Need help? Call us 0800 032 9366
What I'm thinking about why big books are back

What I'm thinking about ... why big books are back

Tuesday 20 August 2013

The ultra-long novel is making a comeback - what does this say about us as readers?

Big books are dominating this year's book festival. David Peace's 720-page Red or Dead made a big impression at his event here, and Eleanor Catton's even bigger The Luminaries (832 pages), and Richard House's The Kills (1002 pages) have both been longlisted for the Man Booker prize as well.

The novel has always liked length, of course. From Samuel Richardson's Pamela onwards, through the 18th and 19th centuries until the strike of modernism in the early 20th, when the telling of stories became a more tenuous, uncertain business, writers have tended towards the fat doorstopper rather than the slim volume. So big books are hitting the bookshelves again; what's new?

Well, the economics behind the trend might have something to with it. Recessionary times prefer spectacle to introspection – look at those Busby Berkeley musicals of the 30s Depression – and a big novel has the added status of literature above simple entertainment. It keeps us thinking that, despite the diversionary tactics of size and showmanship we're OK, still thinking.

And big books build confidence, too, a feeling a look-at-me can-do'ism - no surprise that it s a form favoured by American writers, who first coined the phrase "big American novel", after all. Big books are epic, dense, packed with plot and content and ideas, aren't they? They weigh more, cost more, take more time to read. And now that time spent reading has to compete with films and on-line everything and facebook and twitter … surely that means that big must be more important than ever, to justify all that time they take us away from our PCs? To justify spending twenty quid or more? A big book must be better value, right? Money well spent?

For sure, novel readers all too often equate time, money and page numbers - it's why novellas and short stories have such a hard time selling. Publishers and booksellers alike have an easier time if customers perceive they're getting value for money – and in the marketplace, value normally means volume.

The novel, for all its history of "novelty" as a genre, was created for a leisured bourgeois class with time and money on its hands to read. So in that way, it's always been conservative at heart - a product of the economy that engendered it, and struggling always, as poetry never does, to break into the realm of dangerous, unpredictable (so potentially un-sellable) art. But judging by the ones being showcased at Edinburgh, big books now occupy the marketplace in a different way. There's a whiff of the avant garde around Catton's sly, traditional-sounding historical novel, and Peace's latest ably demonstrates the author once again occupying the slippery, shifty mid-zone between fact and fiction that he's made his own.

American Philipp Meyer' s The Son (a mere 560 pages) might be the most traditional of the lot, with House's The Kills defining itself as an audio-visual experience, and Sergio de la Pava's A Naked Singularity (876 pages) starting life as a self-published project. So these books aren't just big, they're strange. A good investment on both counts then?

Just as long as they repay us. Reading through 800 pages or so raises expectations in a way other reading doesn't come close to. All that time given to a book - it had better be more than a gimmick, a trick, a post-modern conceit. It had better be a story we haven't heard before, or already read in another version. It had better change us, make us different to how we were when we started - make us bigger, somehow, ourselves.


  1. The Guardian:
    Books are back!.


Literary News

◄ Blog Home

Subscribe to our email newsletter and claim your FREE copy of our popular guide '9 Top Tips to Save Your Sight'


Post a comment…