The Great Gatsby is not one of my favorite books — far too soapy for my tastes. On the upside, at just over 47,000 words, it’s less than 5% as long as the Bataan Death March of British literature, Clarissa. (By way of comparison, Atlas Shrugged comes in at about 65% of Clarissa, and War and Peace makes it at about 60%.)
Another couple of comparisons — The Postman Always Rings Twice runs about 35,000 words, while each of the five installments (thus far) of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series come in at over a quarter-million words. Now what’s important in the long run is not how many words a work has, but whether they’re the right words — ultimately, a novel needn’t be long to be good.
But we might not know that based on recent publications. In recent years, we’ve seen a serious rise in the “fat novel.” At The Independent, Alice Jones takes a look at some of the literary/mainstream works heading our way:
The cover [of Jonathan Franzen’s forthcomingPurity] is very nice – bold and graphic, like a cool birthday card you might pick up in the bookshop at Tate Modern. But when I was allowed briefly to touch The Independent literary editor’s copy, I skipped right past the cover to the back page: 576. That’s not so bad, I thought. Pretty long but it’s no Luminaries.
The fact is, 576 pages is long for a novel, but we are now apparently in the Year of the Very Long Novel so Franzen’s is small fry – a minibreak, rather than a long-haul holiday read. Death and Mr Pickwick, a prequel/ sequel to The Pickwick Papers, by Stephen Jarvis,out this week is 816 pages long. It is already being talked of as a Booker contender. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life about four college friends who go to New York to seek their fortune is 736 pages. When her editor told her to cut it by a third, she directed him to Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer winner The Goldfinch (881 pages) and Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, at 832 pages the longest book ever to win the Booker Prize. She also sent him a photograph of her manuscript next to a 900-page issue of Vogue and Vikram Seth’s 1,400-page A Suitable Boy. The message: pages win prizes.
And as we’ve noted, Martin’s books (and Rowling’s Harry Potter series) indicate that genre fiction easily falls into the category of “big honking mofos” as well. Even one of my more recent reads — Lamentation by C.J. Sansom — runs to 650 pages. If you’re planning on doing vacation reading with these things, you’d better pack an e-reader — or a truss.
And we’ve seen older books reissued in heftier “director’s cut” editions as well. As it happens, I had read both of these in the original/shorter releases before happening across the expanded versions. I didn’t see them as being particularly improved by the restoration of material. To the contrary, they showed me how much even authors I enjoy can benefit from a tight editor.
So, what to make of this rise in “doorstop novels”? Because I’m the guy I am, I find a metaphor in the music world. The 1970s saw a rise in a subgenre of rock called “progressive rock.” Some of it was very good — indeed, some of today‘s practitioners still do excellent work. However, far too much became self-indulgent and flabby. This led to punk and its successors — a stripped-down return of the repressed simplicity and energy of rock and roll.
Perhaps we’re due for a return of a direct, energetic, punky approach to fiction, both literary and genre. As ever, your thoughts and recommendations are welcome.