Right now, I am in the midst of two long and highly acclaimed long books. I’ve been reading a print edition of Ron Chernow’s Washington, and I’ve been listening to an audio version of Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello. Chernow’s tome has already won the American History award, and likely will pick a few more over the next several months. Gordon-Reed’s book won, among other prizes, the Pulitzer. And they sold lots and lots of books.
I wish both were a good bit shorter.
I am only somewhat frustrated with the Chernow book. Washington’s life, after all, was rich with significance, and merits considerable attention. And I’m a fan of Chernow’s. His Alexander Hamilton was my favorite biography, at least until I investigated the Burr-Hamilton duel myself and discovered that Chernow had slanted the facts a bit. Maybe more than a bit.
But there are multiple digressions in the book that are not necessary and details that are simply numbing, not informative. A good editor could chop 100 pages out of the book (it weighs in at 800+) and no one would notice. Chernow, though, is an accomplished story-teller, and he has kept me gnawing away at his text, periodically calculating how many pages are left.
The Gordon-Reed book is more problematic. She chose to write about a slave family; the written historical record for slave families is always sparse, even for a relatively privileged slave family like the Hemingses. I am still trying to get through the book because I am learning interesting things from it every now and then, and I value that. But I would guess this one is twice as long as it needs to be.
There have been passages when I was inches from starting to pound the CD player in my car. When she notes that no records survive from John Wales, Thomas Jefferson’s father-in-law, she explains in extraordinary detail all the ways in which his papers might have been destroyed. I actually don’t care. Just tell me they’re gone.
Or the passage about the relationship between Wales and the mother of Sally Hemings, who became Jefferson’s slave/consort in his later years. Gordon-Reed knows precious little about the connection between Wales and Sally’s mother except that it produced six children over a given period of time. So she fixes on a reference to her as Wales’ “concubine” in a remembrance written 67 years later by the woman’s grandson. She regales us with learned explication of the meanings of “concumbine” over the generations. She takes the word into the baement and metaphorically beats it with a rubber hose. You can hear it shrieking with pain in the background (a remarkable effect, available only in the audio book format). But the discussion sheds no light on anything. It’s just learning and scholarship for its own sake, not because it helps explain the story, or . . . anything.
Another example is the deathbed scene of Jefferson’s wife, who was the half-sister of Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed is understandably frustrated that the surviving records — all by white people — make almost no mention of the role of the Hemings women in caring for the dying woman. It’s a fair point to make. But she makes it at such length, with such patronizing and prolix references to the basic conditions of slavery that are understood by any reader who has gotten this far in her book, that I started hitting the “advance” button on the CD player.
I am reciting these two hugely successful books as my examples, but there are at least a half-dozen more books I have read in the last year that were equally or more bloated. It’s easier to pick on the ones that everyone knows about and has read.
So this strikes me as an actual conundrum. We are supposed to have shrinking attention spans in the Internet era. The headlines despair that The Book is DYING! Yet the most successful books in my area of publishing are really long, Actually, I think, too long. So what’s going on?
I have to acknowledge that there plainly are readers out there who like long books, who are less impatient than I am. Bless them. Indeed, there are award-presenters who certainly like long books.
I also think that there are editors out there who have, like everyone else in publishing, lost a bit of their mojo. Who’s going to say to Chernow, “Ron, baby, great stuff here, but you’ve got to lose the self-indulgent asides?” Or tell a distinguished African-American scholar that she needs to apply some focus to her extended imagining of facts that might have been true about the Hemings family?
Writing and publishing a book is an extraordinary act of arrogance. The world is drowning in books. I probably do not have time left in my life to read all of the books that were published last month. The world’s bookshelves are groaning from the load (the kindles are . . . , oh, well, don’t have the metaphor for that). And I and Ron Chernow and Annette Gordon-Reed have the brass to say to the world, “Hey — take a few hours and listen to me. That’s right. Listen to ME!”
If we can actually secure someone’s agreement to give us those hours, we owe them (i) some entertainment, (ii) some enlightenment, and (iii) a commitment not to take up more of their time than the story warrants. I fear, much of the time, that my own books may not meet my own standards. If they don’t, sad to say, they have plenty of company.
David, I think the answer is even simpler — editors don’t do editing any more. Fiction submissions, for instance, have to be virtually letter perfect or they have no chance of being accepted. Increasingly, you almost have to hire a freelance editor yourself to get a book ready for publication.
I agree a with your analysis and share your frustration. “Hemingses” could have been shortened and rendered a lot less didactic. I did read the whole thing, with the same appreciation as you note for the occasional or frequent new fact. I was left wondering whether some of the over-expansiveness might have been anticipatory defensiveness on the author’s part–expecting to be picked apart by those who would reject the Jefferson/Hemings relationship, the conditions of slavery, the life-patterns on the Jefferson plantation & in society of the time. Part of it may be bad editing and irritating writing style, but I bet that the repetition was intentional and even a response to the ‘short attention span’ you mention: i.e., tell it again because I can’t expect my reader to remember what I said 5 chapters ago. Anyhow, for me it was a worthwhile read.
David: Well stated. As one who has dozens of partially read (and quite a few not yet started, to be fair) doorstop-sized books around the house, I have some experience with what you’re talking about. I think the problem is the tension between academic history on the one hand and the re-emerging idea of great narrative history on the other. Can’t remember the article, but there was a NYRB piece a few months ago that talked about the new breed of narrative historians who were not academics (including you) who were nevertheless creating great history.
But even for some who aspire to the narrative ideal, the pull of the idea of “just one more footnote should do the trick” sometimes proves irresistible. In short, I think sometimes they just can’t help themselves.
Which is where a good editor should come into the picture. But as others have noted, editors don’t edit, particularly for “heavyweight” writers like Chernow.
This is increasingly true in other areas as well. From literary fiction to high fantasy to pulp science fiction, there is a maddening lack of good editorial control, such that obvious errors or verbosity or clunky phrasing throws me out of the moment and starts me to grinding my teeth. Whether because they simply don’t care anymore or because good copy editing has been the victim of downsizing, books of all kinds are poorly edited.
Interesting — I seem to have struck a nerve here. We’re all feeling a bit put upon.
David, among the many good things about your books is that they *aren’t* too long.
I never finished Truman, and have never picked up another David McCulloch book, for this reason. I liked the book, and this book and his work in general is widely praised, but it was too long. I’m sure there are many examples of too much information in Truman, but the one that I remember, perhaps 10 years after not reading the (whole) book is the full page + description of the layout and inventory of Truman’s haberdashery. My first thought was, how does he know this? The store closed, what, 75 years before he wrote the book? And my second thought was why should anyone care.
Repetition is something else that contributes to the over-length, which nobody seems to catch. Repetition also turns narrative more thudly in rhythm than it should be.
Sometimes the repetition is because parts or even the entire book was composed originally as a paper, either for publication or for a conference presentation or both. Then the author never did the necessary work — taken the time, time is always precious — to revise into a book-length narrative.