Last week, backstage at Auckland Book Festival, I expressed the mild view that The Goldfinch would be a vastly better book if it lost 200 pages. And when I said 200, I obviously meant 300; I was just being polite. Someone asked if I would ever read The Luminaries, which is even longer. I explained that I’ve read The Luminaries three times, because I was on the Man Booker panel the year it won the prize. And even then, it wasn’t the longest novel submitted: that was The Kills by Richard House, which is, I think, the longest novel I have ever read: that edition was 1004 pages long. It even trounces Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, which comes in at a meagre 992 pages.
So I’m not sure why the book world has suddenly decided to call 2015 the year of the long novel: Littell’s novel came out in 2010, and David Foster Wallace produced Infinite Jest fourteen years before that. Perhaps it’s just a marketing tool, trying to unite such disparate titles as A Little Life, about the lives of four contemporary New Yorkers, and Death and Mr. Pickwick, whose page-count (816) matches that of The Pickwick Papers, the book whose creation it commemorates. I am tempted by both titles, but I will be holding off for e-book versions, to preserve my already distorted spine.
So I don’t think I fear the long novel, as much as pine for good editors. A book can be any length, if the words are earning their keep on the page. I rarely see the point in huge chunks of prose that don’t serve the story: writing has to be mesmerizingly good before that doesn’t feel self-indulgent to me.
My real worry is that in this flurry of giant novels, we might overlook the short ones. The 2013 Man Booker shortlist may have featured the longest ever winner, in The Luminaries, but it also contained one of the shortest novels ever to be shortlisted: The Testament of Mary, by Colm Toibin, which was barely a hundred pages long. As with everything Toibin writes, every word was cast as carefully and precisely as though it were a poem. And the most beautiful book I read last year was The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono. Even with woodcut illustrations, it is only 46 pages long. But it gleams on my shelf, a bright berry amid huge branches.