I am a fan of short, compact fiction. I like short stories, micro-fiction, novellas…the majority of novels I read fall into the average 250-300 page range, or shorter. The common idea is that in recent years, readers and writers have favored these shorter forms of fiction. In a recent Time Magazine article showcasing Jonathan Franzen, author Lev Grossman claims that fiction writers and fiction publishers prefer “the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm.” * (Then he goes on defending Franzen as an outlier.) Despite a new focus on short-form fiction, I have noticed that a large number of popular books released over the past few years are much longer. It almost seems as if popular novels are fighting the trends that seem to favor shorter fiction.
I’m not the only person to notice this. A couple of months ago, an article in The Millions by Garth Risk Hallberg mentioned the rise in longer novels, suggesting that longer novels exist, in some way, to “complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.” Also responding to Grossman’s Time article, he says:
But if, as Grossman suggests, the “literary megafauna of the 1990s” no longer roam the earth, how to explain Time’s interest in Freedom (576 pp)? Moreover, how to explain the thicket of big novels that surround it on the shelves of America’s bookstores – not only Witz, but also A.S. Byatt’sThe Children’s Book (675 pages), and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist (599 pp), and Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death (725 pp), and Karl Marlantes‘Matterhorn (592 pp), and Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting (1136 pp), and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (560 pp), and Javier Marías‘ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (1255 pp) and Adam Levin’s The Instructions (1030 pp)? Surveying those shelves, one begins to suspect that the spread of micro-designations like “literary megafauna” (or less charitably, “phallic meganovels”), rather than the plenitude or scarcity of the species in question, is the true marker of our changing culture. *
Hallberg makes the claim that these long-form novels exist to challenge assumptions about 21st Century reading patterns, and that “in defiance (so far) of predictions to the contrary, readers keep rising up to meet them.” In this way, the long-form novel almost seems to work as a high-culture challenge to the popular in much the same way that modernist writers sought out stream-of-consciousness narratives to counteract realism popular in the early 20th Century.
Since this blog is concerned with the book as a physical object and with publishing trends, I want to challenge myself as a reader: I plan to read long-form novels this year and to blog about this experience. I will focus on my personal observations of the long-form novel (what makes it stand out from shorter novels? Why the trends toward longer novels? What’s the benefit, if any?). This feature, A Year In Big Books, will focus on sections of each novel as I read. It will be a review column focused on the experience of reading longer-form novels. It will be self-reflective and narrative, but it will also place the novel within a cultural context.
As much as possible, I will try to focus on single authors. To begin, I chose Jonathan Franzen. His “cultural capital” is at a high right now, and he has perfected the long-form novel. I have never read Franzen’s novels before. This experiment will be a chance for me to relate my ideas about three of his novels – The Corrections, Freedom, and The Twenty-Seventh City. I have started with The Corrections and will move to Freedom last.
After Franzen, who knows where this will lead? This concept is a challenge for me; it is a way for me to counteract my busy life with novels that will take me down new paths of thought.