The Big and the Little

This past week I reviewed Haruki Murakami’s nearly a thousand-page-long novel “IQ84.” It was a terrifically entertaining book, and I’m glad I read it. But it was a near thing. For a contract reviewer such as myself—i.e., one who is paid piecework—it made no economic sense to spend all those hours on a single assignment. In a week or so, I’ll be reviewing Andrew Krivak’s National Book Award nominee, “The Sojourn.” It clocks in at 191 pages. That’s more like it.

Henry James argued that “the beautiful and blessed nouvelle,” was the ideal form for truly artful fiction. I myself tend to admire—not always love-- short novels, partly because they seem to allow for the possibility of perfection, for creating a work that blends all its elements beautifully together. Longer fiction usually impresses by its power or gusto or its ambition to capture the way we live now. A long book, of course, gives the writer more scope for missteps, whether they are important ones or not. There was a time when critics might call the tradition of the short novel typically French and the baggier epics English. If they were really long, and talky, the latter would be dubbed Russian in character.

Which brings me to this week’s question for the assembled wisdom of the Reading Room: Do you prefer long books or short ones? Why? What is your favorite long book—and your favorite short one? What do you gain from a long book that you can’t find in a shorter one? Or vice versa? Have you ever thought that a book was too long long or too short? Is “perfection”—whatever that is—the proper aim for the novelist, or should he or she rather hope for some kind of truth to life, which tends to lead to more rumbustious and messier fiction. Is William Faulkner a better novelist than Vladimir Nabokov? Please share your thoughts.

Michael Dirda

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