There has been a curious development in the world of writing of late, and it concerns something very basic: the length of narrative stories that we, as readers, are willing to consume. Two publishing trends can be traced in this regard, running counter to each other. One is made manifest in the tendency of literary writers everywhere to write novels that are more compressed, more concise and more completely shorn of any sign of verbiage than ever before; while the other, contradictory impulse can be seen to drive much of “long-form” writing in journalism, something that has found great favour with consumers of nonfiction worldwide. So even as the novel has lost its bulk and heft, fat nonfiction narratives seem to have more than compensated for that loss.
The way writing changes in a span of time has a lot do with the reader. It can be argued that all writing is a direct function of the sensibilities, aspirations, prejudices and preoccupations of the reader. Writers need not merely present a reflection of these qualities with their works, as Stendhal had suggested when he called the novel “a mirror carried along a high road”. But engage with these qualities they must. As a writer, you can’t ignore what the reader expects, even if your intent is to challenge the premise or the legitimacy of those expectations.
If we carry out a rough survey of some recently published novels, at least in the Anglophone world, we reach a seemingly straightforward conclusion: what readers want, what they expect from novelists is brevity above all else. A few titles, selected at random and illustrating our theory, include Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time (224 pages); David Mitchell’s Slade House (256 pages); Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is my Name (288 pages); and Irvine Welsh’s The Blade Artist (288 pages).
True, the writers mentioned above have throughout their careers shown a strong predilection for regarding page number 300 as the outer extremity of novelistic discourse. (Except, of course, for Mitchell, whose Ghostwritten ran to almost 450 pages, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet went even further, to 560 pages.) But there does seem to be a sort of publishing rule of thumb at work here — “Don’t cross the 300-page barrier if you want your book to be read” — that most writers today are following, consciously or subconsciously.
So that’s it. Novelists choose concision because readers have enforced that choice on them. But this analysis soon hits the wall. The theory that most readers want shorter narratives doesn’t hold when we scan the journalistic terrain, where an average magazine piece — something you read in one sitting — can give novellas a run for their money, length-wise. It’s also kosher to have nonfiction books that go well beyond the 500-page mark, such as the 2015 winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction, Neurotribes by Steve Silberman, did.
Novels that are sheer bulk now appear as confidence tricks to us, while the long-winded novelist comes across as a disreputable cheat. But Nonfiction, on the other hand, now maintains a complete monopoly over our reading time.
It’s possible that readers feel shortchanged when presented with nonfiction lite, as we may call short books that are based on hard facts. When your book is about something as important and complex as, say, autism (which is what Neurotribes is about), then you’re better off making a case that’s comprehensive, grand and all-encompassing, rather than producing capsules of specialised knowledge. Serious readers refuse to take writers who do short nonfiction seriously.
There was a time, though, when the same thing applied to novels. If you wished to be a great novelist you had to produce a Great Novel. And the monumentality of your work would first be gauged by its length. A doorstopper in the corpus, for instance, has always boded well for postwar American novelists. It’s not merely a coincidence that what many consider the centrepiece of Saul Bellow’s literary life, his 1953 novel The Adventures of Augie March, is also his longest novel.
Yet Bellow’s books got shorter and shorter with the passage of time. And once, late in his career, when Bellow was asked to summarise what Augie March was “about”, he memorably responded with, “I think it’s about 200 pages too long”.
Bellow’s anxiety about overlong narratives can be traced back to the founding fathers of Amercian letters, Hemingway and Mark Twain — both of whom excelled in the diminutive form. (Even early American masterpieces, like Melville’s Moby Dick, ran to manageable lengths, so unlike their European counterparts.) In a letter he wrote in 1950, while at work on Augie March, Bellow advanced his own theory of how the length of a novel could prove an effective sales pitch for it. “I have an idea,” Bellow writes, “that there’s something saleable about sheer bulk; people feel they’re not being cheated.”
Today, the opposite seems to be true. Novels that are sheer bulk now appear as confidence tricks to us, while the long-winded novelist comes across as a disreputable cheat. But Nonfiction, on the other hand, now maintains a complete monopoly over our reading time, no matter how lengthy the narratives, and no matter how many falsehoods nonfiction writers peddle under the garb of journalism. Perhaps it would help sell it if we started calling the novel by some other name. Okay, so that’s what Truman Capote — that arch liar — was trying to do when he called one of his books a “nonfiction novel”.