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Wondering about long fiction and serialization

October 23, 2011

I’ve been wondering lately whether English-speaking fiction readers used to be more open to long works of prose fiction than they are today. (I mean “long” just in the simple sense of large page count / word count.) I’ve been reading and greatly enjoying Adam Levin’s recent novel The Instructions, which is around 1000 pages long. Several people I know have, after seeing the book in my hands, made remarks about its length. It’s so long, they say, eyes wide. I must read very fast, to be able to read a book like that. Etc., etc.

Though I haven’t thought to ask explicitly, I’m curious what standard people are using when they make this judgment. Why is The Instructions impressively long, but not the latter volumes of the Harry Potter series? Well, of course no one would comment about how long those Harry Potter books are because they’re so well-known — if one was ever in a state of surprise about their length, one would have gotten over it long ago. But it’s not quite that simple. It seems to me that, even controlling for level of exposure, certain long books attract attention to their length in the ways that others don’t. The girth of The Instructions are impressive, apparently, in a way that the girth of a typical epic fantasy novel (and some of them do run into the kilopage range) is not. It’s not just a genre/literary thing, either: it seems impossible to write about Neal Stephenson — who’s certainly a genre writer — without mentioning how big his books tend to be. (Just check out some of his reviews.) What is the rule at work here?

This stuff matters to me because I tend to like long fiction better than short fiction. The longer a work runs for, the more deeply connected I feel to the characters. It takes a certain length of exposure to form a real attachment to a person or a place; I feel the same way with fictional characters and worlds. As a reader, why would I want to switch characters and premises every few hundred pages, like someone who moves to a new city every few months and leaves their old friends behind each time? What I’m talking about here is not some specific feeling of cozy familiarity, but rather the whole vast range of human feelings that happen to depend on some critical mass of built-up experience.

(The Instructions is a good example of this sort of thing. At first I found the protagonist sort of annoying and Mary Sue-ish. But I gradually warmed up to him, and now I’m quite fond of the guy. Why am I fond of him now? Did he turn out to be a less annoying person than he initially seemed? Well, that’s part of it. But part of it is that I feel a certain attachment to even his more annoying quirks, simply because I’ve spent so much time with him. He feels like a friend. That is the sort of effect that, in my experience, only length can produce.)

A world in which people were more receptive to long fiction would be a good world for me, then. But wait, you say, aren’t people pretty receptive to long fiction already? Think of the success of Harry Potter. Think of A Song of Ice and Fire — the new one everyone’s so excited about is 1040 pp., and it’s the fifth book in the series. What about the success of the dizzyingly huge Wheel of Time series?

It seems to me that people divide length into two types: there’s the sort which simply accrues as a story composed of lots and lots of events gets longer and longer, and there’s the sort that involves some kind of attempt to make something deeper, smarter, harder, more monumental than a typical work of fiction. The average reader is OK with the first sort of length but afraid of the second.

This explains why series of long novels are viewed as less intimidatingly long than standalone long novels, even though (obviously) a series of long books takes longer to read than just one long book does. The existence of sequels suggests a certain focus on plot, on sequence, on making you wonder what’s going to happen next (that’s why you rush in to buy the next sequel right when it comes out, rather than waiting for it to appear in libraries, netting the author $$$). Length that comes about because of such stacking of narrative links isn’t inherently intimidating. It’s just like the plotting in shorter works, except it keeps going. (I’m brazenly ignoring issues of growing plot complexity, here. Suffice it to say that, in my personal experience, even people who don’t think of themselves as “smart” readers are willing to keep track of some pretty damn complex stuff.)

And on the other hand, a long book that seems to be long because the author just needed that much space to blow your mind with their vast message, dude are intimidating to a lot of people, understandably so. As I mentioned above, people can’t seem to talk about Neal Stephenson without talking in awed/fearful tones about how long his (post-Diamond Age) novels are. I think this is because people place Stephenson’s work in this latter “monumental” category of length, even though Stephenson is a genre writer and even though some of his work (like The Baroque Cycle) comes in series. Stephenson’s books are about concepts; they’re about things like “cryptology” and “the rise of the banking system” and “the Penrose-Hameroff theory of consciousness.” They’re the kind of books that seem like they must be long because they’re trying to thoroughly or deeply explore some conceptual territory, though that isn’t necessarily the case. (In fact, the long Stephenson books I’ve read have been long mostly due to the stringing together of lots of picaresque/comedic adventures. But that’s not the sort of thing conjured up by the description “1000-page novel about the rise of the banking system and the calculus priority dispute.”)

So maybe people aren’t so hostile to length after all. Were they even less hostile in the past, though? I thought for a moment the answer might be yes, because after all what about all those big 19th-century novels? But of course a lot of those were serialized in the first place — serialized, in fact, in bite-size magazine installments much shorter than the entries in present-day novel series. War and Peace, the big novel with that oh-so-monumental title, seems quite intimidating, but War and Peace: the exciting magazine serial is a different beast. Maybe the dichotomy I describe above applies to 19th-century readers as well — it’s just that different sorts of things were serialized back then, in different ways. (Something I think is neat: The excitement over the last volume of Harry Potter has been compared to the excitement over the last installment of The Old Curiosity Shop.)

So now I’m wondering: would it be good for us if serialization was less associated with the genre ghetto? Would it be good for us if we did more old-school serialization, in fast brief installments, rather than in sets of novels? (At the moment, I guess comics are serialized that way. Is there anything else? And think about how “serious, grown-up” comics like to call themselves “graphic novels” — which suggests to a modern reader something circumscribed and non-serial . . . )

(Hey, look! I managed to write this whole post without once mentioning Henry Darger!)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2011 3:25 am

    I think David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” was actually publicized as ‘this is too long and too tough for you to read’ . . . sort of a dare. And it worked.

  2. October 24, 2011 9:58 pm

    I also have gotten the comment about large books I’ve been reading (although mostly nonfiction). It seems that the best way to look intelligent to the uncritical observer in a bookshop is to read something really long. On the other hand, I think this causes a certain group of people who want to seem impressive impetus to read long fiction. This is why, I believe, the marketing ploy, discussed by Benjamin in the post above, was effective.

    My biggest problem with long fiction, fiction or otherwise, is their literal weight. It’s harder to carry a 1,000 page book in my bag than one about 200-300 pages. That’s part of why I like the kindle– whether I’m reading Infinite Jest or The End of the Affair, it takes up the same amount of space in my purse.

    Concerning serialization, I remember The Green Mile was serialized as novellas back in the 1990s. It seemed to do pretty well. Maybe there is a market for that style of serialization. Or, possibly, eReaders will make this obsolete. Reading on a device makes the reader forget how long the book is. I read an article a couple of months back that that said that some children who did not like to read found it easier to read on eReaders because they were not intimidated by the size of the book.

  3. October 25, 2011 9:14 pm

    There are some academics who are really excited about the mini-series as the potential heir to the serial novel. It’s an idea I can imagine myself getting behind, if only because it exposes the hypocrisy of those who tremble at the idea of watching Fassbinder’s “Berlin Alexanderplatz” (a mere fifteen-hour German miniseries from the eighties, recently re-released by Criterion, which) but who love The Wire or whatever.

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