Long and the short of books
How many pages should a good book contain? No this isn’t a quiz and there is no right or wrong answer. It’s a question that Guy Stagg of The Telegraph discusses in a recent blog posting and it got me thinking about a form of literary snobbery which judges the value of a book according to its length.
Dickens was notorious for the length of his novels – Martin Chuzzlewit suffers from the middle section set in the Americas and Nicholas Nickleby could certainly do with pruning out a lot of the chapters about the travelling theatrical players. But at least we can understand that he had an economically compelling reason for writing at such length – keeping readers buying the next installment of his magazine led him to stretch the tale over multiple issues.
Stagg was picking up on a comment by Ian McEwan that his favourite literary form is the novella because it enables the reader to hold all the structure in their head after one reading. In McEwan’s newly published novel Sweet Tooth, he features an author who is short-listed for the fictional Austen Prize with a novella only to attract comments that the book is too slim to be really worthy of a prize. Stagg notes that McEwan was himself on the receiving end of similar criticism when he won the 1998 Booker prize with Amsterdam. This is nonsense, says Stagg:
Short books are disciplined in a way that longer works cannot match. Not only does it take a lot of skill to fit so much into so few pages, but it also takes a lot of courage to publish a book of, say, 50,000 words, confident that it will stand up alongside works double, even triple its size.
For Stagg, the power of The Great Gatsby and Heart of Darkness are the result of their brevity – that their impact would in fact be lessened were they shorter. I’ve never really understood why so many people rate Gatsby, but I’m with Stagg on his feeling about the intensity of Heart of Darkness. By concentrating his narrative, Joseph Conrad, quickly takes us through the the multiple layers of darkness that lie within man’s soul and reinforces the oppressive atmosphere of his setting. It would be hard to keep that level of intensity over hundreds of pages.
Kate Chopin similarly compresses psychological complexity and incisive social commentary in her novella The Awakening which depicts the struggle of Edna Pontellier to reconcile her unorthdox views on motherhood and marriage with the constraining social attitudes of her society. The shortness of the novel mirrors the rapidity with which Edna isolates herself from society and from the accepted norms of behaviour only to awaken to the reality that there is no future for her. As readers we realise too there is no place left for her to go but are still unprepared for her suicide. Extending the narrative by another 50 or 100 pages would weaken the impact of that sudden end.
But just as it’s difficult to imagine either of these two novels would benefit from additional word count, so I find it impossible to see how George Eliot could have compressed Middlemarch and still have conveyed the complex web of interactions that she saw as being at the heart of society. In this case, the slow development of plot and character are part and parcel of what she set out to explore – the interconnectedness of all human beings and the consequences on others of their actions.
The novel’s blend of realistic narrative, incisive social commentary, and psychological complexity