Sunday Salon: The Long or Short of It

For all of my adult reading life, I’ve been a fan of good, long books. I love getting immersed in the characters and their world and spending time there with them. Anything less than 400 pages or so barely gives barely give me time to get acquainted. At least that’s been my thinking in the past. In more recent years, I’ve become quite the fan of the well-crafted novella. But I still love a tome.

A couple of posts this week got me thinking about the way we few book length. First, Misha Angrist, the judge for Round 3 of the Tournament of Books gave the win to Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 over Nathacha Appanah’s The Last Brother. In her explanation, she stated that

On their own terms, one could argue that The Last Brother succeeds where 1Q84 fails. It is taut and mournful where Murakami is expansive, restless, and occasionally ponderous. 1Q84’s reach exceeds its grasp.

Alas, I am a sucker for outsized ambition and extraordinary, noble failure.

Ambition is, of course, not precisely the same thing as length, but I got the impression from the judge’s analysis that the length of Murakami’s novel is one of the signs of his ambition—and the reason behind some of the book’s biggest flaws.

That same day, Ellen at Fat Books and Thin Women responded on her blog to a Book Riot post by Kit Steinkellner that suggested that books need a defined word limit—Kit’s suggestion is 100,000 words. I agree with Ellen that a call for an arbitrary limit is off-the-mark, yet I can think of plenty of books that suffered from bloat. It’s almost a truism among the readers I know that the later Harry Potter books could have used some cutting. But I wouldn’t take a word away from the 800 pages of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Susanna Clarke needed all of those words, and I wanted them. In fact, I wanted more of them.

As much I love my long books and recoil at the thought of imposing arbitrary limits on how many words authors get to build their worlds, I can’t quite get behind the idea implied in the Tournament of Books judgment that a long book shows ambition and that such ambition should be rewarded. If a book falls apart in the final third, as the judge believed that IQ84 did, then more work was needed to make the book live up to its potential. Perhaps that work would have meant rigorous cutting, leading to a less ambitious-looking book that the three-volume novel that readers got. I wouldn’t want to say authors shouldn’t strive for something huge and magnificent for risk of failure, but I’m not convinced that a sprawling monster of a novel is more worthy than a finely crafted gem.

For a case in point, I’d like to look at another TOB contender, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. It’s under 200 pages, so it could easily be classed as a novella. But as I noted in my review, the book raises so many possibilities regarding what actually happened to the characters, that the narrative bursts out of the pages. If you work through all the possibilities, there may well be a good 400 pages of story embedded in this tiny book. For that reason, I’d have a hard time saying that Barnes’s novella is less ambitious than a much lengthier book. If Barnes had written the full 400 pages, the book may seem less “slight,” but it would lose the power of its open-ended plotting.

Does bursting the seams of his novel make Barnes more ambitious than Murakami? Or at least equally ambitious? Not having read 1Q84, I don’t know, and I’m not sure that it matters to me. I like such a wide variety of books that I wouldn’t want every book to shoot for the same target. I prefer for some books to have modest goals—just to tell a good story or to make me laugh. As a reader, I want books to achieve what they set out to achieve. To be the length they need to be. Both will vary from book to book.

What do you think? Do you prefer long books or short ones? Do you consider book length a sign of ambition on the author’s part? Would you prefer an ambitious book that falls short to a less ambitious one that does what it sets out to do?

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39 Responses to Sunday Salon: The Long or Short of It

  1. Tony says:

    Long – the longer the better :) Sometimes I think that people ignore longer books because they can’t commit to reading one book for a long time…

    …their loss.

    • Teresa says:

      I sometimes see people say that they aren’t going to read one book when they could read three, but I agree with you that they’re missing out. I might avoid chunksters when I’m especially busy, but I’d never cut them out altogether.

  2. gaskella says:

    I do love long books, but most of the time I’d rather read more books, so I leave the chunksters for times when I know I’ll be able to devote enough time to really get stuck in.

  3. I prefer books that are the right length for what they’re trying do, what story they’re trying to tell. My dividing line between long and short is four hundred pages, but every book is different.

    Coming from speculative fiction, where I have seen the weirdest kinds of book bloat, I don’t think length means ambition. It can mean ambition, or extreme thoughtfulness on the part of the author. It can also mean rambling, a lack of precision, or really freaky margins. (I don’t like that.) So the length of a book, to me, is only relevant insofar how much time I have to devote to them.

  4. Deb says:

    I don’t generally notice the length of a book (and it’s never a determining factor for me when I’m deciding what book to read next). I’m a fan of big meaty Victorian novels (particularly Trollope) with mazes of plots and scores of characters. But those books were meant to be read in a serialized form with a bit of “catching up” at the beginning of each segment. I find that most contemporary novels don’t need that “replay” feature, so could stand to be cut a bit. However, I agree that books should be as long as they need to be to convey the writer’s ideas. Whether that’s 150 pages or 650 pages, only the author and his/her editor can determine.

    That being said, I have to observe that one of the genres that has seen the worst bloat in the past few decades is the mystery novel. Take a P.D. James or Ruth Rendell from the 1960s or 1970s, compare it to their most recent books–especially those of P.D. James. Their current books are massive, full of unnecessary detail and character back-stories that do nothing to move the plot forward or, in the end, have anything to do with how the mystery is solved. I suppose when you’ve become a Grande Dame of mysteries, no editor is brave enough to say, “Do we really need to read about a minor character’s experiences in elementary school?” Elizabeth George is one of the worst offenders in this regard. I would say all of her books could easily be trimmed 100 pages and not suffer damage to the plot or the unraveling of the mystery.

    Sorry for droning on–perhaps I could use some judicious editing, ha-ha!.

    • Teresa says:

      I do pay attention to book length, but only insofar as I want to have an idea how long a book might take me to finish. If I’m really busy, I might avoid a really long book.

      I haven’t noticed bloat in crime fiction more than other genres, but I have noticed that some experienced authors’ books could use a lot more editing. I don’t know if it’s because their editors don’t see the point because the books will sell anyway or if their success makes them resist editing. Probably some of both.

  5. Sly Wit says:

    I would normally say a book should be the length it should be, but I must admit that when I love a book and it’s short that definitely factors positively into my reviews at Goodreads and in my recommendations. I don’t avoid long books, but when I’m reading them, I do look longingly at the shorter books in my TBR pile.

    With things like Harry Potter, I don’t think they necessarily needed to be shorter, but I do think it was obvious that at a certain point (Book 5, I think) they were so behind schedule that they no longer had time to translate or edit them properly. As an editor, the inconsistencies in Am/Br English between the first and later books drive me crazy. (I don’t think they needed to be translated in the first place, but, you know, finish what you start!)

    • Teresa says:

      If I’m looking longingly at other books, that’s usually a sign that the book is too long or otherwise not doing it for me. It doesn’t tend to happen with, say, a Wilkie Collins novel.

      I think you’re quite right about lack of time for editing being the case with something like Harry Potter–and that’s probably the case for much-anticipated new books by any popular author.

  6. Carolyn says:

    I like being completely caught up in a book, whatever it’s length. Sometimes I’ll choose a short book, thinking it’ll be a fast read, and then when I’m not really pulled into it, it ends up seeming much longer than I originally thought it would be! Whereas if I’m really into a long book (Trollope, Tolstoy, Proust, Gaskell, George Eliot), I’m more drawn into the world of the book and I’m expecting a long read anyways, so I tend to keep at it. The number of short books I’ve abandoned is ridiculous. I abandoned The Inheritance of Loss 100 pages before the end though (too much misery), so contemporary long books don’t do a lot for me; I like the 19th century chunksters.

    If I’m in the mood for a good long book, then diddling around with fun little short books isn’t going to do it. I didn’t finish anything in February this year, then finally picked up Anna Karenina and since it required more serious commitment, got through it in two weeks. Now that I’ve finished it, I’ve been diddling around again. Yesterday I finally said, forget this, it’s time for War & Peace…!

    • Teresa says:

      It really is about the mood you’re in and the skill of the writer, isn’t it? A short book can feel like it takes forever if it’s not much good or not what you’re wanting, but I don’t even notice time passing when I’m reading Trollope.

  7. cbjamess says:

    I’m about to restart my reading of 1Q84. I stopped at page 300 and something for no real reason, I was loving it. So I’m not put off by long books, though I don’t go over 500 pages very often anymore.

    You’re right that a book should be as long as needed to suit its goals, of course. I don’t think length has much to do with ambition. Some stories just take longer to tell.

    I do think mysteries have become much longer than they need to be. Fantasy and science fiction, too. I pick up a F/SF book now and then thinking it will be a fun adventure only to find if full of dialogue and backstory and tidbits that ramble on and on without getting on with it.

    I hate that.

    I do want to say that all movies should be under 2 hours in length, comedies under 90 minutes, unless special dispensation has been granted by a very powerful and august body of critics. Movies are simply way too long.

    • Sly Wit says:

      So with you on the movie-thing. I always think twice if a movie is over two hours. Some are worth it, but most aren’t.

    • Teresa says:

      I don’t know if I’m ever going to read 1Q84. It’s not the length; it’s more that the reviews are so mixed and I’ve not read much Murakami. Maybe I’ll consider it after I read Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

      I don’t know if I’ve found bloat to be more of an issue in particular genres or not. I’ll have to think about that because I know I’ve had that “just get on with it” feeling.

      With movies, I feel about the same as I do with books. They can be as long as they need to be, with the caveat that some of us need to stand and stretch our legs after two hours. I’ve been known to parcel out long movies over two nights at home.

  8. Jeanne says:

    I like what Carolyn says about being caught up. I developed the habit of reading long books as a child, because my public library limited children to ten books per visit, so I checked out the biggest ten I could find each time I got there.

  9. Jennie says:

    I am a big fan of the long book…I enjoy short ones too, but if I’m in a rut give me a long book or a series and I’m over the moon!

  10. Vasilly says:

    I love a good short book. I don’t mind reading chunksters especially since I’m co-challenge host this year. I think one of my biggest bookish pet peeves is when a book, no matter what its length is, is oversized. I recently read a 300-page book that should have been at least 20 pages shorter. The story would have been much better. Great post.

  11. anokatony says:

    Having read ‘War and Peace’, ‘Anna Karennina’, ‘Ulysees’, and ‘MiddleMarch’, I certainly don’t avoid clunksters. I do use a lot more care picking the ones I’m going to read than I would short novels. I definitely won’t be reading 1Q84, since it has been getting a lot of mediocre reviews and I feel I’ve already been burned by a fairly long Murakami, ‘The Wild Sheep Chase’ which I didn’t like all that much. His short novels like ‘Norwegian Wood’ appeal to me much more.

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t thought about whether I’m more careful in choosing long books, other than in thinking about timing. But if I’m trying an author out, I’m more inclined to go with something shorter, just to see if I like the writing.

  12. Stefanie says:

    I like to mix it up, but there is something really appealing about a big book with a sprawlnig story. Lately though I’ve been enjoying the short books, Silas Marner, Summer by Edith Wharton and Metamorphosis by Kafka. They were good reminders that short doesn’t necessarily mean less rich and powerful.

  13. Jenny says:

    What I don’t like is when people automatically dismiss long books — especially contemporary long books — as being bloated. You know I think the uncut version of The Stand is better than the cut version. Now, there are plenty of books that DO need editing down, including some by King, but be judicious about it. Don’t assume that because you can’t comfortably hold it while you’re lying down, it’s badly written.

    • Teresa says:

      You warned me off the shorter version of The Stand, so I can’t compare, but I know that it didn’t feel bloated. What I wonder, though, is whether publishers today would try to turn it into a trilogy, since that’s all the rage. And then it would need beefing up and end up seeming bloated. I like it as it is, so I’m glad King eventually got his way.

      • Jenny says:

        Ha, you’re right! And that reminds me of the problem with Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear. She maybe could have edited down a *little*, but mostly it was all great — the disaster was dividing it up into two books.

  14. Great post — very thought provoking. Knee jerk, I’m sucker for big ole door stopper chunksters, but I have tripped over too many that could use some editing. I love having the time and space to get lost in a really rich story although lately very long books have proved a bit tiresome. I think it’s me though, and not them.

    I tend to pass over short fiction, arbitrarily, and I need to stop that!

    • Teresa says:

      I go through phases where I just can’t focus on a doorstop, so I know what you mean about it not always being them. But then I go through phases where short books that I don’t have time to get lost in just won’t do.

  15. Marg says:

    Back in the day I used to decide to pick up books off the shelves in shops by looking at how thick they were – the thicker the better. I must confess though that in the last couple of years I have been moving away from that. I am still reading big books, but nowhere near as much as I was!

    • Teresa says:

      I remember when I was a preteen, there was a historical romance series (Sunfires) that I was drawn to precisely because they were the thickest books in the young adult section of the bookstore!

  16. amymckie says:

    Some books are too long, other books are too short. I think it is a bit absurd to say that there should be one set length for all books. And there certainly isn’t a set length for movies either – they last from an hour to three hours these days. As to Book Riot, they seem to post ridiculous things like this simply to generate traffic some times.

    • Teresa says:

      It is absurd, but as you suggest, people sometimes say absurd things just to be outrageous and get the attention–and traffic. It just really struck me when I came across it on the same day as the TOB judgment that seemed to endorse length.

  17. softdrink says:

    I had a real problem with why that judge chose 1Q84 over The Last Brother, just because of ambition, especially when they didn’t even like the book that much!

    I like the term bloat. I, too, have read many books that suffer from that problem. But then there are plenty of very enjoyable chunksters out there…ones that need every page.

    So…no to page limits!!

    • Teresa says:

      When I got to the end of her write-up, I couldn’t believe she’d chosen 1Q84. I could maybe have accepted it if she thought it was well-done but not her thing, but she saw a lot of flaws in it.

  18. rebeccareid says:

    I like both long and short…but it’s wonderful to sink into a well-crafted lengthy deep tome. I think of Dickens. I know some people find him too wordy but I love it…

    • Teresa says:

      I’m not a big Dickens fan, but it’s not because of the wordiness. I love the Victorian tendency to go on and on. I just sink right in.

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