The joy of short novels
Noir novels are often quite short. Absurdly short. They’re short in the way that books aren’t allowed to be anymore. James M. Cain’s novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are between 30,000 and 40,000 words long. Jim Thompson’s novels are between 40,000 and 50,000 words long and most of the rest are somewhere around there too.
Now, there was a time when a lot of novels were pretty short. That time was the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. The Great Gatsby is only around 40,000 words. Of Mice and Men and Animal Farm is circa 30,000. Slaughterhouse Five is 50,000. Brave New World is around 65,000. The Catcher In The Rye looks positively bloated at 75,000.
Now I don’t know why novels would have been shorter back then. Perhaps it has something to do with new modes in book distribution technology. This was the golden era of the mass market paperback, and a lot of the above books were published in that format. Maybe the modern era’s switchover to trade paperback means that publishers feel like they should be offering thicker books to justify the higher prices (often twice as high as most mass-market paperbacks). Or maybe I’m just a fool, and this is a false trend, and novels today aren’t any longer or shorter than they used to be.
But the point remains, I adore short novels. And it’s because of any fancy aesthetic reason…it’s just because finishing novels is at least a third of the fun of reading them. Each novel is another notch in my belt. It’s another plot digested. It’s another setting and scenario and character arc that I’ve internalized.
Long novels excel at detailed description of ordinary life, the little telling details that are something which only novels (well, and paintings) are good at drawing one’s attention to. And I love those details, of course. I mean, I have just as much Harold Bloom and James Woods in me as the next guy.
But there’s also a part of me that revels in packing it in and moving on. There’s a part of me that loves the novel as experiential roller-coaster ride. I love going to bed with an unopened novel and finishing it before I wake up. I love being able to reel off a long list of books that I’ve read in the last few weeks. I love being able to make my way through a substantial portion of an author’s oeuvre over the course of a weekend. Short novels give you a sense of completion. They make you feel like you can master this body of work…or that you can understand exactly what is going on this novel. A forty thousand word novel is comprehensible: it can be grasped in your hands; it can be held in your mind all at once. You can download it straight into your brain’s RAM and then crunch every portion of it at the same time.
Short novels don’t require less thought, but it somehow feels like they’re more able to reward thought. To me, they feel less intuitive and more intellectual. But that’s probably a load of bull. Maybe the real truth is that I’m shallow, and that I place more value on having read a book than I do on the experience of reading it…..