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The long and short of it, novelistically speaking

November 27, 2010
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The novella has ambivalence built into its DNA. It’s neither one thing nor the other and tends to make you think even as it lures you down blind alleys and serves up irresolute endings.

(The Daily Beast)

Readers of this blog know that I am partial to short novels, particularly novellas. I always feel a little self-conscious saying this. I worry. Does it make me sound

  • Lazy, as in I can’t be bothered to read a long book? Or,
  • Impatient, as in I want to rack up my book reading stats and long books slow that down?

And to be honest, maybe there is a little bit of truth in these.

Big Fat Book

A long book requires a long commitment. Reading any literature requires attention and if you don’t have the concentrated time to give to a long book, you risk “losing the plot”, figuratively and literally speaking. In other words, if you read it in too many short spurts over too long a period of time, it can be hard keeping it all in your head. In the same time-frame you could very well have read two, three, four  or even six novellas (if, say, you were reading Vikram Seth‘s A suitable boy). You would have experienced a number of different perspectives on the world rather than just one – and you probably would have been challenged multiply by the often elliptical nature of the short novel. And this brings me to why I really like short novels …

I like, as the Daily Beast quote above says, being made to think while being lured down blind alleys and served up irresolute endings. Of course, the modern long novel can do that too … But with a short novel you tend to get tight prose. There are no wasted words. There are no long digressions – or multiple storylines …

What, no digressions? This is where the Big Fat Book comes in. When I wrote my post on novellas nearly a year ago, I said I’d write a post on long novels – and finally I am getting around to it, because, despite my general preference for short novels, I have read and enjoyed long ones*. First, here are some that I’ve read and enjoyed in the last decade:

Not a lot of them, eh, but memorable every one. And the reason is, I think, that you live with long novels. A short novel can engage your emotions, of course, but it is, I think, a more intellectual engagement in which our feelings are continually monitored by our brains: what are we feeling and why? A long novel is different. You become part of its life; the characters become “real” in a way that they rarely do in a short novel and you feel their loss when the book ends. This makes the reading experience very different. The brain is engaged, of course, but the emotions take the upper hand.

In fact, generalising wildly, I see the reading experience as going a bit like this:

  • In the short novel, with its tight prose and often minimal plot, your brain works hard to understand what is happening, where it is going, what it is all about, and then is suddenly confronted with an emotional kick at the end.
  • In the long novel, with its multiple story-lines and often frequent digressions, your emotions become engaged as you live the characters’ lives with them, love, cry, hate, worry with them, and then, when it’s all over, your brain comes in to work out what it was all about.
Detail from photographic portrait of Charles D...

Dickens, who wrote short and long novels (Image: Presumed Public Domain, via Wikipedia)

I say this relatively not absolutely, because of course we engage both emotion and intellect in all our (fiction) reading. However, it seems to encapsulate, for me at least, the mechanics behind my rather different responses to reading a short versus a long novel. Does this make any sense?

Anyhow, I’d better finish here and get back to my current, long and rather engaging, novel, Peter Carey‘s Parrot and Olivier in America. Review coming just as soon as I manage to finish it …

* A NOTE ON DEFINITIONS: Leaving aside those specific terms of “novellas” and “big fat books”, my rule of thumb definition is that short novels are under 300 pages, and long novels over 500 pages. The rest are, well, just novels.

25 Comments leave one →
  1. November 28, 2010 03:23

    It makes a lot of sense… and I totally agree with your stance. Since I’m a slow reader, I have to muster up a lot of patience and courage to attempt a long one. A very good example: I’ve just finished rereading The Great Gatsby. With just 172 pages, I read it in just a few sitting. And thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience, despite the fact that I’ve read it times before. But I had to lay aside Franzen’s The Corrections… there are just too many books waiting.

    • November 28, 2010 10:12

      Ha, why am I not surprised? A woman after my own heart!

      I did quite enjoy The corrections, and I liked very much Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex. He’s written some short ones too – must read them sometime! I don’t dislike long novels and can get lost in them but I usually have to steel myself to start and have to pick my times … I have been meaning to re-read The great Gatsby too as it’s been a while. That’s another thing isn’t it, about short books. You don’t feel so concerned about re-reading them as it won’t take long!

  2. November 28, 2010 10:17

    Sue, I’ve linked to this post of yours in my review of a short story collection! See http://tinyurl.com/262qs8r

    • November 28, 2010 11:13

      Thanks muchly Lisa … I saw that and have commented on the short stories. Sounds like an interesting writer.

      • November 28, 2010 12:50

        PS I have amended the first paragraph, asking readers to be sure to visit here as well, to ensure that no one takes things out of context.

        • November 28, 2010 15:05

          Thanks! Perhaps I was a bit sensitive but I’d hate people to misunderstand my point. It’s so hard to put ideas into words sometimes, without the aid of voice inflection and body language, isn’t it?

  3. November 28, 2010 13:06

    Oh no, I’ve only read two and half of your long books! But because I’ve read Anna Karenina about a million times (that’s what happens when you write a research project on Tolstoy 😛 ), can I get extra points for it?

    I think I do like the emotional engagement that can come with long novels, although perhaps this is why I like well-written series, too? As I grow up and life gets busier, though, the appeal of novellas is strengthening…

    • November 28, 2010 15:08

      Yes, if you want points, you can! I was nearly going to mention series in this relation – they, in a sense. are like SUPERSIZE FAT BOOKS!

      I also think novellas appeal to people who like poetry, so they should be right up your alley.

  4. November 28, 2010 19:02

    I enjoy a good blend of long and short novels. I can’t read too many long onces in a row or I get bored. Similarly I can’t read a lot of short novels in a row because I get bored. So I try to mix it up.

    I tried to read A Suitabble Boy earlier this year – the longest novel ever written in english in one volume. I just couldn’t get through it, no matter how much I was enjoying it

    • November 28, 2010 21:18

      I’ve done that with War and Peace. I’ve started it three times, and liked it three times but I haven’t yet made it to the end! In retirement I thought BUT I’m retired now and I don’t see time opening up for such a commitment for a while yet. My face-to-face bookgroup usually schedules a long book for over Christmas and that usually works well. Last year it was Wolf Hall. Oh, and to ramble just a bit more, I gave my ma-in-law A suitable boy for her 80th birthday (alongside something more special) and she read it – though did admit to skimming (or, is that skipping!) the political bits.

  5. November 28, 2010 22:01

    What a great post – and you were making perfect sense, since you asked. Finishing Bleak House was like being kicked out of home (not that I ever have been)

    • November 28, 2010 22:43

      Thanks zmkc – particularly for confirming that it made sense. Glad you haven’t been kicked out of home! I agree re finishing Bleak House – and even more so about A fine balance in that I didn’t want to finish it AND the finish was pretty … well, I won’t give it away for those who haven’t read it.

      • November 29, 2010 10:01

        I’ve remembered that the publisher of Beryl Bainbridge, early Penelope Fitzgerald and Alice Thomas Ellis was an advocate for shorter novels:
        http://zmkc.blogspot.com/2010/07/colin-haycraft_10.html
        I think times have changed though and it would be virtually impossible to get a novel of less than 60,000 words published these days (whereas many of the novels of the writers mentioned above were much shorter than that).

        • November 29, 2010 13:23

          Thanks zmkc. I think you are right about its being difficult to get novellas published. I have read your post – love it. It has inspired to try to get Fitzgerald raised in my pile (for a start).

  6. November 28, 2010 22:23

    Short stories and novellas are an integral part of my reading. But I also do appreciate a well-written and engrossing long novel. You are right in that we live with long novels. An ill-conceived long novel can be so painful to read. Wolf Hall, A fine balance and one hundred years of solitude are also favs of mine.

  7. November 29, 2010 04:08

    No novel has put me more in a quandary than ‘A Suitable Boy’ by Vikram Seth. I had just finished reading ‘Golden Gate’, a verse novel which was an absolute favorite, and was eagerly awaiting his next. Then he released ‘A Suitable Boy’, 1600+ pages. I still have not read ‘A Suitable Boy’.

    • November 29, 2010 08:35

      So, Tony, you feel similarly about length? I haven’t read any Seth. Perhaps I should start with Golden gate?

  8. November 29, 2010 13:09

    I do read long novels; I just take a lot more care in selecting which ones to read. But such long books as ‘War and Peace’, ‘Ulysee’, and ‘Don Quixote’ are among my favorites. Sometimes if I can find a convenient way to divide the book up into two or three parts, I’ll give myself credit for two or three reads.

    I definitely recommend ‘Golden Gate’; I read his later novel, ‘Equal Music’, and that book didn’t do it for me.

    • November 30, 2010 15:02

      I suspect we are a bit alike on this. We do read long novels but we don’t jump to them. I still want to read Don Quixote. And I will look out for Golden gate.

  9. November 29, 2010 15:50

    Myself, I am partial to long books, the longer the better. I like immersing myself in the world of a novel or series of novels for as long as it lasts.

    Here’s a list of some long books that have enthralled me over the years and which I will probably immerse myself again from time to time.

    Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust (read twice, once in my early 20s and again in 2005)

    The Balkan & Levant Trilogys (collectively called The Fortunes of War)by Olivia Manning

    The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake

    The Jerusalem Quartet by Edward Whittemore

    The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

    Dorothy Dunnett’s two giant sagas – Lymond (six books) and Niccolo (eight books)

    Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

    The Baroque Trilogy by Neal Stephenson

    A Glastonbury Romance by John Cowper Powys

    Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Unset

    The Aegypt Quartet by John Crowley

    Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel by Susanna Clarke

    Some of the books you have listed Gums, seem a tad short to me.

    I do read shorter stuff in the main, though I don’t read many short stories or poetry.

    • November 30, 2010 15:04

      LOL Anne … no book is a tad too short for me!! I have read almost none of the books you list. But I have read The Alexandria Quartet and liked it immensely. I’d be interested in the Anthony Powell and Mervyn Peake – and I really should tackle Proust – so my mind isn’t totally closed but …!

  10. December 1, 2010 04:24

    I had to laugh at your caption “big fat book.” 🙂 I like big fat books but you are right, you do live with them. Not all big fat books fit your long novel generalization though. I’m reading Bolano’s 2666 right now and while it is quite the chunkster, it is broken up into different sections and each section is like a little book all on its own. I fell like while I’ve been in school I haven’t had much time to devote to big fat books. You should see the line-up for when I graduate!

    • December 1, 2010 08:53

      LOL, Stefanie. It was a bit silly but it’s fun to be silly occasionally! Yes, you are right – and I’m about to write my review of Parrot and Olivier in America. It’s not a big fat book but it’s a pretty long one and it doesn’t quite fully engage the emotions, again I think because of its particular style/structure. But more anon!

      I look forward to your graduating!

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