Is Big Back?

September 8, 2010 | 15 books mentioned 23 6 min read

Is Google making us stupid? Is reading in America a dying pursuit? Will novel srviv in age of twtr? String together enough of these think-piece propositions, and you begin to notice a pattern. Ostensibly open-ended, their very existence presumes an answer in the affirmative: yes, Google is making us stupid…at least, too stupid to entertain the possibility that this is other than a yes/no question.

coverIf the presumption is correct, we might reasonably expect to see it reflected in the evolving form of the literary novel. Just last month, in a cover story on Jonathan Franzen, Time‘s Lev Grossman postulated that “the trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm.” And in practice, a young writer presenting her manuscript  to editors quickly surmises that the working definition for a novel is no longer Randall Jarrell‘s “a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it,” but “a prose narrative of 235 to 325 pages that we can bring out as a paperback original.” Joshua Cohen, the 29-year-old author of several books, recently told The New York Observer that, of the eight publishers who passed on his novel Witz (800 pp), “One of them told me they would publish it if it was 200 pages…. One said 10 years ago they would have done it, back when people read novels.”

covercoverBut if, as Grossman suggests, the “literary megafauna of the 1990s” no longer roam the earth, how to explain Time‘s interest in Freedom (576 pp)? Moreover, how to explain the thicket of big novels that surround it on the shelves of America’s bookstores – not only Witz, but also A.S. Byatt‘s The Children’s Book (675 pages), and Brady Udall‘s The Lonely Polygamist (599 pp), and Rick Moody‘s The Four Fingers of Death (725 pp), and Karl MarlantesMatterhorn (592 pp), and Ralph Ellison‘s Three Days Before the Shooting (1136 pp), and Hilary Mantel‘s Wolf Hall (560 pp), and Javier MaríasYour Face Tomorrow trilogy (1255 pp) and Adam Levin‘s The Instructions (1030 pp)? Surveying those shelves, one begins to suspect that the spread of micro-designations like “literary megafauna” (or less charitably, “phallic meganovels”), rather than the plenitude or scarcity of the species in question, is the true marker of our changing culture.

coverNot so long ago, the phrase “long novel” was no less redundant than “short novel.” The serial publication practices of the 19th Century nudged the Victorian novelist toward amplitude. Multiply 16 (the number of pages in a signature) by two (the number of signatures in an installment) by 20 (the number of installments favored by Dickens and his publishers), and you get 640 serial pages – the length, give or take, of Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House. Not to mention Vanity Fair and Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda… Soon, Trollope would be conceptualizing his novels explicitly as two- or three-volume affairs. My Oxford World Classics edition of Barchester Towers retains its two-volume pagination; it runs from 1 to 271, and then from 1 to 280. Toward the end of the second volume, the author begins to make asides about having to reach a certain page count.

In the age of offset printing, the long novel is more heterodox. Not much unites Moody and Marías and Mantel, other than the fact that they are currently stacked half-read on my nightstand. (There’s nothing like the birth of a child to foreground the sheer length of a book in one’s mind.) To yoke these writers together is thus to risk several kinds of reductionism. Most importantly (and speaking of Trollope): one doesn’t want to conflate geometric greatness with the aesthetic kind. Some of the best novels I’ve read recently are shorter than American presses tend to publish. (In the Spanish-speaking world, in particular, the short novel seems to have thrived in a way it hasn’t Stateside. A parallel essay may be warranted). Still, the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.

covercoverPublishers’ willingness to take a chance on a long book circa 2010 may be directly connected to chances taken in the past. The fierce bidding, in 2007, for Jonathan Littell‘s The Kindly Ones (992 pp), a demanding work in translation, surely owes something to the rapt reception of Roberto Bolaño‘s The Savage Detectives (600 pp) and subsequent widespread anticipation for 2666 (912 pp). McSweeney’s may be hoping The Instructions repeats the success of Chris Adrian‘s The Children’s Hospital (615 pp). And David Foster Wallace‘s Infinite Jest (1104 pp) continues to have a remarkable second life on the backlist, which is still the publisher’s bread and butter. Biographical books and articles by David Lipsky and D.T. Max, as well as copious online discussion, sustain interest in the book. A clerk at a local bookstore told me last week that, for the last two months, it’s been flying off the shelves. Indeed, après Jest, doubters may catch a whiff of decadence, or at least self-consciousness, around the efforts of Cohen, Levin, and other candidates for wunderkindency.

covercoverTo be even more crassly economic, in the slog of the Great Recession, the long novel offers readers a compelling value proposition. One may revile all the works of William T. Vollmann, and admire those of the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin, but even at 55 bucks, Imperial (1344 pp) offers a wildly higher hours-to-dollars ratio (it’s roughly one-to-one) than The Beauty Salon (72 pp). (Well, Imperial isn’t actually a novel, but it feels weird to discuss long books and exclude Vollmann’s megaliths.) To put it another way: Ann Beattie’s Walks With Men (102 pp) will cost you about as much as a trip to the local multiplex, and last about as long. And let’s not forget that publishers can charge more for a long book than a short one. This helps explain why the Harry Potter novels kept getting longer and longer… On the other hand, barring a guarantee of Potter-like sales, publishers hate big books, as Cohen learned the hard way. They’re expensive to print, to ship, and to warehouse. And, to compound the problem, reviewers hate long novels. How much easier to say of Tom Rachman‘s The Imperfectionists (288 pp) than of, say, Joseph McElroy‘s Women and Men (1191 pp), “It’s so good I had to read it twice.”

coverFor a deeper explanation of the long novel’s enduring health, we have to look toward something harder to quantify: the construction of the reader. The more we’re told we’re becoming readers of blogs, of texts, of tweets, of files the more committing to a big book feels like an act of resistance. To pick up a novel in excess of 600 pages is to tell oneself, “I am going to spend twenty-four to forty-eight hours of my life with a book, rather than the newspaper, the internet, or the smartphone. I am going to feel it in my muscles” (Some will object here that lugging Infinite Jest on the subway is more a way of saying, “Look at me!” But surely matters of style, and of gender, are at play here; no one levels the same charge at readers of Marguerite Young.) The desire to escape the hive-mind of cyberspace – to be, once more, a solitary reader – may also be at play in the rise of “the Kindle-proof book”: the book so tailored to the codex form that it can’t yet be reproduced electronically. Think of The Original of Laura, or of Reif Larsen‘s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, or of New Directions’ editions of B.S. Johnson‘s The Unfortunates, or Anne Carson‘s Nox (actually more of a scroll), or Robert Walser’s Microscripts.

coverAt the very least, the current boom, or miniboom, in big books should tell us that novelists still believe in this kind of reader.  In the end, this may be enough to ensure her survival; just as the audience shapes the writer’s habits, the writer, by the demands she chooses to make on her imaginary readers, calls her audience into being. One  of the underappreciated things about Franzen is that he writes as if the novel still (as Benjamin Kunkel puts it) “dominate[s] the landscape like a mountain range.” And lo and behold, there he is on the cover of Time!

One doesn’t want to draw a veil over the various corporate machinations that made that possible. At the end of the day, though, a large number of readers are, like their 19th Century antecedents, currently reading and thinking about and talking about a work of fiction whose physical dimensions signal a corresponding largeness of intellect and spirit. Surely, we can agree that that’s a good thing. For amid all the debatable, slippery stuff about our evolving consciousness, the relationship between the novel and a certain quality of attention appears to be inescapable. Whether in long or otherwise demanding books, or in long or otherwise demanding sentences, or in prodigious subtleties of perspective, writers of the 21st century continue to seek out an audience possessed of that attention. And, in defiance (so far) of predictions to the contrary, readers keep rising up to meet them.

is the author of City on Fire and A Field Guide to the North American Family. In 2017, he was named one of Granta's Best Young American Novelists.

23 comments:

  1. Couldn’t help but notice your interesting use of the feminine pronoun when discussing the generic author, when, out of 29 boldfaced authors (and one non-boldfaced), a grand total of FIVE are female. Just kind of says something, doncha think?

  2. Fixed the missed bold-facing…

    What do you think the male/female ratio says? Are you indicting the publishing industry for not publishing enough big books by women?

    Or are you suggesting there were big books by women that should have been mentioned by Garth here?

  3. Using a generic feminin pronoun bothers me too. Not because I have feelings about women’s capabilities, but because it jars me out of the sentence. It just feels forced. I agree that the ratio of men to women cited in the article makes the use of the pronoun stand out even more.

    Was there a time when no one was publishing large books? I can’t remember one.

  4. Joyce Carol Oates puts out longish novels all the time — 400-500 page range — interspersed w/shorter works.

  5. The feminine pronoun did not “jolt” me. I didn’t realize it until the comments section, actually.

    On another note, I wonder, Garth, how do you think the experience of reading a longer novel differs from reading a shorter novel? Contemporary long novels are not simply “volumes” that could be spliced at a certain interval, nor are they simply a longer version of what could be said in 200 or 300 pages. Any thoughts?

  6. So much for “War and Peace” which tops out a 1,200 pages. In general, I like to keep my novels to no more than 400 pages max, and most of them inhabit a series, so what I do with them depends on how complex the plot becomes. I also employ terms which forces the reader to use a dictionary at times. I confine my tweets only to Twitter and expect that anyone who wants to read my books are willing to sit quietly somewhere for a short period during the day and read them a chapter at a time. The days of the marathon read are clearly over, and it does not really matter how long or short a book is, but whether it threatens to maximize the reader’s activity time. I consider a book really good if you sit down with it and go through a standard break time without looking up at the clock and seeing that you’re late.

  7. I for one hope they are back. And if you consider Mark Z. Danielewski’s announcement today that his current project is a twenty-seven (yes, 27) volume work entitled “The Familiar” – then you know things are trending Pynchon-esque.

    I had the pleasure of interviewing him and going through the process of House of Leaves (a debut novel of 709 pages!) recently in LA.

    You can read the interview here: http://chuckpalahniuk.net/interviews/authors/mark-danielewski

    He is sending off the first five volumes this month to “publishers” – as in plural.

    Basically all he has said so far is that the story is about a twelve year old girl who finds a kitten – reduction that is vintage MZD in its openness to speculation.

    News at eleven?

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