The Long And Winding Reads

Laura Miller ponders the attraction of long novels:

Much of the special appeal of a good long novel is rooted in the imaginative dynamics of reading fiction — assuming, that is, that you’re reading for the particular form of pleasure I’m celebrating here. The moment a reader turns to the first page of any novel, an intricate dance begins. “Do I believe this?” might be the first thing the reader asks. “Do I care?” is surely, then, the second. A character and a conflict are the most reliable way to lure the reader further into the story, but a setting, if skillfully evoked, can do the job, too: David Copperfield’s cold stepfather, Jane Eyre’s stifled pride, the glittering ballrooms of Tolstoy’s Russia, the threat posed to Middle-earth. Gradually, the words on the page stop being words on the page and seem to enter our minds as wholly formed sights and sounds and feelings.

It takes a while to become so invested, and it often doesn’t happen at all. Getting there is work, like pulling a sled up a hill, but when (and if) you crest the top, it’s a splendid ride from there.

The problem with a short story is that even if the author does manage to seduce you into believing in her fictional mirage, it’s over almost as soon as you take a seat on the sled. A long novel promises an extended tour, and the ratio of ramp-up to glide is much lower. Of course, most novels can’t get you to the crest of the hill in the first place; you climb and climb and it never stops feeling like work, until you finally turn around and trudge home. Plenty of long novels have this problem, and when they fail, there is nothing worse. Few readings have been as torturous as my own personal slog through Thomas Pynchon’s “Against the Day,” for example.

Richard Lea traces the “longer is better” idea back to Aristotle, who wrote “the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size”:

You might quibble with his reasoning – perhaps all he needs to appreciate a wider range of beauty are the changes of perspective provided by, say, a microscope and a helicopter – or maybe you’re unwilling to suppose a novel can be “embraced by the memory” as easily as a play, but let’s suppose for a moment Aristotle’s argument applies straightforwardly to a form which was invented two millennia after his death. Is he seriously suggesting, all things being equal, that Don Quixote’s thousand-odd pages makes it simply better than Death in Venice’s measly 72? Perhaps Cervantes’s melons are a little too different from Mann’s pears for any thing in such a comparison to ever be really equal, but do A Farewell to Arms’s 300-plus pages see off The Old Man and the Sea, barely a third the length? Does Moby-Dick (600 or so) monster Billy Budd (less than 100), does Gravity’s Rainbow (more than 900) destroy the comparitively minute The Crying of Lot 49? I’m the first to acknowledge the special pleasures of long-form fiction, but isn’t this kind of aesthetic bean counting a little one-dimensional?

It’s not hard to find writers who resist this kind of logic. For George Saunders “A novel is just a story that hasn’t yet discovered a way to be brief,” while Borges seems to suggest Aristotle’s argument actually favours the short story, arguing that short fiction has the advantage because it “can be taken in at a single glance”. For the novelist Ian McEwan – who made the 2007 Booker prize shortlist with his 166-page “full length novel”, On Chesil Beach – the novella is “the perfect form of prose fiction … the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant”.