The Long and the Short of It

Yesterday, on Radio 4’s Today Programme, and on the PR tour of his new book (there! Got that out the way early on), novelist Ian McEwan said that he likes the ‘short novel’ form, of which he is a master, and that when it comes to the weightier tomes of current popular literature, his fingers are “twitching for a blue pencil”.

I have since seen various articles defending these weightier tomes, and writing of McEwan’s own work in tones of some derision for being an average length of about two hundred pages. This equates to about 50-60K words. A NaNoWriMo project, in fact. Before I go any further, I feel I should make my general comments about McEwan and his writing. I have only read Atonement, and it is one of the few books which I feel has been vastly improved upon by the film. I may think differently if I reread it now.

But, I agree with him. I, too, like a novel I can read in one sitting and run out of patience for what I call ‘doorstoppers’. I find that, frequently, if I put a book down, it is not inevitable that I will return to it, even if I was enjoying the read, and I struggle with long series, especially of weighty tomes. Even with the wonderfully well-written, and the same goes for TV series, but unless I can ‘binge-read’, there is a very high chance that I will have lost interest and found a more captivating one by the time the next instalment is released, unless, of course, it’s a series of standalone stories, like Discworld.

I like a book which I can start when I go to bed, at a reasonable hour, and have finished it at an equally reasonable hour – when Radio 4 becomes the World Service, if I’m not listening to the run of programmes to that point, so I can fall asleep to Sailing Away – so that I can have a sensible amount of sleep.

This is not to say that I don’t enjoy doorstoppers or series. I adore The Count of Monte Cristo, and have fond memories of reading it in an English class while my classmates read aloud, paragraph by paragraph, our class book of Coram Boy. I just about managed to keep pace, with one ear to the class and an eye to my book, for when it was my turn to read aloud. I grew up with Harry and longed to go to Hogwarts – but I fully understand McEwan’s desire for the blue pen when it comes to the later books, and particularly the Fifth: many of Harry’s temper-tantrums could have done with a decent edit – and by the last one, I will confess I read the end first, so I wasn’t sat there for four or five hours reading to an ultimately disappointing conclusion. I don’t count the epilogue as the end.

While I do not ignore the lengthy books currently on offer, I do, very carefully, have to weigh up the amount of time it will take me to read it against the availability of stealing anything up to an entire day in which to do so. And more often than not, I don’t have the time. I already have plenty of sensibly-sized novels in my To-Be-Read pile.

For me, the ideal length of novel is approximately three hundred pages. Anything over about four hundred pages has to be interesting, and over five hundred, compelling. I dislike authors writing for the sake of writing, be they literary or popular: I loved Eragon, but struggled with the second and haven’t read the third or fourth. And that’s another thing which annoys me about epic tales: when a planned part becomes “too long” to be a single novel, and the series grows from a trilogy to, for example, a tetralogy. At that point, it feels like that rule about showing not telling has been, not abandoned, but left in the dust and is now no longer even a speck on the horizon.


PS: McEwan’s new book is The Children Act.

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