A Case for the Larger Canvas

Today, the New York Times noted the arrival of Paul Anderson’s debut novel, Hunger’s Brides, commenting upon its 1,360 page length rather than a more important attribute to gauge — namely, how this book rates as literature.

I’ve never understood people who complain about length in art. One encounters this with film critics as they are bombarded with three-hour Oscar epics. But why should length even matter? To me, it smacks of a petty excuse to kvetch or to boast, rather than assess a book’s worth. Besides, there are plenty of 200-pagers I’ve read that drag as dully as a man holding onto his chastity in a motel room.

However, like Scott, I find myself ineluctably drawn to these mammoth affairs. (Case in point: I’ve read every comparative book mentioned with the exception of Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (which Brian managed to tackle for all of us.) I suppose it’s because I really enjoy the pleasure of getting lost within a world, the specifics of characters or a particular vernacular — the kind of submergal that a sustained length (or its cousin, a sustained density) is likely to offer. I couldn’t imagine, for example, William T. Vollmann’s The Royal Family being shorter. The Royal Family‘s considerable length almost forces the reader to come to terms with the unpleasant underworld depicted. Likewise, Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing, at around 640 pages, is the kind of family saga with historical context that a shorter book couldn’t possibly suggest.

Some have argued that this so-called “prodigious fiction” is an inevitable byproduct of the Age of Information (perhaps in collusion with the word processor). But if the world has indeed become more complicated and our knowledge of the world does indeed double every fourteen months, does it not make sense to remain flexible and supportive of these larger canvases?

[UPDATE: Mark weighs in, but I think he’s confusing the argument. It’s not a question of heft being tantamount to significance, but the issue involves whether the story itself works. To reiterate my argument, I think it’s a bit superstitious to refuse a book because of length.]

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  1. In the article, the editor is quoted as saying –

    “What was missing was something that I knew he already knew was missing,” Ms. Collins explained – the leap into what, from her childhood or whenever, haunted Sor Juana and eventually forced her into her vow of silence. “I told him, ‘You can’t not go there.’ And that’s how it got longer.”

    I wonder why we have to know what led to this vow? Can nothing be left unwritten? Apparently not…

  2. Very sensible post. The comments thread at Mark’s has got way too heated for me to join in there! I love, love, love long novels–I read “The Time of Our Singing” in about 2 sittings over 24 hours, it is a fantastically good read, just as “David Copperfield” or “Bleak House” can almost be read in one sitting if you have the time and space for it. I am a big fan of “A Suitable Boy,” too, though it’s regularly slammed by the poco lit crit folks for reasons I don’t quite understand. And you know, a lot of the best new novels that are also bestsellers are very long, which suggests that many novel-readers enjoy length in itself (the long novel is like, say, a season of The Sopranos in its satisfactions): think of Neal Stephenson, Susanna Clarke, Elizabeth Kostova (all of whom I admire).

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