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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