A few days ago, I posted a few comments on what I saw as a rise in novels being sold by the pound. A dear friend of mine — of more than four decades standing — has responded with some points of disagreement.
With regard to the “prog begat punk” portion of the discussion, which was part of an analogy I offered late in the piece, I think my friend makes some interesting points. Arena rock (with the lack of intimacy the term implies) was another key factor in the rise of punk. I should have mentioned that, and indeed thought of doing so, not least because it also offered its share of overlong, self-indulgent work.
I might take some issue with his comments on timing. He says, “The 70s “bloat period” of prog was basically over by 1976.” While “basically” allows some wiggle room, I would counter that my friend’s choice of date is interesting. While bands like the Damned, Pistols, and Ramones wouldn’t make it to wax until ’76, groups like the Dictators, London SS, and Rocket from the Tombs had been working from the sort of stripped-down aesthetic I discussed for a few years, and even the Ramones and Blondie started gigging in ’74, which either puts us in that aforementioned “bloat period” or suggests that the period may only have lasted for a few minutes on a Tuesday afternoon in 1972, probably for less time than it would take this morning to listen to “The Ancient.”
But enough neckbeard trainspotting (he said, lovingly cradling his copies of Lark’s Tongues in Aspic and Brain Salad Surgery — no one will hurt you, no, and not Stormwatch either). Let’s get back to the issue of overlong books. As I noted in my original post, the issue ultimately isn’t one of how many words a story has, but how well those words work together.
My friend says:
A novel is just as long as the story mandates. Writers know that when things are right with the Muse, the characters will dictate their own dialogue/actions, the story will take you where it wants to go, and everything will end when it’s time to end.
In this sense, we can say that a story is like Abraham Lincoln’s legs — if it’s long enough to reach the ground, it’s fine. OK, sure. And as I noted, there are long books I’ve enjoyed (including one he mentions) and short books I haven’t (Gatsby again.)
However, immediately after, my friend says,
[…A]lthough I think an editor (literary world) and a producer (music world) are worth every dime in working with the artist to help him or her present their art in the most direct and honest way, it is, at the end of the day, the artist whose name appears on the work. [Emphasis mine — Prof. M]
That’s true, but not necessarily relevant to the matter of quality. An author may — indeed, must — have his vision of how the work should be. And if the author has sufficient commercial clout (as with a King or Rowling), or can persuasively sell the idea that size=complexity=quality (an idea derived both from High Modernism and much older ideas about poetry), he or she may be able to have his vision brought forth more or less unmediated (within the limitations of the medium.) But if we value that directness mentioned in the first part of the passage above, then the question becomes, “Is what is lost (e.g., directness) worth what is gained (e.g., fullness of the author’s vision)?” At that point, it turns once more to our questions of chocolate and vanilla.
Again, the big point to all this is that the point of the entire exercise is to put the words together well. But I remain firm in my belief that length for the sake of length is not a praiseworthy quality. Don’t be impressed because it’s thick — be impressed because it’s good.