Life’s too short for Comment is Free articles

I was going to lay off the blogging until NFI is stable again, but then a friend linked me to the Guardian CiF article ‘Life’s too short for thousand-page novels’. I have some sympathy for this perspective but I’m also familiar enough with CiF’s usual standard of literary and music journalism that I was expecting a train wreck. A train wreck of those little wooden trains that the Early Learning Centre probably still sell.

Sure enough, author Jean Hannah Edelstein manages to combine the CiF standards of overgeneralisation to the points of absurdity and inaccuracy with irrelevant asides and weak jabs at straw men. Let’s tap at the walls of her argument and discover the dry rot within.

Has anybody really got time for a novel that long?

There is a simple answer to this question, and it is ‘yes’. But then this is not rhetoric loaded with any degree of conviction: it’s a superficial attempt to generate debate, page hits and ad impressions. I’m a little ashamed to be contributing to this but we all have to get our jollies in some way.

Could it be that John Sayles is not able to get a publisher for his new book not just because the publishing industry is struggling, but because a thousand pages is just too many for a modern novel, and has been for years and years? In fact, I think it could.

I’m not familiar with John Sayles and not particularly interested either; what I’m concerned with is the absurd proposition that “a thousand pages is just too many for a modern novel, and has been for years and years”. It’s remarkably easy to find books that exceed or approach that figure (obviously these figures will vary depending on edition – mass market paperbacks will always be thicker than hardbacks): Nicola Barker’s Darkmans (848ppgs), Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day (1248ppgs), Neal Stephenson’s Anathem (800ppgs), Hal Duncan’s Vellum and Ink (600ppgs each), Stephen King’s The Dark Tower (736ppgs), George R. R. Martin’s A Feast For Crows (976ppgs). Over in the USA Ayn Rand’s novel of grotesque self-interest, Atlas Shrugged, is currently experiencing a significant resurgence of interest among the more moronic wing of its chattering classes. That weighs in at well over 1,000 pages. With the exception of that last example these books were all published in the last four/five years. Quite a few of them sold rather well, and quite a few of them were critically appraised.

“But what about George Eliot?!” some of you will be inwardly shrieking. “What about Tolstoy?! Don’t make me come down there and smack you upside the head with a volume of War and Peace.”

Honestly. If you’re trying to make an argument about the “modern novel”, don’t immediately proceed to witter on about classic authors who died generations ago. This is surely elementary.

Stay calm, please: am I saying that we should go out and burn every copy of Middlemarch? No.

Of course this pointless tangent is immediately followed up with a Winner-esque response to an entirely irrelevant straw man.

She does have a fair point about J. K. Rowling and her vainglorious resistance of the editorial red pen. Rowling is an easy target if a fair one, but I’m magnanimous in vitriol so credit where it’s due.

I’ve no particular aversion to longer books. As an SF and fantasy nerd I’ve read plenty of doorstoppers. One of my favourite space opera trilogies weighs in at 1,000 pages per volume; I’ve read it twice, once in three days. But so far, in 2009, I’m sticking with shorter self-contained novels. So my personal tastes do align with the author’s, and these days I prefer to read novels around the 2-300 page mark. Of course I don’t mistake my preferences for demographic trends, and nor do I prostitute them for the purposes of empty rhetoric. Like so many Guardian Comment is Free articles this piece is a transparent and artificial attempt to provoke directionless debate, and says much about the decline of journalism and professional criticism into lifestylism and hollow distraction.

This blog post is 690 words long and would fit comfortably in an two-page A5 pamphlet.

2 Responses to “Life’s too short for Comment is Free articles”
  1. neil says:

    Nice dismantling of the CiF piece. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Shaun CG says:

    Any time – writing that was rather good fun, I must say…