished paragraphs about the Miss America pagent (see American Pastoral). There is no opportunity to reach the book’s most dramatic moment, after some 300 pages, only to then leave the reader hanging whilst you begin a new chapter talking about horses, farmyard animals and the people who run the local post office (see American Pastoral).

    A good short story writer must hook you from the first sentence, tell his tale clearly and directly, and at the end the reader will fel – as Big Ray put it – “our body temperature will have gone up, or down, by a degree”.


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