Still, media bullshit aside, the question of the length that “art” should be is an interesting one. A visit to a recent Picasso exhibition saw me tired out after about an hour, and there was still four roomsworth of paintings left to go. I couldn’t help feeling the entire experience would have been far more enjoyable if I’d spent the entire time with perhaps two true masterpieces and done them justice proper; rather than nod, read the title and give an internal thumbs-up or down.
Filmwise, Hitchcock always made films “in direct accordance with the size of the average human bladder”. The great silent comedies are even shorter; the length of a premise and a pie-gag. The cinema’s inherent compromises between populism and quality make duration something essential in a film’s success. Australia, for example, seemed a successful (if eccentric) movie for the first 90 minutes before, inexplicably, deciding to carry on for another 90 – turning itself into a universal flop in the process.
Novels, however, are something else entirely. BS Johnson believed the modern novel should be short as Victorian epics were stuff of a different time. Of course, we also forget that most Victorian novels were serialised and, similarly, the proliferation of speeches and sermons would no doubt have given readers an ear for the windiest of prose styles.
The average size of ‘blockbuster’ modern fiction then (eg/ The Da Vinci Code) seems a curiously post-modern mix of these two approaches to novelistic length. In word-terms it’s unusual to find anything pushing the 100,000 mark, but page-wise anything less than 500 is quite rare. The amount of words on a page can at times be half the amount you’d find in a Penguin Classics. This phenomenon is perhaps indicative of the idea that a longer book makes for a more “engaging” story, or even just that people enjoy turning pages. The highest acclaim on any poster tends to highlight the books kinaesthetic appeal – “A great page turner”.
In essence, there can’t really be a perfect novel size. On the other hand, there can definitely be wrong novel sizes. David Mitchell’s novels tend to drag an extra 200 pages from a 300 page premise. Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night could have even been a classic given a good editor. Richard Brautigan, on the other hand, always puts me off as I’m effectively paying £8 for 30 paragraphs. Great paragraphs, yes, but this is the “Age of Austerity”!
The length issue is indeed a tough one though. Many’s the time I’ve brushed off a book that I could have liked were it shorter; elaborate lengths oft reek of vanity. On that note, my intrepid imaginary reader, I should best end it. Of course you’ll never have reached this point anyway, you fickle thing, but it’s nice to know you tried.
(PS – I’m writing up my dissertation at the moment, fairy audience, so don’t expect much in the way of blogs for a good while yet!)