August 23, 2005



Mark: I don't think it's necessarily heft equaling significance, but of being blind to length. It seems that every time a thick book comes out, we see these sorts of articles, where the lengthy books attract attention for their page count (instead of their literary merits). All I'm calling for here is giving any book a fair shake. What's inside the book? That's what matters. What's wrong with every catalogued thought or feeling being recorded in a book if they're all essential to a book's message?

As for Vollmann, I'm curious, Mark. What of his have you read that permits you to make the "heft=significance" argument? Sprawling chronicles of overlooked people who rarely get that kind of fiction coverage are, for my money, sizably significant.


Wow. that's been out here in Canada for over a year. Guess it took a while to find a US publisher who wanted to kill that many trees in one fell swoop.


I think you hit the nail on the head, Mark, when you said that authors of doorstoppers have to justify demanding so much of their readers' time. In my experience, they usually don't. Whereas a few years ago, my reaction to a 700 page tome would be 'Wow, that must be really good', today it's more along the lines of 'Wow, that must be really underedited'.

It's not just the brick-sized books, either. When was the last time you read a novel that was less than 300 pages long? I can't remember the last time I finished a book without thinking that there was some fat to be trimmed. There's a culture of excess, not just in book publishing, that probably isn't doing literature any favors. I wouldn't want to see arbitrary page-count limits, but there's something to be said for boundaries.


Ed, how about seven volumes of Rising Up and Rising Down? The condensed version is a svelte 752 pages. 832 pages for Europe Central; 800 for Royal Family; The Atlas is a light read at 496 pages! I don't need to have read all of this to identify him as a writer in desperate need of editing. (And I did try to wade - with little success - through the abridged RU/RD.) If he was capable of turning out something of a more user friendly length - anything at all - I might feel a bit differently disposed toward him. I know he's one of your favorites but don't take it personally. We both know you've got loads more patience than I do.

Dave Worsley

Hunger's Brides didn't do much up here. I second the call for boundaries, though. It's hard enough for eager booksellers to help first time fiction along without needing to double bag it.


Well, I'll be another one who calls you on the silly generalization about 'heft' and the middle-brow need you have for 'user friendly' literature. It's insulting to dismiss truly original and important writers like Wallace and Vollman because your attention span is too short and/or you don't get what they're doing. That's your fault and your limitation, not theirs.

It's easy to lob off glib comments. Especially when you haven't really read either of those writers. Big does not equal unedited. Nor does it imply greatness. These are comments not informed by reading, but by skimming, if that.

Seems a lot of the insulting crap directed at Wallace and Vollman arises out of some misplaced envy. They've been rightly praised as serious and original writers, and if you're not up to what they're doing, fine. But save the smug jive.


Adam, you're free to post here to your heart's content but if you're going to do so, best to know a bit more about what's going on around here. Regular readers of this site know that I've read plenty of Wallace - and still don't think much of him. Nor would regular readers be likely to consider me middlebrow. You're free to, of course, but your notion that anyone who isn't much interested in the prolix self-indulgent side of your literary exemplars must either be (a) middlebrow, (b) envious or (c) glib auggests more than a hint of all three traits you decry.


To be clear, Mark, I called your comment about needing a book of more ''reader-friendly length' middlebrow. And while I understand your defensiveness, I don't understand the logic of your last sentence.

If you don't think your comments to be glib or that they might betray some agenda beyond taste, then perhaps you've spent too much time accepting congratulations from your 'regular readers.' This is a common problem in the blogosphere. (here's where you say, "Then don't come here, etc etc")

FWIW, I actually enjoy your site, and applaud most of the work you do here, but its tiresome to see bloggers taking cheap shots at writers who have been fortunate enough to garner a lot attention. In the cases of Wallace and Vollman, they've earned and deserve the good attention they've gotten. Which doesn't make them immune from serious criticism, but there's not much of that to be had by their detractors. Mostly it's sneeringly dismissive toss-offs about their alleged "self-indulgence."



It would take something very extreme for me to say don't come here again. I've always welcomed differing points of view. My issue that your first comment was not much more than a tissue of insults. (Interesting that you should use the word "sneer" - go back and take a second look at your original comment. In fact, compounding ironies, for one who decries "cheap shots" your first post personifies the form.)

One of the things I like most about the regular readers (to whom you also condescendingly sneer a bit) is that even when there are disagreements here, they are invariably civil and constructive. Click the category "The Conversation" and read the original post on DFW ... on David Mitchell ... on James Wood ... Each time, there are substantive and interesting disagreements taking place - but no one feels the need to get nasty and insulting, as you do in your comment. My "regular readers" are capable of assailing my more foolish positions without attacking me.

That sort of conversation and disagreement is always welcome here. And you're certainly welcome to your opinion and to keep posting them.

I generally make it a rule to stay out of the comments boxes. It smacks too much of last-wordism (which I'm not interested in) and besides, I get the big real estate above, so I try to leave this space for readers. I came in because, basically, I thought you were being rude. But you weren't that rude that I'd tell you to go away and, as I say, you're even entitled to be rude. Perhaps when/if the discussion obtains a more constructive level, we'll have something useful to say. But now, the last word is yours for the taking.


Oh, I'd add that it's a bit absurd to suggest that Wallace and Vollmann are being singled out because they get a lot of attention. That's just plain silly. It's because I don't care for them. There are dozens and dozens of authors getting lots of attention who don't come in for criticism. When did you last see me knock J.M. Coetzee?


Well, Mark, I apologize if my remarks struck you as personally insulting. I certainly disagree with your interpretation of my remarks, but if they were found rude, then I'm sorry for that.

Again, I found your comments to be insulting, and you defend them by saying you don't like those authors. Which is not the same as defending the substance or tone of them.

I'm sure you have seen--and I'm not accusing you of this--a certain kind of script of insults directed towards youngish American writers who've gained a lot of attention. It goes something like this:

self-indulgent heft: Wallace & Vollman
ubiquity and fame: Eggers & Moody & Franzen
too hip for their own good: all of the above and throw in, to be gender fair, Heidi Julavits and Vendala Vida.

Easy targets, no doubt. They're famous and successful. But point me to the thoughtful criticism of these writers' work. The kind that is free of put-downs. I know James Wood has done some, but I can't think of anyone else.

I don't need or want any last word, Mark. My point is that it's all too easy to fall into this very familiar and tiresome sort of attacks that suggest to me other motives.

Keep on! and Thanks for the good stuff on this site.


Mark: Knock Vollmann all you want. But I should point out that Vollmann has plenty of books around the 200-300 page range. His recent Copernicus book is 240 pages. "Whores for Gloria" is 160 pages. "Thirteen Stories and Thirteen Epitaphs" is 318 pages. "Butterfly Stories" is in the 300 page range (and has lots of pictures).

As for Vollmann's attention, are you kidding? Outside of literary circles, he's obscure as hell. And you're not likely to find his books in a suburban chain bookstore. That's one of the reasons why we started The Vollmann Club. :)

D. Bishop

Technically, Vollman and Wallace are brilliant. Unfortunately, they both lack soul. Even Celine, for all his grousing and misanthropy, had soul. And great art needs soul.

For some reason, many modern writers just lack it--or are afraid to express it. I think it's because they are afraid of connecting with readers. Or perhaps--it's a symptom of our age.


Bishop: Bullshit. You don't know Vollmann. Read the section in "The Rainbow Stories" in which an autobiographical version of Vollmann courts a character who may be his wife. And what of Henry Tyler's love for his brother's wife and the Queen in "The Royal Family"? Or the fantastic imagery of "The Ice-Shirt"? Vollmann dares to show the soul within humans where others would easily flinch.

As for Wallace, I partially agree with you -- particularly with his short stories. Even so, the early moment in "Infinite Jest" where Erdedy is waiting for someone to come back with drugs is pretty damned genuine and soulful, as far as I'm concerned.

Is a flogged horse officially dead when the limericks show up?

De gustibus non est disputandum,
yet debate goes on ad infinitum.
what fraction of friction
seeks to addresss fiction,
and not the cult of authors who write them?


Funny (or not) that Wallace and Vollmann should get lumped together, though given their reputations for prolixity not entirely surprising. I've found Wallace unbearably sterile & detached (based soley on the Oblivion collection). Reading Vollmann, I found him to have much more "soul" (whatever that exactly means. His ability to create such complex characters as in Fathers & Crows (the only I've read of him to date) indicate a degree of emapthy that I am willing to call "soul".


Well, this was interesting,

I can't wait to see the reaction to and dialectic on Ed Wyatt'sNYT puffery on the cover of Rick Moody's The Diviners.

That's right folks, a whole story on the cover art of Moody's new tome. Yikes!

Say it ain't so.


I've never read Vollman or Wallace, so I have no idea if they justify their verbosity. When I complain about long books, I'm talking about the fact that since I read The Crimson Petal and the White 18 months ago, I've gone through nearly 20 doorstoppers and not one of them justified its length. At their best, they were good books that would have been better with judicious editing (Mortals, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Quincunx, The Once and Future King). At their worst, they were the bloated, water-logged corpses of what might once have been a decent story (The Mists of Avalon, Ilium, The Magus, The Stand: Complete and Uncut).

I think there's definitely a bias towards long books and against short ones - an assumption that no one can say something truly meaningful unless they do it on a giant canvas. This is probably why gigantically long books such as Hunger's Brides (which may, for all I know, justify its length) get as much attention as they do, but in the last year most of my favorite books have clocked in at barely 200 pages. Books like Old School, Grendel, or To the Lighthouse might take less than a day to read, but they've stuck with me for much longer.

D. Bishop

I guess "soul" means a burning reason to write a book. And the final product reflects that. In the past, I think that was the only reason to write a book. Now it's simply expression for expression sake--or for advancing a career. There's too much Gen X navel gazing out there--and for the record I am a Gen Xer.

I'm not a fan of Norman Mailer, but I remember him commenting about how Franzen was a good writer, but didn't do enough. That's exactly the problem. Just not doing enough.

Dave Worsley

Perhaps, those who've been around a while trust their chops enough to keep it short. Mark Salzman's another who's remarkable brevity keeps things at around 200 pages and still does more than enough.
I've never read Vollman and only a bit of DFW so I'll stay off of that, but several writers I've broke bread with have said that while they're working on novels; short story ideas get in their path, summarily shelving the novel.
I have similar experiences with much over 450 or so pages. Having said that, I'm starting Moody's Diviners. Four hundred ninety plus pages or not, I'll follow him anywhere. Good move changing that cover, though.


D. Bishop: by your definition, you should be an obsessive fan of both Vollmann and Wallace. These are incredibly serious and passionate men who 'burn' to write and take on different subjects and do so in original voices.

I have no bias about book length and I don't understand using that as a criteria. Part of the novel's distinctness as an art form is its duration and involvement, how much time we spend with it, immersed in it for a much longer time than any other art form.

Length is a criteria is more a symptom of our ever shortening attention spans than anything else.

And I don't see concision or compactness as an independent aesthetic value when it comes to the novel. It may be worth noting Coetzee's concision and ability to get so much into such short novels, but that does not set a model to for anyone else to follow.

D. Bishop


It's not so much length that's the problem, but subject matter. I used to be a fan of the big postmodern novel--but it just seems to have led to these pointless narrative games, and nothing else. Perhaps that's why "serious" novels are so irrevelant to our culture. No one cares about fiction anymore. It's a sideshow.
Novelists used to speak to the issues of the day. Perhaps they still are, and I don't know about it.


well, you want to read a big fat book on an 'issue of the day?'
I highly recommend Acts Of Faith by Philip Caputo, a brilliant book set in Sudan.

My main point, and not necessarily pointing fingers at anyone in particular, is this: the novel's distinctness as an art form should not be diluted by our short attention spans nor should it respond to the prescriptive agendas of anyone.

I tend to think of serious readers as folks who want to read anything great whether it be conventional realism or experimental narratives or fables etc etc etc without preconceived notions of what's the best form of the novel.


D. Bishop: Again, you demonstrate that you haven't really read Vollmann. If you're referring to Vollmann's "You Bright and Risen Angels," I can understand your point. But Vollmann has largely abandoned this pomo approach for historical reimaginings and novels as journalism. In fact, many of his novels feature copious sources should the reader desire to plow further.

I find it amusing that many of the objections to "long books" in this thread are from people who haven't even bothered to read the books in question.


I also reject the notion that 'no one cares about fiction anymore.'

When in America was the age where serious fiction had a subtantially larger audience and impact? The claims I've seen do not stand up to scrutiny.

The audience for serious fiction may be relatively small in comparison to the audience for popular entertainments. But this audience at this time is the smartest, most literate, and most passionate group of readers serious fiction has ever had in this country. Great novels continue to be written and published and read.

I do not define relevance as reaching a mass audience or by subject matter. Those are empty criterion.


I wonder if there's any correlation between long books and the length of comments sections on long books...

This all reminds me of the novel in The Wonder Boys: "The end kept getting further away..."

(There's something to be said for journalism, where every word costs.)

The criterion for me is, is it comfortable to carry on public transport or not? Lydia Davis any day over DFW! Though I can admire JM's economy, he leaves me stone cold.


Having not read Vollman or the DFW door-stop, I'll nominate Pynchon's Mason & Dixon as a big-ass book worth reading.He has a lot of ground to cover: giant cheeses, Jesuit conspiracy theories, George Washington smoking dope. The man needs room to stretch!

Paul Anderson

I may be finding this thread just as the discussion has about run its course, so I'll send out a small probe and follow up more seriously if anyone's still interested:

First, thanks to TEV for giving Hunger's Brides a look, even though it was unlikely to hold much appeal. Next, a brief pause to condole with Mark on his bad experience with Infinite Jest.

Odd but something similar happened to me not so long ago: Upon finding a famous Booker-prize winning title to be a baggy, showy, self-celebratory bore, I haven't been able to so much as look at a medium-length book since.

Just what is it about books from 275 to 425 pages that is so distinctively, so unmistakably galling?

With best wishes,
Paul Anderson
author, Hunger's Brides

Thomas Stone

I thought Hunger's Brides would be for me when I read about it in the New York Times, not because of its heft, but its varying and tempting subject matter. I am now more than 400 pages into it and would hate for it to be closing with one more chapter. The book is a feast, and I cannot compliment Mr. Williams more. I have yet to reach a spot where I dozed off or wished it would speed up. For one thing, it has varied voices, ranging from 17th century formality to late-20th century stream-of-consciousness. Secondly, the depth of knowledge exhibited in the work is quite impressive. And, for a lover of poetry, the book brings to life a poet with whom I was not familiar.

Thomas Stone

I'm sorry, did I say Mr. Williams in my comment? I am reading something by a man with that name, but of course meant Mr. Anderson. Tom Stone

Charles B. Edelman

I may have missed it, but you did not appear to give enough attention to the fact that writers are still paid by the word, that is, by the quantity of their writing rather by its quality. Unless they are independently wealthy, writers need money to eat and pay their rent, just like everyone else, (although Tolstoy, who was indeed independently wealthy wrote one of the longest books in Russian literature - I refer - of course, to War and Peace) and, like the proverbial baker, knead their dough. There are, to be sure too many books, or rather too many bad books that are written merely for money and the only way to stop this is to stop paying writers altogether, or perhaps to pay them NOT TO WRITE. Great writers have frequently written for little or nothing so perhaps they'll continue writing anyway and the mediocre writers will take their money and shut up, thus freeing the world from ten trillion tons of superfluous verbiage.







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