What length a book?

In this essay, Ben Yagoda complains that some books are too long. Yes, this seems like a pretty arbitrary complaint (not unlike Grampa Simpson’s that there are too many states; please eliminate three).

He writes of one book’s length, “that’s not just excessive but rude, willfully ignoring the fact that the reader has other things to do besides reading this book,” and he also writes of another book “since about the halfway point, I’ve been reading on with the clenched jaw and grim middle-distance stare of someone who’s been dared to complete a long and tedious task and damned well is going to do so.” It seems fine to me if the man wants to dare himself to read a book, but then why complain about the book or the dare? And to say that a certain length of book is “rude”?

I’m not sure what kind of personally optimized experience he wants. (Maybe he doesn’t, either.) I get the sense that Mr. Yagoda is not the kind of person to walk away from a book. It’s a pretty empowering experience, by the way. Why force yourself (or anyone else) to read a book?

But I’m blogging this not just to point out the silliness of another person’s complaints, but to build upon his question of book length. He points out that:

since the market, as it’s been defined for a pretty long time, doesn’t have a place for novellas and 25,000-word nonfiction works, ideas that would work best at such length get artificially bulked up, like an offensive lineman on steroids. E-books are a promising receptacle for shorter texts, but the form has a ways to go before authors and readers alike are comfortable with it.

And that’s probably a valid point about marketability of the length of certain texts. But in the abstract, I would argue that books don’t necessarily need to have “the extraneous” cut out, as Yagoda advises, because what makes something extraneous? Does every book need to be a swift plot-driven fiction or thesis-driven nonfiction?

I would suggest that part of the value of any book is that it’s a chance to listen to the author’s voice, to spend time with the author’s consciousness, and so why not have some discursive, digressive parts? Comedian Bob Odenkirk has written a book that’s

a bunch of pieces that I had sitting on my desk because I was collecting them for a book one day down the road. … I thought that you could make a book where there doesn’t have to be a unified concept outside of cracking it open and reading one piece and getting a laugh. It doesn’t really matter what form it’s in.

Odenkirk, in this interview, also refers to books made of short pieces like Steve Martin’s “Cruel Shoes,” Woody Allen’s “Without Feathers,” and Peter Cook’s “Tragically I Was an Only Twin,” a book he says “has autobiographical sketches in it and other various things — literally transcriptions of comic bits that he improvised on the radio and stuff. I enjoyed picking it up and looking at any page and reading it.”

I’ve also been considering the format I might use to write a book. It would also be something made of distinct smaller pieces, rather than being something of narrative or thematic unity. I too like the idea of opening a book and reading just a section, a few pages. It’s not that I’m too busy to read a whole book; it’s more that a book would have to be pretty compelling, and I just haven’t found a book I’m that interested in committing to.

This will sound arrogant, but so be it: I feel I’m at a stage in my ongoing learning and thinking career where I’m not as likely to find answers from others as I am likely to find answers myself, answers that come out of my own writing. “Answers” might not be the right word. But I feel what I need to do now is spend my mental energy creating rather than reading.

And one of the things I enjoy thinking about is forms of writing — and the long-narrative form, and the extended argument-thesis form don’t feel compelling to me now. It’s easier to reject something than it is to replace it. But I would like to try different kinds of writing, different approaches, and these need to feel like they came out of my own process. Even if there are “answers,” ideas, others have already had that could help me, I feel like I need to find these answers on my own, organically from my process, as it were.

2 responses to “What length a book?

  1. I really like what you said here!

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