Can a novel be too long?

May 10, 2020

A brief exchange with a friend a propos of my previous post about the length of Neal Stephenson’s novels has had me thinking about the length of novels in general. Of course, there is the thing about their having to be a certain number of pages nowadays to fit in easily with the printing process, but that’s not what I mean. And let’s set Dickens to one side, as we know he wrote by the yard for serialisation and cash…

I suppose the real question is, does the novel really need all those words? And so one has to consider the writer’s purpose and intentions, and to recognise that those may be very different from our own expectations or demands. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the longest novel I’ve read; I think I’ve read it three times, and enjoyed it each time. Some readers have questioned the need for the lengthy philosophical section with which Tolstoy concludes the novel; for me it is an intrinsic part and thought-provoking reflection on the story he has finished telling. And the novel itself is both a panorama of Russian society and a fictionalised history of one of the major episodes of Russian history. Shortened, it would not be the same thing at all, and I think the same might be said about Middlemarch, which may perhaps be seen as an English novel with a similar scope. In other words, these two novels need to be as long as they are for the reader to be fully immersed in the worlds fictionally created, and to be able to appreciate that the author is doing more than just story-telling.

I had to study the first volume of Marcel Proust’s A la Recherche du Temps Perdu when I was at university. I read it a couple of times; it was decent enough, and the narrative technique interesting enough to engage me at the time. I remember being astonished at the lengthy and perfectly-formed sentences and the effect they had on one’s consciousness as I worked my way through a page or so to the end of one of them. I was full of intention to read the rest of the sequence, bought and read the first half of volume two, and gave up, never to return to it (this was over 40 years ago now). Why? What went wrong? What was different? In the end I couldn’t make myself interested enough in Proust’s characters and their fates. He was presenting a much narrower section of society, of the world, and not one that I cared that much about. His scope was completely different from Tolstoy’s, for instance. But that doesn’t mean that the books were too long, and that I might have succeeded with a Reader’s Digest-style adaptation, a “condensed book”.

I’ve made myself read a fair amount of Thomas Pynchon. V was interesting enough, as was Gravity’s Rainbow; Mason & Dixon I liked and it’s been on my re-read pile for at least ten years; Against the Day was a useful gap-filler during a bout of pneumonia, but I don’t have the urge to revisit it. These are long novels, but also rather rambling and shapeless, and it is hard to avoid a feeling that the writer is indulging something, and I found it hard to be bothered to find out what. Is there somewhere an urge in American writers to have the size of their novels match the size of the country? Moby Dick was a passable read, once; Don De Lillo’s Underworld irritated the hell out of me for being so long and I was angry with myself for giving in to the blandishments of reviewers and wasting my money on it. It’s almost as if there’s a conscious effort to write the ‘Great American Novel’ rather than to write a good novel and for it to turn out to be judged great much later on. But once again, I’m not sure that editing would have improved any of these…

Fantasy and SF is a different kettle of fish, perhaps. Readers are looking to immerse themselves in a completely different world; pure escapism? And there is the marvel of a good writer’s imagination in play as well, here, for they are creating a world, a setting from scratch that must make us want to stay there and leave our humdrum ordinary world behind. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings saw me through a bad, three-day bout of the ‘flu some forty years and more ago. I really enjoyed it, but it’s never called me back. The doorstopper in the field that I have returned to several times is Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia, a utopian novel of some 1000 pages which I have always found gripping, although I will admit to occasionally wishing the romance sections had been edited a little. Why does it grip me so much? Because here is a writer thinking at great length about how the world might be a much better place. A utopian novel doesn’t need to come in at a thousand pages, but this one works at that length for me.

I’m realising that I don’t know anywhere near enough about the process of editing and what an editor actually does when they work with an author on a novel. A novel has always appeared to me to be a writer’s personal creation, although obviously mediated by the country and society and times they lived in and numerous other factors too, and so I have maybe naively thought that there wasn’t a lot for an editor to do. Perhaps one of my readers can enlighten me? Once upon a time in a previous existence I did know an editor for one of the major UK publishers, but did not have this conversation with her…

In the end I feel OK about respecting an author’s creation as s/he allows it to emerge in final published form; I’ll read it and either like it or not, and on the basis of that will either feel called to read it again one day, or not. I’m back with what I used to say to my students: there’s no law that says you have to like a novel or a poem (or indeed any work of art). What you need to be able to do is articulate what it is you like or don’t like about it, and ideally support your view with evidence…

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