Thursday, April 12, 2007

A top 10 list of short books

I've not read any of Dan Rhodes's books but I think I might like to. He's crafted a top 10 list short books for the Guardian -- read more about the list here -- with a reasonable preface:
"I was reading a new novel the other day when it struck me that the author might as well be a murderer. It wasn't a bad novel, it was just too long. Passages that could and should have been lopped out had been left in, but I felt I had to plough through them in case they had any bearing on the story. It might have been a really good read if the author had had the gumption, or the balls, to shave off a hundred pages. And here's where the murder comes in. Say it takes the average reader an extra two hours (two hours they will never get back) to read all the filler. And what if the book does well and finds 250,000 readers? By my calculations this author will have wasted a total of 57 waking years - the equivalent of a long human life. And what if this monster continues to publish such books? Surely that would make them a serial killer? I was about to dial 999 when I realised that maybe, just maybe, I was getting a little overexcited.

But it seems obvious (doesn't it?) that writing overlong books is at the very least plain bad manners. I can't understand why writers are so often pilloried for writing short books. Brevity is mistaken for laziness when more often than not it's the opposite that is true. My new book, Gold, clocks in at 198 pages, and I'm convinced that, apart from in truly exceptional cases, this is about as long as a book ought to be. Of course I fully expect to eat my words next time I read a run of 400 page marvels, but in the meantime here's a list of works of fiction that I love which, in the edition on my shelf, don't run a page over the 200 mark. All killer, no filler."
All fair enough, and I agree with much of it -- but why be so categorical about these things? I like short books and I've also read many books that should be trimmed, yet some of the very best books are well over 200 pages.

Rhodes's argument for brevity is partly an argument for quality, so his case is not as questionable as someone I once knew who liked big books largely without regard to the quality of the writing or the story -- Michener, Tolstoy, whatever ... it was all the same to her.

But still.

One illustration of a weakness of Rhodes's argument: the tenth slot on his list goes to Gabriel García Márquez's Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Not a bad book at all, and I might even recommend it before the more famous One Hundred Years of Solitude if I was not sure the reader would stick with the story to the end or if I was trying to seduce her to the charms of Latin American fiction. But if I were really trying to develop her into a fan of García Márquez's writing, I'd put Love in the Time of Cholera in her hands, all 368 brilliant pages of it.

--Marshal Zeringue