Against fictional sprawl

I've suspected for a while that novels are getting longer, and this editorial from the Guardian confirms that suspicion: "One book survey found that the average number of pages had increased from 320 to 400 pages between 1999 and 2014." I can understand why novels are getting longer. In a time of increased distraction, it makes sense to advocate strenuously for concentration, to embrace the length and immersion of novels as a selling point, not as a hindrance.

But, really, though: come on.

Most novels, simply, don't need four or five hundred pages to make the point the author wants to make. I'm not arguing that books should compete with Twitter and other distractions in this age of short attention spans. Books are books and apps are apps and people like those two things to be separate and distinct.

But it's important to remember that audiences are immersed in narratives from morning to night, and we thoroughly understand how stories work. We don't have to observe every moment of your character's journey in vivid detail. In fact, at a time when everything in the world is overexplained from a billion different angles and dissected in a trillion think-pieces, we crave nuance and understatement. And nuance and understatement are just as valid a facet of the literary experience as sprawl and immersion.

I recently struggled through a very funny and interesting new novel by a popular literary author that could easily have lost a hundred pages. What's more, it would have been a funnier and more damning indictment of post-Trump America at that size. (Fine, I'll stop being precious: Gary Shteyngart's Lake Success is a clever, slim Thomas Berger-style satire trapped inside the bloat of a later Joyce Carol Oates novel. I enjoyed the book for long stretches, but I can't recommend it to anyone but Shteyngart's fans because it's so sluggish.)

I'm not calling for anything so draconian as page limits for fiction, but I do agree with the Guardian that a renewal of editorial power would be great for literature. Someone needs to ask authors when they turn in a 500-page doorstop about the interior life of an American family: "could this manuscript lose 40 pages without damaging your message?" And then "could this manuscript lose 40 more pages of needless description and unnecessary action?" And then "could this manuscript lose 40 pages of action that the reader could fill in herself?" And finally "hey, how about cutting 20 pages of theme-work? Seems like you could get the point across more sharply with fewer words!" Trust the reader to make the leap, rather than building an unnecessary bridge every time.

Novelists, you need to revive your killer instinct. American novels have become too long and too self-indulgent. Respect your readers' intelligence — and value their time, too.