The death of the attention span might have been declared prematurely
Debut novels don’t come more heavyweight than Stephen Jarvis’ Death and Mr Pickwick. Twelve years in the writing, it tells the story of the creation and afterlife of Charles Dickens’ own first novel, The Pickwick Papers, one of the world’s most written-about works of fiction. Pickwickwas the book that made Dickens a celebrity, and it was published in monthly instalments starting in March 1836, using his pen name, Boz.
Out this month in the UK and next month in the US, Death and Mr Pickwick is a gloriously meandering tour of 19th Century London that has already been dubbed “a staggering accomplishment” by Publishers Weekly.
Yet it’s heavyweight in another, more obvious sense too. Lug this book to the beach and back every day, and you’ll be getting a full-body workout. Drop it, and you risk breaking a toe. Weighing two-and-a-half pounds, it’s a whopping 802 pages long – an audacious claim on readers’ time in an age when our attention spans are supposedly being whittled away to nothing by ever-more insistent digital distractions.
There is plenty of longer fiction, of course. Kelidar, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Persian language novel following a Kurdish family in the wake of World War II, is 2,836 pages. The Son of Ponni, a historical novel written in Tamil by Kalki Krishnamurthy, and published in the 1950s, is barely any shorter at 2,400 pages. And then there’s Proust, whose In Search of Lost Time is 3,031 pages long.
Proust's In Search of Lost Time weighs in at a meaty 3,031 pages long (Credit: Alamy)
Don’t think it’s just a 20th Century phenomenon, either. Nothing compares to the 17th Century French novel Artamène. The tale of a shepherd’s son who’s really a Persian prince, its 2 million or so words (the average 280-pager contains just 80,000) fill 13,095 pages. Originally credited to Georges de Scudéry, these days it’s more commonly attributed to his sister, Madeleine.
A bulky bedfellow
Though it can’t quite compete in terms of pagination, Jarvis’ novel is part of a mini-trend that seems to be gathering momentum – and bulk. In the next few months alone, playwright Larry Kramer publishes the first of his two-volume fictionalised history, The American People, which comes in at 800 pages (he’s been working on it for 40 years and at one point the manuscript was 4,000 pages long), Amitav Ghosh completes his Ibis trilogy (the final instalment is 624 pages), and review copies of Hannah Yanagihara's A Little Life have been sent out filled with Post-It notes attached to flag representative passages, presumably because the book’s girth is so daunting (at 736 pages, it’s really not so little at all). In July, you can expect to hear bookshelves groaning as William T Vollmann’s new novel, The Dying Grass, is published. Set in the Wild West during the 1870s, it totals 1,376 pages. And next year, British graphic novelist Alan Moore publishes his second non-graphic novel, Jerusalem, which is billed as a fantastical exploration of his hometown, Northampton. It’s said to be a million words long.
Together, these bulky books call into doubt the received wisdom about our besieged attention spans. They might also make you wonder what editors are up to. And they question, too, the evolving role of the literary novel in the wider culture. Doesn’t there come a point at which the sheer scale of these works is so out of kilter with the reading time available to even the most dedicated bookworms, that they have to be seen as wilfully marginalising themselves? Think of this as well: every purchase of a novel over 600 long pages may well come at the expense of two or three others.
Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch has a length of 760 pages but was a huge success (Credit: Back Bay Books)
If you wanted to pinpoint the start of all this, you could do worse that looking to 2013, when 28-year-old Eleanor Catton became not only the youngest author ever to win the Man Booker Prize, but did so with the longest book. The Luminaries is 832 pages long. Did the judges not deem its length problematic? Not according to their chair, author and academic Robert Macfarlane. “Length never poses a problem if it's a great novel”, he insisted. To prove his point, that same year, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (760 pages) sold and sold.
As a reader, you know what you’re in for when you begin a long book. It’s not that we necessarily expect more – after all, as much can be said in a poem, never mind a short story – but we do tend to indulge the author a little, allowing for the fact that in a longer work time can be taken establishing characters, and the subplots layered on with plenty of scope for resolution. It’s a different relationship. A novella may be read in a single sitting, making for a more intense reading experience. The bulky epic, meanwhile, inveigles its way into your life over a period of weeks or even months, becoming a travel buddy and bedfellow.
Is bigger better?
In genre fiction, big has never fallen out of fashion. Fantasy novels especially tend to run long, and plenty of airport paperbacks are so dense they look almost square. But then those tend to be vastly pacier affairs. In the US, too, there’s an expectation that a great literary work will also be physically imposing. Still, how many of even those wouldn’t be improved by a judicious nip and tuck here and there? The Goldfinch is one of my favourite novels of this century, but if I were forced to come up with a quibble, it would be that Tartt spends too long in Las Vegas in the middle section.
“Very few really long novels earn their length. My fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil,” Ian McEwan told the BBC last year. He was speaking on publication of his own most recent novel, The Children Act, a work so slender it might almost be called a novella. The story of a high court judge who must decide whether to compel a young Jehovah’s Witness to receive a life-saving blood transfusion, it radiates brilliance, and yet weren’t there a couple of passages that felt too research-heavy? Sometimes, authors themselves simply become too big to cut. Remember how the Harry Potter books grew as JK Rowling’s fan-base exploded?
In an age of 140-character tweets and six-second Vine videos, it’s hard not to view the abundance of fat books as a throwback trend. A tome so heavy it’s barely portable is, after all, the ultimate anti-e-book. Novelist Naomi Alderman is well placed to comment, as she also creates video games, most notably the top-selling Zombies, Run!
“The trend towards long books is a fascinating counterpoint to the suggestion that we're all becoming iPhone-junkies, with minuscule attention spans, twitchily unable to concentrate on anything longer than a tweet,” she told BBC Culture. In fact, she suggests, technology might be making us more ready to sign over large chunks of time to a novel. As well as the oft-cited influence of TV binge-viewing, made possible by streaming, she points to the fact that AAA video games – those with the highest development and promotion budgets – frequently demand upwards of 100 hours of gameplay.
“The death of the ‘attention span’ might have been declared prematurely,” she adds. “But at the same time, novels are competing with other entertainment forms that provide a lot of instant thrills. To start a long novel these days, I think the reader needs to feel certain that the tale will be worth the journey.”
At one point, Death and Mr Pickwick hit 800,000 words, but was cut back by the author to 802 pages – the exact same number as Dickens’ novel (Credit: Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Of course, Stephen Jarvis, who’s 57 and lives in Maidenhead in the south of England began writing his novel in 2001, in a world before Facebook. It was influenced, he says, by reality TV’s Big Brother. ‘It strikes me that there are parallels between Big Brother and The Pickwick Papers – both of them are plotless things which just sort of ramble along. There’s an emphasis on character and you don’t really know what’s going to happen.’
At one point, Death and Mr Pickwick rambled to 800,000 words, but he cut it back by over half in order to have it fill 802 pages – the exact same number as Dickens’ novel.
Jarvis has no worries about readers being put off by the novel’s length, though he does admit this wife has vowed never to read it. “She has special dispensation – her excuse is she doesn’t need to read it because she’s had to live it,” he says. She supported him while he wrote, and so it seemed only fair that he let her type the letter ‘d’ of the ‘The End’ before they went off to the pub to clebrate. When finished copies arrived, however, the words had been cut. Turns out it’s not house style.