Does Size Matter?

Get your minds out of the gutter, folks, I’m talking about books here.

A while back I came across this column:

The argument is as the headline states it – that novels used to be longer and the fact that people don’t read long novels anymore is a problem. I don’t find it a very compelling argument, for several reasons.

The jumping off point for this observation was the then-looming 100-year anniversaries of two very famous long books – James Joyce’s Ulysses and Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (its English translation, anyway). The overwhelming mood of the column is a “they just don’t make ‘em like the used to” and wouldn’t things be better if modern popular culture supported such massive works? Fiction, the author argues, helps build empathy for others and generally leads to a more civilized, less violent society. I don’t disagree (although the cynic in me says look at the 20th Century), but I’m not sure book length makes much of a difference.

Joyce and Proust are odd standard bearers for this argument, too, given that they’re ultimately more talked about then read. Were either best sellers in their time? The author labels them “gravely under-read,” so presumably not. “Proust” has enough pop culture currency to be a solid basis for a silly sketch about trying to summarize his work, but how many people have any idea what it says? As for Joyce, even the author of this column concedes that there are parts of it that are “skippable,” which sounds like a concession that Ulysses is just too damned long.

More to the point, the column ignores or downplays evidence that consumers of media (in whatever form) are more than happy to give over lots of time to various works. He bemoans the fact that Netflix allows viewers to watch things a increased speeds, “as if 90 minutes is now considered an unreasonable amount of time to spend watching a 90-minute movie.” This is slightly out of touch, as the ballooning of movie lengths is pretty regularly commented on. As for Netflix itself, a recurring criticism of its popular documentary shows is that they take what should be a feature-length story and stretch it over hours and hours. Yet people still dive in.

There’s a glancing mention of popular fiction, specifically a recognition that the Harry Potter books that kids eat up are lengthy, but then regret that “between youth and middle age, out enthusiasm for chunky novels recedes.” But is that true? Fantasy and science fiction are two of the most popular fiction genres and they often produce true door stoppers. Per this graphic from Electric Lit Ulysses is 265,000 words, which is a bunch. But A Game of Thrones, which has sold scads of copies, is 292,000 and it’s the shortest book in that series. Eye of the World, the first of the Wheel of Time series is nearly 306,000 words. Again, it’s sold loads.

Both of those are the first installments of a lengthy series, of course, which gets another overlooked truth of the modern book market – readers really like long, mutli-volume works they can dive into and immerse themselves in. Those series run into the millions of words. In Search of Lost Time, of course, was itself a series of seven books (topping out at just over 1.2 million words – Martin’s at 1.7 with A Song of Ice and Fire and isn’t done yet!). Going back to movies, what does it say that the most successful popular film series of our era tells a complete, interwoven story, over two-dozen-plus movies (not to mention related TV series)? It’s not an indication that people aren’t willing to devote considerable attention to media that moves them.

I’m not trying to equate popular novel series or the Marvel movies with two classics of world literature, but the thesis of this column isn’t that people aren’t reading the right kind of books (although that’s implied), but that they’re not reading ones that are long enough. But that’s simply not true. In whatever form you consume you media – book, film, or TV – people eagerly consume epic stories all the time.

There’s a musical analogy here, too. Progressive rock is famous for artists who indulge in lengthy songs, including side-long epics like “Supper’s Ready” or “Close to the Edge.” It’s to the point that some newer artists think length is as important as anything else when it comes to prog. But the truth is that Gentle Giant did more interesting things in 4 minutes than many bands can do in 20. The only issue should be how long should a particular song – or book or movie – be to get the job done? Sometimes it’s short, sometimes it’s not.

Or, as the old saying goes:

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