Fat Books & Thin Women


Journaling Stories Short and Long

Lots of aspirational reading this week. I signed up for this great classics challenge hosted by Jillian. I use the word “challenge” about as loosely as I can here, because the whole thing strikes me more as, I don’t know, a collective effort to better our reading habits and read books we’ve meant to read for years…but haven’t. Over in the sidebar you can see a link to a list of classics I plan to…okay, will try to…read in the next five years. It recently occurred to me that these books average about 800 pages each and that I’ll be lucky to read half of them in five years, but it sure will be satisfying to knock a few of them off my Shelf of Shame, ie the collection of classics I’ve bought but never read. I’m already making great progress with this challenge – I moved my copy of Dickens’s David Copperfield to the end of my bookshelf, where I have to face down its cover dozens of times a day, from its former position wedged between my Albanian dictionary and GRE study guides.

Outside of work (more on that later), my reading lately has been focused about half on epic, immersive novels, and half on short and easily consumed essays and stories. Kit Steinkellner did a Book Riot piece a few weeks back, “Every Book I Read Needs to be at Least 50 Pages Shorter,” which makes the point that books need to be done like screenplays. The title of the piece is misleading, because Steinkellner doesn’t really say that every book needs to be fifty pages shorter (in that she does have a decent point; all I can hear right now is Kristen Wiig’s character from Knocked Up saying, “Tighten!”) but that novels shouldn’t be over 100,000 words – that there should be a clear limit for novel length just as there is a clear limit for screenplay length. It’s an interesting post (not least for the comments that follow), but also fundamentally off-the-mark. Because, hell, movies aren’t the only expression of film; you don’t even need to make an argument anymore that the best writing is in serialized TV shows because it is so obvious. Something like The Lord of the Rings (which I am still reading, and loving) or Game of Thrones or Stephen King’s Under the Dome is comparable not to the latest hour-and-a-half-long popcorn flick, but a fifty-hour TV drama. I swear, I am going to bring this all together at the end.

I’ve also been reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas for this readalong hosted by Care’s Book Club and Melissa at The Avid Reader’s Musings. I tried to read Cloud Atlas last summer and failed miserably – I started right before flying home for the first time in two years, which explains a lot – and am so, so glad I gave it another try. I’m halfway through now and am so in love with the book I don’t even know where to begin. There will be more gushing and expressions of love for David Mitchell, later this week.

My reading’s also been tending to the very short. I picked up a Kindle copy of the 2011 Best American Science and Nature Writing on sale, and have been reading essays as a sort of reward/break from my reading for work. What I like about the collection is that it’s like having a zillion Kindle Singles for the price of one. (Speaking of which, recently read Mark Bittman’s new Kindle Single, “Cooking Solves Everything,” which probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know about cooking and eating real food, but is as much a pleasure to read as everything else that Bittman publishes.) Last week the New York Times ran a review piece on Kindle Singles, which I hope they’ll do again in the future.

Also read a couple of stories by David Gaughran (who writes the best, best blog about self-publishing – with a real focus on marketing and design and being professional; I don’t even self-publish and I can’t stop reading the thing), available as an e-book, “If You Go Into the Woods.” The two stories here are light and quick reads and – I am not quite sure how to put this – very popular-feeling. You know, these read like stories that were written for readers, not for fellow writers, and it’s a lot of fun to read a short story that doesn’t ask for five rereads in order to figure out what the hell is going on.

Anyway, reading Gaughran’s stories sucked me in in some way, so that now I can’t stop thinking of buying his most recent novel, A Storm Hits Valpariso, to read when I’m flying home. Because I am the sort of person who starts planning what she’ll read during nineteen hours of flights and layovers…over four months in advance. Make sure you look at Gaugrahn’s blog, and pick up those short stories (it looks like they’re free in the UK, 99 cents in the States).

Since I’m always mentioning reading for work, let’s explore that (slightly duller) direction, too. Last week finished Ismail Kadare’s The Accident – I’ll put up a review soon…soonish – which somehow manages to take on Balkan spy agencies, a long-running affair, and time in just a couple hundred pages. Now on Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, which is interesting but which I have to read standing up to keep from falling asleep.

And one quick comment on non-bookish stuff. I’ve been watching Shameless lately, which is (back to that Book Riot piece!) a long and funny and sad and immersive serial that has, at least momentarily, displaced Downton Abbey in my affections. I wasn’t expecting a whole lot out of it, but it is just unbelievable in the way it faces poverty, alcoholism, and limited opportunities (there’s this one moment when Fiona, who dropped out of high school her junior year to care for her younger brothers and sisters, is serving drinks to a table of men at one of many humiliating, temporary jobs, that is just gut-wrenching) without ever diminishing the family or their stories.

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2 Comments

Totally agree with you that even though plenty of books are seriously bloated, a word limit would be ridiculous. I wouldn’t take a word from Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, for example. It’s precisely as long as it needs to be.

There’s an interesting conversation going on at the Tournament of Books today that starts with the opposite position–that length shows ambition and that this ambition sets such long books apart from beautifully crafted short novels. I disagree with that, too. Bloat is bloat and should be avoided, and artificial limits cut some writers off at the knees.

Hmm… I feel a post coming on.

Comment by Teresa

Oh, i’m glad you mentioned the ToB! I hadn’t gotten around to reading the first-round judging. Now that I have, I think a full post could come out of each of those decisions. I like what you write – that bloat is bloat, but that artificial limits are too…well, limiting. And it’s interesting to me that I find one judging decision acceptable – declaring IQ84 the winner for it’s ” outsized ambition and extraordinary, noble failure” – and another (the loss of Salvage the Bones because it isn’t as fully committed to its premise as its competitor, although by all descriptions it seems the judge LIKED Ward’s novel more) totally confusing.

I’d love to see a post from you on length/ambition vs. beautifully crafted short novels. Obviously there’s a place for both types of novels (and ambition isn’t limited to long novels), but it seems impossible to compare the two. 800-page and 200-page novels are fundamentally different beasts; how do we compare them?

Comment by Ellen Rhudy




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