Lately, I’ve very much been appreciating the short book. In fact, I have tentatively come to the conclusion that a novel’s perfect length is between 250 and 350 pages.
It’s not that I don’t love big, fat, epic novels. In fact, I count several of them among my favorite reads: Lonesome Dove; The Passage trilogy; Anathem; The Stand and It. Perhaps it’s a side effect of growing older; as my time here gets shorter, my patience for long books wears thin. Or perhaps it’s because I’ve noticed that long books seem to be what’s expected these days, and I always appreciate those who buck the trend.
I’m a believer in the idea that boundaries can help foster creativity. The short form of the novel challenges the writer to be succinct and on point, to be deliberate about every choice, to tell the story in the most direct and pared-down manner possible. And as a reader, it feels very satisfying to complete a story in just a few sittings.
When you read shorter books, then you can read more books–another bonus! Here are a variety of short novels I’ve read over the last few months that I would recommend:
- The Vegetarian by Han Kang (208 pages)
- Universal Harvester by John Darnielle (224 pages)
- Bury Me Deep by Megan Abbott (240 pages)
- Confessions by Kinae Minato (240 pages)
- Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (256 pages)
- The Silent Land by Graham Joyce (262 pages)
- Bird Box by Josh Malerman (272 pages)
- Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh (272 pages)
- The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson (288 pages)
- Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (288 pages)
- The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford (289 pages)
- Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand (300 pages)
- The Caretaker by A. X. Ahmad (304 pages)
- The Last One by Alexandra Oliva (304 pages)
- The River at Night by Erica Ferencik (304 pages)
- Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory (304 pages)
- White Is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi (304 pages)
Lately, I have been turning to older novels for my reading, as a means of escape from the stresses of being alive, here, in 2017. Older books offer a unique form of immersion in another time and place, as actually lived by the writer, rather than as imagined by a writer conjuring up a historical time or a fantasy world.
I have been most attracted to mid-twentieth-century novels of suspense by women. There is no shortage of good writers to choose from, and burrowing into these books feels like sinking into a very long Hitchcock movie, where everyone was well dressed, and their madnesses were kept just simmering beneath the surface, rather than on display for all to see. These novels offer plenty to disturb and horrify, but the horror feels once removed, and therefore safer, I think, than trying to tackle a dystopia or apocalypse that might shade too close to real life right now.
Here is a short reading list, although anything you might pick up by these grandes dames is bound to satisfy you:
- Daphne du Maurier: Rebecca, The Scapegoat
- Patricia Highsmith: The Blunderer, Deep Water
- Dorothy B. Hughes: The Blackbirder, The Expendable Man
- Shirley Jackson: The Bird’s Nest, Hangsaman
- Margaret Millar: A Stranger in My Grave
The Women’s March was truly inspiring. I took part in my own small way. Our small North Carolina town had 1,500 people turn out. I was gobsmacked, because we are just not that big a town. There were 17,000 people marching in Raleigh. Here are some wonderful photos of the marchers around the world. What I loved about this protest is how positive it was, to counteract the terrible negativity we’ve been seeing from elected officials; women and men from all backgrounds came together in solidarity, to support one another, and to start building a movement, rather than to tear down.
The news this week has not been so inspiring, I’m sorry to say, but in troubled times, people always turn to literature. Literature gives us a blueprint for how to deal with life, and that’s why telling stories is so important. One such story is George Orwell’s 1984, which is selling out this week in response to the newly coined phrase “alternative facts.” 1984 is a touchstone book for me; here’s what I wrote about it a few years ago, also in response to the political climate. Now, unfortunately, Orwell’s vision seems even more prescient.
For those of you who, like me, feel somewhat overwhelmed by current events, this article is a must-read: “How to #StayOutraged without Losing Your Mind.” There is some important advice here–follow it.
And now, a ray of sunshine–more great news in overdue filmed adaptations: Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens is being adapted as a limited series by Amazon, joining American Gods on Hulu.
I leave you with the inevitable reading list (always more to read!). If you have already gobbled up 1984 and are looking for more dystopias, here’s a short list of recommendations that seem particularly well-suited for the current political climate:
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- The Children of Men by P. D. James
- Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler
- When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
- “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Women’s March on Washington is what is inspiring me right now. It started out as just an idea following on the surprising election results and has now grown, grassroots-style, into the largest protest and demonstration to take place in response to the inauguration. The march is for everyone, regardless of gender identity, who believes that women’s rights are human rights. The primary march will be held in Washington, DC, but there will be supporting marches in cities, large and small, around the world. Where I live, there are at least three supporting events within easy driving distance.
I was impressed with the Women’s March Global Mission for Equality, and I hope this signals the beginning of a powerful and effective worldwide movement. I only wish that education of girls and women was a plank in the mission statement, because I personally believe that education is the key to empowering women.
For those of us who enjoy self-education, I offer my favorite feminist reads to help you resist in the coming years:
- The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
- The Awakening by Kate Chopin
- The Female Man by Joanna Russ
- The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
- Lilith’s Brood by Octavia Butler
- The Color Purple by Alice Walker
- The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
- The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper
- The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
- The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant
- Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
- Into the Forest by Jean Hegland
- When She Woke by Hillary Jordan
- Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
- The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue
- The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
- Persuasion by Jane Austen
- Ammonite by Nicola Griffith
Recently, I attended a panel discussion of local writers on something entirely unrelated when one of them said something that confirmed a suspicion I already had. He said that an editor had actually asked him to shove 10,000 more words into his manuscript. Apparently, long books look more substantial on bookstore shelves, so I guess it feels like you’re getting more bang for your buck or something. I had already suspected this a while ago after reading The Goldfinch, which I thought was several thousand words too long. It used to be that editors edited. Now, apparently they bloat. That only adds to my stubborn determination to avoid books over 500 pages unless I have a damn good reason to read them. This piece in The Guardian only reinforces my view, and it includes a nice list of short books if you’re tired of “literary elephantiasis.” Do you think novels are too long these days?
By the way, here’s my previous rant on long books. Since I wrote that, here are a few popular novels I’ve passed up reading because they’re too damned long: A Little Life; The Luminaries; Wolf Hall; The Paying Guests; Seveneves; and I could go on (and on and on).