On Liking Short Novels

I don’t, as a rule, like short novels, but since I started to add a few short novels into my reading diet in recent years I have become strangely appreciative of these books. I, generally, prefer think, juicy slabs of books, whether it’s the literary mammoth by William Gaddis, or the somewhat dull bricks Robert Jordan used to write. I still can’t really read short stories. I take a while to find my way in a book and the whole reading process of short stories baffles me. Short novels I never took to before for similar reasons. There are exceptions – Jean Rhys is one of my favorite writers, and all her novels are short. Similarly, I’ve admired Paula Fox for a long time. But overall, seeing a low page count always discouraged me from reading a given book. And I think that’s changed. And as I grew to like them I noticed that they are darn hard to write.

I have always considered a more baroque, expansive style easier to maintain with middling skills than a bare-bones simple style of writing. You can hide infelicities, and inaccuracies in the thicket of prose, whereas Hemingway inspired an awful mass of books written in a style that is called “bleak” or “sparse” or “dry” – but is mostly sloppy and bad. Hemingway’s own early stories, which inspired this writing, sing with potential, allusion and complexity. They are dense and their words are extremely well chosen. This is, in my opinion, enormously hard to maintain at a high quality. Even writers who have managed to excel at this, never do it for a long time – remember Richard Ford when he wrote Rock Springs? Take a look at the bloated excess of Lay of the Land. Or take a look at Hemingway’s final two novels (I like late Hemingway, but not for the prose).

The same, it occurred to me this morning, is true for short fiction. Well executed short fiction is exceptionally rare. We can’t all be Hemingway and, indeed, we can’t all be Kafka. Short fiction in my opinion needs to deliver on the same things as long fiction: characters, plot, emotion, i.e., the meat and potatoes of all fiction. But while you can get a bit lost in longer books, and see structure as a rough scheme, every structural inadequacy comes to the fore in short fiction. And writers seem to be aware: there is an odd tendency to over-structure short novels, to really make use of the increased attention. It leads to dull, overly intellectual books that read more like a pitch for a possible novel, rather than the novel itself. And I’m not against intellectual novels, I am a card-carrying fan of David Markson, after all, but that, too works better when greased with the buttery softness of excess words. Wittgenstein’s Mistress, boiled down to a hundred pages would be much less exciting. And the worst thing is that there is an ungodly amount of talented, but not great writers who offer short novels in a minimalist style, setting themselves up for failure not once but twice.

Having such strong opinions about bad short novels has however led to a real, true appreciation for short novels that use their limited canvas very well. I have been wondering whether I have overpraised novels like Signs Preceding the End of the World, The Warren or Point Omega, just because they are so extraordinarily good, on what I consider exceptionally challenging terrain. I think I may just develop a particular love for short novels. I would still always pick the monumental, backbreaking novel over the middling 200-300 page version, but now I also glance at their slimmer siblings at around 100 pages with a kind of terrified interest. Chances are, they turn out bad, but OH how great they are when they are good.

6 thoughts on “On Liking Short Novels

  1. I imagine it is the works we don’t expect to like do to size of some other arbitrary factor that surprise us.

    I, as a rule, don’t like long novels. I have been known to hear about a book that sounds great, only to look it up and discover it clocks in at 500+ pages, and decide it’s not for me. I’m typically hard pressed to venture beyond 350 pp. It’s the exceptional book in the 400-600 range that doesn’t prompt cries of “Where is the editor?” Sign me up for spare short novels/novellas and short fiction. Of course, it’s not a hard and fast rule. I try to tackle at least one of the chunky novels I have on hand each year, and at the moment I’m stupidly excited about a book I’m about to receive that clocks in over 750pp. (nonfiction, mind you)

    If I wasn’t such a pokey reader I might feel different but most doorstop novels scare me. ;D

    • Long books and me is a long love story. The best thing about my stay in the nuthouse was the opportunity to read some very long books. I ordered the new 700 page Theroux recently, and bought Vollmann’s “Dying Grass” last week – I don’t have TIME to read them, and yet, here I go. I am in the final stage of phd writing and have two more papers to present in September. I can’t possibly devote hours to Vollmann but big books…they are like magic to me. 😉

  2. I love to love long books, but I seem these days to only peck at them. I’m in the midst of Imperial by Vollmann, of Gravity’s Rainbow, of Infinite Jest, of two enormous books on Rasputin, of a cheesy fantasy novel which is over a thousand pages (goodness knows why), and I think there are more.
    And yet I’m pretty much always reading 250p or less books, because I can do them in one sitting, and if I’ve committed to reading then I want to do it for a long period of time.
    But I do love loving long books. I want that feeling of endless immersion again…!

  3. I used to love long books, but I do often find myself longing for an editor with far too many chunky volumes nowadays. The truth is, both work for me, if they are well written, but you are right that it takes a different mindset to approach each of them.

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