I’ve been following the many discussions recently of why we like long novels. And while those are interesting and fun, I think they’ve missed something important about the length of the creative work and its impact on the reader. My moment of truth was handed to me by that fabulous liar, Edgar Allan Poe.
I’ll get to that in a minute. But first let me give you a flavor of the discussion. Here’s Laura Miller writing about the full-immersion experience of reading a long novel:
But I believe there’s also an inherent appeal in fat novels, something that only written fiction can offer and that short stories, for all their felicities, aren’t able to provide. You can be swallowed up by a long novel, immersed in the world its author has created in a fashion that no other medium can rival.
Richard Lea wonders if Aristotle would have favored longer or shorter works of fiction. While Lea seems to lean toward the former, he gives both sides their say:
It’s not hard to find writers who resist this kind of logic. For George Saunders “A novel is just a story that hasn’t yet discovered a way to be brief,” while Borges seems to suggest Aristotle’s argument actually favours the short story, arguing that short fiction has the advantage because it “can be taken in at a single glance”. For the novelist Ian McEwan – who made the 2007 Booker prize shortlist with his 166-page “full length novel”, On Chesil Beach – the novella is “the perfect form of prose fiction … the beautiful daughter of a rambling, bloated ill-shaven giant”.
Laura Miller again on why longer works are better for readers:
It takes a while to become so invested, and it often doesn’t happen at all. Getting there is work, like pulling a sled up a hill, but when (and if) you crest the top, it’s a splendid ride from there. The problem with a short story is that even if the author does manage to seduce you into believing in her fictional mirage, it’s over almost as soon as you take a seat on the sled. A long novel promises an extended tour, and the ratio of ramp-up to glide is much lower.
And Ian McEwan (again via Richard Lea), on the other side:
“The poem and the short story are theoretically perfectible, but I doubt there is such a thing as a perfect novel (even if we could begin to agree among ourselves on what comprises a good sentence). The novel is too capacious, inclusive, unruly, and personal for perfection.”
The novella, which according to McEwan has much in common with “watching a play or a longish movie”, can at least be envisaged approaching perfection, “like an asymptotic line in co-ordinate geometry.”
Whew. What are they missing? The key to me was provided by our old friend Edgar Allan Poe. In particular, by what I now realize is a misremembering one of his essays.
In “The Philosophy of Composition” Poe considers the example of Dickens and contrasts him with his own desire to produce an effect on a reader, and his argument for an ideal length for controlling and heightening the effect of a work on a reader. What I misremembered is that I thought he also talked about the importance of effect on a writer – in other words, that writing a short story involves taking one’s mind to a particular place, and that keeping the unity of that mindset is crucial to the creation of the effect.
But I was wrong. In the essay (worth reading in full), Poe describes his artistic process as being one of almost preternatural calm and rationality.
Now I realize why I misremembered the essay: I never believed him.
I was convinced that Poe was justifying his art after the fact, applying some critical thinking to the artistic process and his reasons for his choices rather than truly describing what he set out to do and how he went about it.
How did he actually write? I imagined him in Baltimore, feeling those furious demons that chased him all his life, angrily deciding to combat them with his semi-crazy but obviously brilliant mind, firing up some candles, splashing ink all over himself, and allowing this crazy frenetic state to infuse his ideas and light his words with the fire of his genius.
No doubt much of the time the rational side of his brain was in control. But I think he also brought a powerful set of emotions into the process, just as good actors bring their deepest feelings to bear on lines they deliver.
Writing novels is different. When writing a novel an author spends months and years inside a world. You might be in a single character’s head for six months or more. Whether the world is historical or present-day, outer space or next door, it’s the same thing. You’re there, even when you’re here. It’s slow, it’s long, and it’s deeply affecting. The real world blends with the world that exists in your mind and emerges gradually on the page. The reader dives in after, submerging him- or herself in the same deep pool.
When fiction is working well, the reader gets to experience the created world and the feeling the author had when creating it.
It might not be the only reason we like both long and short works, and it might not even be the most important. But it’s my favorite.
Image Credit: Ravenbeer Logo by KAL via beerinbaltimore.blogspot.com.