Monday, May 10, 2010

Felten on Narrative Sprawl

The Wall Street Journal's Eric Felten kvetches about over-long artistic works in the paper's May 7, 2010 edition. Excerpts:
There is so much to read, so much to hear, that it almost feels impertinent when an author takes up more than his share of one's time. I expect a book to justify every page it goes beyond number 250, which is the limit of my indulgence. I'm with Teddy Roosevelt, who wrote to a friend that he did "not feel like reading books that are too long or too serious unless they are also very interesting."

The desire for more concise literature and entertainment isn't just a function of our hyperactive, Internet-accelerated age. A century-and-a-half ago, French writer Paul Lacroix (who went by the nom de plume, Bibliophile Jacob) noted that,"We are all frightened by long books," and he singled out histories as the worst offenders.

They still are, though biographies also are responsible for felling more than their share of forests. Even less forgivable are novelists who succumb to narrative sprawl.
Read the whole thing. During my undergraduate years, I had a professor with a predilection for argyle sweater vests, an amicably acid tongue and a hatred of what he called "interminable books." I hadn't before heard anyone critique the literary masters for lacking compositional restraint, and I haven't since. But he had a valid point. While few of us reach for Dante or Dostoevsky's verbosity (or their excellence), we can still easily stray into wordiness on a small scale, multiplying descriptors and letting sentences run wild without considering whether they serve the story or increase our readers' delight.

(Picture: CC 2009 by


Michelle D. Argyle said...

Ah, great post and article there! Thank you for sharing this. I usually stay away from extra-long books, although I do love Dostoevsky. Now that I'm writing a novella, it's teaching me a lot about making every page and paragraph and sentence count. I have a problem with being too wordy.

Loren Eaton said...

Me, too. I regularly run up to 20% or more on my self-imposed word counts. All that pruning hurts!

Ah, but you have to love Dostoevsky, even thought deciphering Russian surnames makes me fear for my sanity.