Thursday, December 16, 2004

The problem of length -- part 4

In part 1 of The Problem of Length, I promised that, before concluding this discussion, we would have a look at one writer whose work does at least challenge my general conclusion that 70,000 words or so are sufficient to allow anyone to make their mark as a novelist of note. That writer is Neal Stephenson. (Oh but you’d guessed! Clever you.)

For those who haven’t been paying attention, or even reading this blog regularly, let me say that Neal Stephenson is a novelist who produces seriously long books. In the last two years alone he has published all three volumes of his Baroque Cycle. The first volume, Quicksilver, runs to 927 pages; The Confusion has 815; and The System of the World 887. He has also written several other successful novels, all of them much longer than the average work of fiction.

Occasional references on this blog have also demonstrated beyond doubt, I hope, that I am a Stephenson fan. So what is this, then? I have been arguing so far that it is unwise and unnecessary for a novelist to go over 75,000, tops – so am I inconsistent, am I forgetful, or does Stephenson constitute an exception which proves the rule?

These are very reasonable questions.

Before answering them, let us be clear what ‘proves the rule’ means. It means ‘test the rule’.

Once we have established a general rule, as we have in this case (short novels are better than long ones), and once an apparent exception to that rule appears, we then have to ask ourselves whether this exception is so important that it invalidates the rule which we have so painstakingly developed.

In considering the ‘ideal’ length for a novel, the process of testing the rule comes down to asking this question. If Stephenson, who writes at enormous length, is considered to be such a hotshot (and not only by the GOB) then do we have to admit that the suggested general rule is a load of eyewash?

No, in my opinion, we do not.

The key point in my thesis is that long novels are almost invariably too long for their intended effect: they are overstuffed with material which is unnecessary in order to achieve the desired effect; or they are overwritten on a scene by scene basis; or both.

Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle is a formidable piece of work. When I started to read it, I did consider, at first, that the author might have done better to divide volume I into three separate novels, making up some sort of a saga. But I soon realised that that was not such a good idea; ideally, volume I needs to be read as a whole. And by the time I reached the end of volume III I realised that the entire three volumes do in fact constitute one quite exceptionally long novel. It is a fully unified work; unified, that is, around its intended effect.

This massive chunk of fiction is not, in my view, overlong; and for several reasons. First, every word of it, as far as I can see, is necessary to the final effect. Second, the scenes are not, in my view, over-written; I was never tempted to skip. And third, when you get to the end you realise that everything in it is beautifully planned and hangs together in a most remarkable way.

Stephenson, in short, is a quite unusually talented and hard-working writer, with a formidable grasp of the history of Europe and the history of science, and no doubt a dozen other esoteric subjects as well. As one reviewer remarked, to appreciate Stephenson fully you probably need at least a couple of liberal-arts degrees, plus a good working knowledge of the natural sciences.

Stephenson himself has put his finger on the nature of the problem of length. On his web site he has a short (!) piece about the Cult of Brevity. Here is part of what he has to say: ‘As must be obvious, I am not an adherent of the Cult of Brevity. Personally, I am delighted to read extremely long books, or series of books, as long as they hold my interest.’ And that, of course, is the key. ‘As long as they hold my interest.’

It is self-evidently possible for a writer of Stephenson’s class to produce a long novel which holds his readers’ interest. (Consider his massive fan-base.) But the rest of us find the task impossible, and we would be well advised not to tackle it.


Anonymous said...

I've only read 2 long books over the last few years, both different. "Lanark" by Alasdair Gray and Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy". What are your thoughts regarding these two books in terms of their perceived popular and critical success?


James Warner said...

On the other hand, I know of more than one Stephenson fan who loved The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon yet couldn't get through Quicksilver.

The last book I read that I found so absorbing it was completely impossible for me to put it down was Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, which seems to be about 200,000 words. But reading's so bloody subjective... I loved Mailer's 1000-page novel Harlot's Ghost when I first read it, but it seemed long when I tried rereading it.

Clearly the Grumpy Old Bookman is right that it's more practical to write shorter novels until you've established an audience! I've noticed there's a lot of variation in how fast people read. Some people can read a 150,000 word a novel in a few days if it interests them, but other people, for various reasons, will always take about a year to read a book that long! Look at a novel from the point of view of someone who only has time to read a page every other night, and suddenly a lot more seems dispensable.

Love Lanark by the way, although I have a heretical suspicion (unique to me as far as I know) that Janine 1984 (besides being short) is Gray's greatest book. In a way though I regret that Gray stuck to short books after Lanark.

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