Tag Archives: The Great American Novel

Reading, the long and short of it

What would Cervantes, Tolstoy or Wallace think? Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

Unimpressed? Cervantes, Tolstoy, Wallace.
Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

HOW long is too long?

Around 250 pages – if you’re award-winning novelist Ian McEwan.

More than one reader probably slammed down their Hilary Mantel in disgust last week on encountering the writer’s comments on the length of the modern novel.

Using his new release, The Children Act, as a convenient guide, McEwan reckoned 65,000 words is about the right length for a book nowadays.

Such a work can be read in one sitting, he suggests, “like enjoying a three-hour movie or opera”.

Moreover, “very few really long novels earn their length…the Americans especially love a really huge novel…a real brick of an object.”

This shorter-is-better mindset shouldn’t surprise anyone. McEwan is about as far from an American as I can imagine, and most of his novels clock in well under 250 pages.  (The much-lauded On Chesil Beach runs to 166, placing it firmly in novella territory.)

"A real brick of an object."

“A real brick of an object.”

One can only imagine what David Foster Wallace (1079 – Infinite Jest), Cervantes (1072 – Don Quixote) or Leo Tolstoy (1225 – War And Peace) would make of it all.

As a reader (or masochist) who has made it through Moby Dick (625) twice in his 36 years I’m not on McEwan’s page on this.

His comments did get me thinking, though. What was the last 800-page novel I read? And, for that matter, when was the last time I watched a three-hour movie?

It’s been a while, on both counts. But I haven’t avoided longer books because, as McEwan suggests, characters should be established “very quickly” and one or two subplots is enough.

If only it was that simple. Like most people the reason I avoid longer books is time.

Time that’s eaten into by digital grazing, by work, by working out, by (sometimes) just wanting to sit in a room and stare at the ceiling.

Any number of reasons, really. But they combine and conspire to cut into reading time and the concentration required to read.

A slim Steinbeck.

Flat boy – slim.

When my time comes under pressure like this shorter books quickly look more attractive. And so I buy The Children Act and not The Goldfinch, lamely convincing myself that I will, one day, get to Donna Tartt’s 784 pager. (Spoiler: I won’t.)

But once or twice a year, usually on vacation when the time pressure eases, I’ll attempt something longer – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on a two-week trip last May, for example.

The increased time investment usually yields a greater reward – more time spent with characters, deeper immersion in plot – and I tell myself I should really do this more often.

And then my eye is caught by a slim Steinbeck and I’m back in the sub-65,000 aisle again.

With a clear two-week period coming up soon I’m already promising myself great things: maybe even Murakami’s gargantuan 1Q84 (brace yourself …928).

We’ll see. Maybe it’s time for a very short story (4), just while I decide.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch’

Scott Fitzgerald the screenwriter, 1937. Pic: Carl Van Vechten

Scott Fitzgerald the screenwriter, 1937.
Pic: Carl Van Vechten

In December 1940 a hack screenwriter died in the sitting room of his girlfriend’s home in Hollywood.

Alcoholic, in poor health, receiving little credit for his work and dropped from a contact by MGM a year earlier, he would spend his last days working on a draft of an uncompleted novel.

When his body was later taken to Maryland for burial just 20 or so people showed up to his funeral.
—–
The screenwriter, Scott Fitzgerald, had described himself as a ‘hack’ – in his final years at least.

Writing freelance movie scripts was some way from his previous work and promise, which included, in The Great Gatsby, one of the closest realisations of the Great American Novel.

Fast forward 70 years and the latest screen adaptation of the book earned $300m at the box office this year, with $200m more expected in re-runs and DVD sales.

Fitzgerald The Hack made it big in Hollywood after all.
—–

'I shouted across the lawn.' 1443 North Hayworth Avenue, West Hollywood.

‘I shouted across the lawn.’
1443 North Hayworth Avenue, West Hollywood.

This week his ghost was all around.

En route to LA in recent days I watched – and greatly enjoyed – The Great Gatsby. Days later my wife and I found ourselves at a hotel in West Hollywood, minutes from Fitzgerald’s last residence, at 1443 North Hayworth Avenue.

The street’s settled, well-manicured homes are the very opposite of the glare and bustle of nearby Hollywood Boulevard.

Passing the property and aware of the last, ill and unhappy days of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century I couldn’t help but think of Nick Carraway’s lament for the doomed Jay Gatsby.

“They’re a rotten crowd…you’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.”

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

The high-bouncing gold-hatted Gatsby?

The veranda of a villa on the island of Capri, October 1924. A man and woman sit side-on to one another, each holding a glass.

‘Another gin?’

‘I am quite drunk. Yes. How about Among Ash-Heaps and Millionaires? It contains both.’

‘No. It requires a title for the ages. No ash-heaps.’

‘On The Road to West Egg?’

‘The road that passes by the ash-heaps? You’re fixated on dust.’

‘I am fixated on the title. It must be good, rather than fair or bad.’

‘I’m sick. I’m in pain. We are supposed to be celebrating. Decide. Please’.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (gin not pictured). Pic: Kenneth Melvin Wright (Minnesota Historical Society)

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (gin not pictured).
Pic: Kenneth Melvin Wright (Minnesota Historical Society)

‘The High-Bouncing Lover.’

‘This isn’t one of your short stories. It must be magnificent, memorable. Yesterday it was gold hats. Today it’s bouncing.’

‘Something magnificent then. Under the Red, White and Blue. Remember the flag of light-bulbs in Harbor Hill last year?’

‘I’d forgotten. It must be something memorable. Extravagant. Tremendous.’

‘I had a line about the night when the lights fail at his mansion. His career as Trimalchio ends, I wrote. There’s a title: Trimalchio.’

‘You are drunk.’

‘Too obscure, perhaps. Trimalchio in West Egg?’

‘You can place him where you want. No one will be able to pronounce it. It must be something great.’

[Silence]

‘Another gin?’

‘I am quite drunk. Yes.’

Tagged , , , , , ,