Tuesday 20 March 2018

The long and the short of it

Ian McEwan
Ian McEwan

'Has anyone, in all honesty, ever wished for a novel to be longer?"

That was the question recently posed by English novelist Amanda Craig, who was cheered to hear fellow novelist Ian McEwan saying much the same thing in a radio interview.

"Very few long novels earn their length", McEwan felt.

Yet there's clearly a fashion for long novels, with Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Goldfinch running to almost 800 pages, Eleanor Patton's Man Booker-winner The Luminaries even more bloated. It's as if, Craig argued, readers have been persuaded that one whopper of a book is more worth their precious time than a slim novel of 200 pages or so.

I'm with Craig and McEwan on this. A few months ago I reviewed Matthew Thomas's debut novel, We Are Not Ourselves, which was very good but would have been even better if it had been edited down from 600 to 400 pages. By contrast, nearly all of Irene Nemirovsky's marvellous novels manage to cram an abundance of insights into less than 200 pages. And The Great Gatsby is even slimmer.

Yes, some long novels justify their length (I wouldn't wish War and Peace or Crime and Punishment to be shorter, or not much anyway), but most of the time my heart sinks when confronted by a book that I can barely hold in my hand.

Many other readers obviously feel the same.

A recent online survey revealed that only 44pc of those who bought The Goldfinch managed to finish it, while Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl defeated 54pc of those who began it. And the soft-porn Fifty Shades of Grey proved similarly unalluring to 48pc of those who hoped to be titillated, but that was probably because of its wretchedly clichéd prose.

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