At 500 pages, The Overstory is a “majestic redwood” of a novel. Its place on this week’s Man Booker shortlist is testament that long books are fine by the judges.
One book survey found that the average number of pages had increased from 320 to 400 pages between 1999 and 2014. Some think that the shift to digital formats has contributed, not least in removing the fear of being crushed beneath your duvet by your bedtime reading.
Writers are not the only ones reluctant to kill their darlings. Director’s cuts tend to expand rather than contract movies. Viewers of Apocalypse Now Redux — 49 minutes longer than the lengthy original — can testify that there’s sometimes good reason for studios to interfere with a creative vision. Yet executives too can overrate the long and sprawling.
One culprit can be the misguided sense that volume equals value for money. Another is the odd association between physical heft and artistic or intellectual merit — “weighty” is a compliment, “slight” is an insult.
Interestingly, I opined about this back in June, specifically mentioning The Overstory, a new novel by one of my favorite authors. I’ve put off reading it because it’s long, and I’ve been more interested in reading shorter books these days. Oddly, the books that have caught my eye in recent months have been longer, and I haven’t bought many of them; I’m still in search of shorter, tauter novels to read.