21st July 2011 - Adam Howard
At the beginning of this year, I decided I was finally going to read all of those big, towering masterpieces that everyone means to read. I started great, ploughing through the 900-page Middlemarch in a couple of months before moving onto the relatively slim 650-page Moby Dick. My plan was then to breeze through Anna Karenina before tackling the massive Infinite Jest.
But halfway through Moby Dick - around April - I was beginning to flag. Maybe it was the lengthy descriptions of whale anatomy, or Melville's ceaselessly bombastic prose, but it was all getting to be a bit much for me, and I abandoned it to be finished at a (still) later date.
Instead, I switched up and read a host of short novellas. There was Tove Jansson's sweet and simple Fair Play, John Steinbeck's joyful Cannery Row, James Baldwin's tragic, swooning Giovanni's Room, none of them over 150 pages and all of them mini-masterpieces of their own kind. I was reading again, and it's fair to say I was really enjoying reading again. The only problem was how quickly they ended.
That's not to say, though, that short and sweet is better than long and epic. I merely mean to state that they're different, beyond the obvious issues of length and time consumption and effort involved. There's a reason why many would point to both Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby as the pinnacle of American literature: it's simply impossible to decide between Melville's great behemoth of existential terror and Fitzgerald's slight depiction of the shimmering mirage of the roaring twenties. The experience of reading them - even though they often deal with similar themes - is so different that there's no comparison.
Short novels (often referred to by the somewhat nebulous term 'novella'), at their best, are intense bursts of narrative: refined, distilled gems that feel like a whole novel has transpired in a smaller space. Longer short stories like James Joyce's 'The Dead' or Henry James's 'The Beast in the Jungle' have the same effect - although their focus is small, they delve deep into their characters and situations until you feel like they're living and breathing in front of you.
Long novels, on the other hand, are a very different experience. Rather than coming to life before your eyes, you live with the characters and learn about them and get to know them. Anyone who has read Middlemarch will attest to its scope - it begins as the story of a young, bright, serious girl who marries the wrong man and slowly expands its vision more and more until a whole village, a whole way of life is accounted for. Not only that, characters that seem broad and sketchily drawn in early chapters are slowly revealed to have a great depth that is only to be discovered by spending time with them and learning about the whys and hows of their character from experience.
Of course, not all long novels are Middlemarch: something like Infinite Jest is trying to do entirely different things, as is Don Quixote or The Count of Monte Cristo. But long novels require an investment that short ones don't. Whilst the best novellas burn fast and bright, a novel that's both very good and very long can consume you for months at a time.
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