Thursday, December 15, 2016

Spare me from 600-page books

I started off the year with a bit of a bang, aiming to read at least one classic this year. The Brothers Karamazov got the short straw, and while I found there some longish moments in it, when Dostoevsky seemed to go off on some tangent (and I don't mean the Father Zossima passages, which are excellent), I still finished it, because there are many wonderful stretches of writing in it. I don't know how many pages it is, because I read it on Kindle - the paperback version I'd had since I was a teenager was falling to bits, and I didn't think to check the number of pages before I threw it out. Anyway, the print was ridiculously small in that edition - for an older person.

I also read Dickens' Our Mutual Friend during the year. Another whopper, also with many byways included, a number of them tedious, and some of them downright silly. Of all the Dickens books I've read this has to be the one that balances some of his best writing with some of his worst. The satire is often superb (the nouveau riche people, for instance); on the other hand some of it hits you over the head with everything Dickens can find. The love story is all over the shop, as well. However, I still finished it, though there were some skimmed moments.

You can tolerate the length of classic novels because you know they were written for an age when reading was something that people did in the long evenings, an age when there was no TV, movies, radio, Internet. But when people produce 600 page novels these days, there had better be a darn good reason for it.

I do quite a bit of reviewing for our local paper, and I got not one but two 600-page novels to deal with recently. The first was The Nix by Nathan Hill. Honest reviewers have said that it's just too long in spite of its wit and satire. I understand it was originally over a 1000 pages. Thankfully that version wasn't published. But the version that was published tried my patience. I finished it, but only by skimming increasingly as I went along. Hill allows himself so many interruptions and authorial reflections and back stories and side stories and streams of consciousness and I don't know what, that the story, such as it is, almost gets swallowed up by all the malarky going on in the writing. There's no doubt the man can write, but perhaps next time he should commit to producing a couple of hundred pages that are really page-turning; just as a challenge, maybe,..

And then came Under a Pole Star, by Stef Penney, also at 600 pages. I got about 200 pages into this, a book that seemed to be about exploration in the Arctic, and seemed as though it was going to be interesting because of that. But for some reason Penney decided that we should have access to her main characters' sexual lives - at length. In the 200 pages I read, very little of this sexual information was relevant to the story; certainly not in the detail we were given. I'd no sooner skim a bit than they were at it again. The exploration seemed continually to be taking a back seat. I'm assuming her two main characters eventually got together at some point in the book. They didn't look as though they were going to remotely get there when I stopped reading, and handed the book back to the Book Editor.

I'm puzzled why publishers think that books have to be long these days. Even the lightweight romance I've just finished (again, for review) was heading up to 400 pages - at least there were fewer words on each page because there was a lot of dialogue. 300 to 350 pages is a good length for me, if the book isn't a classic that's been around since the 19th century. Obviously editors no longer do the job of cutting out swathes of unnecessary material.

I've just remembered that I also started to read, this year, the 571-page Here I am, by Jonathan Foer, and the 560-page Sport of Kings, by C E Morgan, and didn't finish either of them, for various reasons. How many trees are cut down to provide these tomes?

When I was doing a writing course back in the 80s I was asked to write a short story for an assignment (and it was a short one). And then, in the next assignment, was asked to cut it in half. I thought: impossible! But no, it's never impossible. You just have to be willing to let go of a lot of 'stuff' that really isn't as relevant as you first thought. And it teaches you to be concise as well.

I'm not saying that writers must reduce their novels down to the bare bones, Readers Digest-wise, but surely their editors could persuade them that maybe a 100-150 pages of their 600-page book might be cleared out of the way, so that real story could find its feet?

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