The long and the short of it - Booker prize
The 2012 list shows three novels of over four hundred words (Hilary Mantel, Will Self and Tan Twan Eng), and two novels of less than two hundred words (Deborah Levy and Alison Moore). Only Jeet Thayil comes in at an average score of 304 pages. Which is more preferable? Which is more literary? Is size any indication?
The popular writer R F Delderfield (To Serve Them All My Days, God is an Englishman - both 600 pages and counting) once said that he wrote door-stoppers himself because he always hated coming to the end of someone else's book that he'd enjoyed. You really can get everything in there - majesty and scope as well as intimacy and locality. And it's almost as though to be truly successful, to make it on the iconic scale, you have to be big - size really did matter, after all, to the likes of Norman Mailer (The Naked and the Dead comes in at a lofty 720 pages). And it wasn't just the boys - think of just about any Victorian classic by a woman, from The Mill on the Floss to North and South and you have a weighty piece on your hands. The Russians were notoriously fond of size then, too, heading out in front with Crime and Punishment and War and Peace whilst Ireland took the early 20th Century prize with Ulysses. More recently, The Crimson Petal and the White and Blonde have whetted our appetites for the book that seems to just go on for ever, delaying that moment when we have to say goodbye to its world for as long as it possibly can.
But the door-stopper is a double-edged entity - you have to be careful with it, because its alter ego is the trashy bestseller, the 'airport' novel. Think of those huge, clunky tomes by Harold Robbins, for instance (The Carpetbaggers can easily meet Mailer's 700+ pages), and one of my favourite novels when I was about twelve and making the transition from Nancy Drew into 'something more adult' - the gorgeously blousy and overdone Gone With the Wind. It's perhaps no accident that the biggest sellers before E L James came along were the latter Harry Potter books, which just got bigger and bigger in size the more money J K Rowling made.
By contrast, the slim novel/novella always wins the intellectual prize. It might not be expansive or magisterial; it might be more taxing than you think; it might leave you wanting more. But its very compactness means every word matters - even the kind of the pulp fiction writer it attracts means it's in a league above the Robbins of the world (Raymond Chandler's slim volumes are a great example of pulp-meets-short; some genre writing really benefits from economy). Some of my favourite recent novels have been shorties, too, like David Malouf's Ransom and Toni Morrison's Home. Virginia Woolf's shorter fiction appeals to me more than the longer novels, and both Anita Brookner and Elizabeth Smart can only be managed in small doses really. The short novel is often a guarantee of hard brain work, a challenge, not something to curl up by the fireside with.
Does that make it better than the door-stopper? There might be more of a guarantee of a certain kind of writing, but can it ever be the kind of book that 'defines the times'? Think of the names thrown up in the 'Great American Novelist' competition - few of them write short books in spare, pared-down prose. If you want to write a 'state of the nation' novel you have to be big, don't you? Perhaps. But perhaps an era or a place can be captured in just a couple of hundred pages, too.