Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! As I grow older one of the sounds which gives me increasing satisfaction is the thud of books hitting my bedroom wall. This is not, I hasten to add, the result of a strange literary fetish. It’s what happens when I decide I can go no further with whatever it is I happen to be reading and, in a mixture of irritation and disappointment, chuck the offending volume across the room. Just as Springsteen’s highway is jammed with broken heroes, so is my bedroom filled with the broken spines of books whose spines I failed to break in a more conventional manner ( books read on my Kindle are, for reasons you will understand, spared this treatment).There are many reasons why one of my books, to borrow a Marathon-running term, will hit The Wall early. It may be that I’m just not enjoying it, and this could be a result of a number of factors – an implausible plot, unbelievable characterisation, clunky dialogue, leaden prose, pretentiousness. The list could, sadly, go on.
In recent years, though, one thing above all others has led to my version of a book launch, and that is length. Finishing a book is now in itself a mark of approval. Even if I often find myself qualifying such approval by sticking a number on how many pages it was over-length (I put last summer’s read, ‘Beautiful Ruins’, at + 100), the fact that the book has avoided bedroom aeronautics speaks for itself. For the others, they are now judged not on a sliding scale of quality (OK, good, brilliant etc) but by much more precise numerical criteria. In answer to the question ‘what did you think of that book?’ I have developed the convenient shorthand reply of merely giving a number of pages or a percentage. That’s how much I read of it. That’s how much I liked it.
The simple fact is that too many books are far too long. Some books need to be long (‘Middlemarch’, for example), but most books don’t. If ‘The Great Gatsby’ can clock in at about 50,000 words, be hailed as a masterpiece and be criticised by no-one for being too short, then there seems no reason why so many books should be so over-length. Maybe it’s the demise of the editor. Maybe it’s the sense that ‘more is better’. Maybe it’s just my intolerance. Or maybe it’s just that we no longer have the time, the patience, or the guts to cut out what’s not needed. As Mark Twain famously put it – ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead’.