Commentary ยท 11/11/2011

The long and short of it

At The Barnes & Noble Review, former National Book Award judge Tom LeClair offers his assessment of this year’s NBA finalists, suggesting “accessibility” will be the US equivalent of the Booker’s recent readability debate. He writes,

all four novels and [the] one collection of stories are accessible, probably more readable by a general audience than, for example, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, a lengthy literary novel that became a bestseller last year but may not have been finished by all who bought it.

I haven’t read more than a couple of chapters or stories from any of the finalists, so I’ve got no opinion one way or another about which book should win. But it isn’t LeClair’s assessment of them that interests me so much as his remarks about fiction in general. After remarking that three of the novels, “seem to me minor works, overly committed to being approachable,” he goes on to argue that,

importance is more intrinsic: a work that treats significant cultural subjects with profound understanding, imaginative ingenuity, and artistic integrity. Important books will offer new comprehension and at least the illusion of comprehensiveness. They may have to be longer than The Great Gatsby. Their language or form will probably create cognitive dissonance that will discourage optioning by famous movie directors. These books will be elite — because few writers have the talent or ambition or daring or time to write them. The books will also be democratic, accessible to anyone who believes literature is not just one of hundreds of entertainment options for the contemporary lifestyle.

I’m on board with “importance” requiring imagination and cultural understanding (or at least curiosity), but he loses me by asking fiction to be — or even believing it can be — “comprehensive.” Not to mention the suggestion a novel’s length has anything to do with all this. LeClair’s holding up Freedom as an example is telling, perhaps, because I don’t buy the implication Franzen’s kitchen sink expansiveness is either inaccessible (what could be more accessible than immersive, familiar social realism?) or a virtue in its own right, any more than grappling with an issue in literal terms is better than doing so more obliquely. Good novels can and are written that way, sure, but not it’s not the only way. And if a novel needs to resist adaptation to the screen in order to matter, I feel sorry for whoever bought The Corrections for HBO.

To me, a short, sharp novel that grapples with something complex in an unexpected, intense way can be far more accomplished and provocative and “important” than a longer, more expansive attempt; Chris Bachelder’s Abbott Awaits and Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation, to name two fairly recent short novels, are as engaged with “big” questions as any longer work could be, and would have been destroyed by more “comprehensive” bloat. In fact, longer books may often be more inherently accessible, if readers are trained to assume longer means better and more to say, not to mention less financially risky than a book that seems suspiciously short for the same price.

What about you, readers? Any opinions about long and short novels, or a preference for one or the other?