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.