I just turned in to the publisher the final version of a book, and have now started on this post. Not exactly a Trollope move, but it’ll have to do. (“Every day for years, Trollope reported in his ‘Autobiography,’ he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next.” —Joan Acocella.)
My satisfaction, pride, and relief in having finished were tempered, a little bit, by the number 80,517. That’s how many words are in the book and, frankly, they don’t quite seem like enough. I’ve spent four-plus years on the thing (a history of American popular songwriting in more or less the middle third of the 20th century), pored through hundreds of books and hundreds of articles, did 30 interviews, painstakingly trawled archival collections in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, Nashville, and New York, patrolled far corners of the Internet, and emerged with a somewhat thin volume that will probably clock in at about 240 pages. It reminds me of a Jack Ziegler cartoon in The New Yorker, labeled along the lines of “Single Guy at the Checkout Counter.” The cashier eyes his one carton of yogurt, frozen dinner, and bags of chips and says: “That’s it?”
But then I thought about my wife. She herself just finished reading the next selection of her book group, The Price of Silence: The Duke Lacrosse Scandal, the Power of the Elite, and the Corruption of Our Great Universities, by William D. Cohan. The subtitle gives a clue to her sense of the book itself, which essentially was: It does go on. She is interested in the subject and was generally admiring of the author’s thoroughness and effort, but, she reported, the level of detail was excessive bordering on sadistic. As summer turned into fall, many a night I sat next to her, listening to her mumble rhetorical questions under the breath: “Why, oh why, do we have to know every single point Richard Brodhead made in every single speech?”
The book is sitting next to me as I write. It is 614 pages long, not including notes (there are no notes), or the acknowledgments, in which Cohan thanks his editor for faith in the manuscript and his ability “to pare from it the extraneous.” By my back-of-the-envelope calculation (42 lines per page, 12 words per line) it contains 309,456 words. That’s not just excessive but rude, willfully ignoring the fact that the reader has other things to do besides reading this book.
Then I thought about The Goldfinch, which I have been reading for what seems like decades. I am currently on page 714, which means I have 57 to go. Back of the envelope: 328,320 words. Other than the dialogue, which is virtually never credible, it’s an interesting and proficient enough tale, and if it were 300 pages long I’d be a fan. But this is ridiculous. In every section, page follows page and nothing really happens. Basically, since about the halfway point, I’ve been reading on with the clenched jaw and grim middle-distance stare of someone who’s been dared to complete a long and tedious task and damned well is going to do so.
On reflection, it seems I should be OK with my svelte volume.
It’s not that books should never be long. Who would demand cuts in War and Peace, Moby-Dick, Ulysses, or Shakespeare, even though Ben Jonson wrote that “whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out a line”? Beyond the great books, it’s clear that in some fiction genres, fans demand thickness. People seem to want to get immersed in a story, and length adds to the feeling. In nonfiction, certain subjects are important enough to call for comprehensiveness. Part One of Mark Lewisohn’s history of the Beatles, Tune In, is 932 pages long, and when it’s over the lads haven’t yet set foot in America. (Lewisohn pared for the U.S. market; at Amazon’s U.K. site, you can buy the “Extended Special Edition,” which is 1,728 pages.) But it’s OK. It’s the Beatles. Robert Caro’s multivolume biography of Lyndon Johnson, which is actually nearing completion, gets a pass for the same reason.
But those are, or should be, exceptions. The Great Gatsby is 48,000 words, for criminy’s sake! So many door-stopping novels would find their best form as novellas, so many nonfiction extravaganzas (to quote my wife again) as long New Yorker articles. They do not, for two main reasons. The first is that authors generally like to hear themselves talk, and editors, with so much on their minds, especially these days, aren’t sufficiently ready and willing to pare the extraneous. Also, since the market, as it’s been defined for a pretty long time, doesn’t have a place for novellas and 25,000-word nonfiction works, ideas that would work best at such length get artificially bulked up, like an offensive lineman on steroids. E-books are a promising receptacle for shorter texts, but the form has a ways to go before authors and readers alike are comfortable with it.
I wonder how Lingua Franca readers feel about the long and the short of it. Which books do you think would have been much better if they were half the length—or twice the length?
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