To Make A Long Story Short

It’s an idea worth keeping in mind, according to Ben Yagoda:

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 … 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.