Should Books Be Shorter?
A story is a journey you undertake to see what happens. The long Victorian novel was a box-set binge; episodes appeared in magazines like The Strand, and had built-in cliffhangers. Crime novels weren’t constructed around hooks; most old Penguin paperbacks didn’t even put a plot synopsis or description of any kind on their jackets. The author was the attraction.
Books got shorter because of the paper shortages of two world wars, and because of the fashion for writing new kinds of fiction; sparer, leaner, more Jazz Age. Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Steinbeck led the charge from the US, while Woolf, Wells, Waugh, Auden, Huxley and Forster produced work that was stripped back to single themes. By writing about feelings instead of complex plot developments a novel didn’t have to present a panoply of society but a single sliver of it.
In post WWII years books became slimmer still – and much more widely read. Lower-priced paperbacks of often very short fiction meant you could pick up and discard books easily, as you now can on Kindle (my burn-through rate is shocking – six books this weekend so far, four of which I simply abandoned because of length and repetition. Their online cost was negligible).
The Edward St Aubyn ‘Patrick Melrose’ five novel cycle is surprisingly easy to read because the books are unfashionably short. They are also highly honed, elegant pieces of prose. It made me wonder; if we wrote shorter, would we spend more time shining the prose? The answer is absolutely, yes.
We’re encouraged to writer lengthier books because publishers can charge more, and we’re used to seeing 13-part TV series which are filled with padding. So in go extra adverbs, adjectives, unnecessary explanations and details where none are needed. We watch TV shows where everyone is asked how they feel about everything all the time. ‘Love Island’ checks its forgetful contestants in micro-time in a doomed attempt to have them articulate their feelings (or anything) and now we expect this from novels too – a spelled-out linearity that removes all doubt and shadow from writing.
My love/hate relationship with the novels of Stephen King has always hinged on this issue. The man is an ideas fountain, but the prose is flattened out so that nothing is ever ambiguous or doubtful. It’s as if every sentence has been lit with halogens. Agatha Christie famously used a limited vocabulary and action verbs to drive plots. Her characters go and do, and behave how they look. They don’t prevaricate, they decide and are then either right or wrong.
But we live in a time when the veracity of everything is doubtful, which is why there are no really funny comic novels, TV shows or films anymore; it’s hard to be witty about something when you don’t know if you’re allowed to find it funny anymore. So instead we have action and drama – the ground shifts less there.
And it leaves us with books which are simply too long When Joan Lindsay wrote ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ she was encouraged to remove the final explanatory (and unsatisfying) chapter, and created a classic by doing so. Imagine the novel rewritten so that every emotion, motive and purpose is explained, so that not just the disappearance is spelled out but the feelings of all the girls are examined minutely. Imagine the same with ‘Walkabout’, ‘The Bridge at San Luis Rey’, ‘The Drowned World’, ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ – all very short, dazzlingly constructed reads.
Sustaining a mood and a single-mindedness of purpose suddenly becomes much easier for both the reader and the writer Long novels dissipate, short ones concentrate.
Good examples of highly memorable short novels, please?