I love big books. When I was a twelve, I read “. . . And the Ladies of The Club,” in paperback. It was a whopping 1,433 pages and it probably weighed almost as much as I did. In the weeks before law school, I tore through Infinite Jest, which, at 1,079 pages, felt meager by comparison. I read Underworld by Don DeLillo (827 pages), all but the last six pages of Russell Bank’s Cloudsplitter (758 pages), and Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom (562 pages, but still fat enough to hold open a door.” I’ve read every book in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (4,228 words) and NK Jemison’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (1,292 pages) trilogy and the Broken Earth trilogy (1,490 pages).
I love big books because once I am in a story, I don’t want to leave. I want to be in that world for a very long time. Except Cloudsplitter, which I just got tired of, and put down six pages short of finishing because I got bored with it. I didn’t like Freedom much either, finding the characters to be unlikable, unbelievable or pointless. I read all the footnotes in Infinite Jest, but Martin’s novels really start to drag as you go along, and Underworld is mostly tolerable because it feels more like several short novels put together.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’ve had a revelation. Maybe long books aren’t as good as we think they are. I just finished My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tennant, and even putting aside the extremely violent and long sexual abuse scenes (which I can’t), the book is larded with unnecessary description of Mendocino nature, the protagonist’s pubic region, and contradictory information about the bad guy. I hurtled through the book, chewing through words, but in the end, I felt bloated and unsatisfied. It was too long, too fraught, too overblown.
How long are the books I’ve recently liked? Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin (224 pages); Where I Was From, Joan Didion (226 pages); Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi (300 pages); Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward (285 pages); Pachinko, Min Jin Lee (479 pages). A quick review of a few of the classics on my shelf: The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (182 pages); Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee (152 pages); The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison (206 pages); Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger (214 pages).
Here’s the point I want to make: Small books might be better. They are manageable, they tell a clean, unencumbered story that we can remember and love. They fit in your pocket and your purse, and you can read them more quickly than you can binge-watch a new show.
The other day, I saw a publisher submission guideline that said writers shouldn’t consider querying unless their manuscript was at least 80,000 words. That’s about 320 pages. It’s not unreasonable for a book to be that long, but it’s ridiculous that that would be the floor, and not the ceiling, of a book’s expected length. As a writer, that’s disheartening. I don’t want to write larded-up crap that people can’t remember because it had too much detail. In fact, that expectation is contrary to the writing advice that we should eliminate every spare word and make every word count. If my story takes 49,000 words to tell, why must I write more words?
It’s time to stop loving big books for their page count. They don’t love me back. I am going to try to fall for more small books, and cherish the small books I’m writing. Those will be the classics someday.