Wednesday, January 31, 2007

800 pages too long?

I have enjoyed the minor furore in the lit-blogosphere created by the refusal of (paid) Newsweek reviewer Malcolm Jones to push through to the end of Vikram Chandra's new 900-page novel Sacred Games.

Frankly, I'm with Jones on this one. The first, and less spurious of his self-justifications, is based on the opportunity cost that a "good but not great" (and clinically obese) novel presents to mid-life consciousness:

"My time is precious. Your time is, too. Who has enough time in the day to do all that we want? When I go home after work, it’s triage every night. I can listen to music. Or I can play music. Or I can answer letters or write. Or I can read a book. Or watch TV. Or watch a DVD on TV. Or go out to a concert or a movie. And those would be the nights that I don’t have to clean up the kitchen, do the laundry or help with homework...If you’re going to write 900-plus-page novels, you’d better be as good as Dickens, or I … or I’m going to read Dickens."

Though of course he's supposed to be reading fiction as his day job, which is the part that most irks the lit-bloggers.

I'm less sympathetic to the line his second excuse takes: If the conscientious sort of literary reviewer dedicates the kind of time to reading a mighty, mediocre tome that might otherwise be spent picking his children up from school, he ends up compromised, unable to assume a position of mild indifference to its quality:

"Most reviewers get invested in the books they review, one way or the other. So the books are either panned outright or praised. The praise isn’t necessarily over the top, but it is praise. The reviewer has an investment now. He or she has spent a lot of time reading this book. Can’t just say, oh, it was OK. So you wind up with positive reviews that lack something—heart, maybe?"

V has very set views on the appropriate BMI for fiction. She still hasn't forgiven me for reading War and Peace (in Spanish) and is currently singing the praises of The Outsider, mainly because of its brevity. I have just embarked on a book that certainly looks dauntingly podgy to me, Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories, but when I flicked through to the final page last night to check out its payload in pages, I discovered that it has but a paltry 705. The qualities of the first chapter nevertheless suggest I may yet make it all the way through. The plants only need watering once a week anyway.

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