Fear of the Shallows
Looking back over the year just ended, I am struck by the proliferation of door-stopper books. This phenomenon — which afflicted both fiction and non-fiction — emerged in many of the most celebrated books which logged impressive sales numbers. To cite just a few:
- Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a novel checking in at 784 pages.
- In biography, The Kid: The Immortal Life of Ted Williams, by Ben Bradlee, Jr., tilting the scales at 864 pages.
- Wilson, by Pulitzer Prize winner Scott Berg, covering the life of our 28th president in 832 pages.
- Doris Kearns Goodwin’s long-awaited The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism, a taut 910 pages.
- Man Booker Prize winner The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton, which offers 848 pages of fiction.
- Charles Moore’s Margaret Thatcher: from Grantham to the Falklands, which is only the first volume of a biography of Mrs. Thatcher, yet still fills 896 pages.
- Perhaps the most breathtaking of all, the first volume of Victoria Wilson’s A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel True, 1907-1940, which devotes 1,056 pages to the first portion of the film actress’ life; by my count, Ms. Wilson requires an average of 32 pages for every year Stanwyck’s early life.
I should hasten to add that I have read none of these books and accordingly cannot offer any opinion on their merits or demerits. I am struck, however, by their length. I will confess that the length of a book is a factor in my decision to purchase and/or read it. Only yesterday, I lingered in a bookstore over a book on a subject of interest to me. I hefted the volume. I looked at the size of the print. And I put it back on the shelf. I might have been game for 300 pages on that subject, but not 500.
So, I approach this subject like the protagonist in the Bob Dylan song: “You know something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is: Do you, Mr. Jones?” Why such long books?
Having four of my own books in print and with a fifth delivered last month to the editor, I have established that I will never write a book of such heroic dimensions. This is not a particular matter of pride. I suspect that I lack the attention span to produce a true door-stopper. Plainly, there are many readers out there who are prepared to lose themselves for a long time in an immense book, or at least aspire to doing so, or perhaps wish to be seen by their peers as doing so. And there are, I freely acknowledge, Big Subjects. Woodrow Wilson, for example, of the Golden Age of Journalism. Indeed, for whatever reasons, these large volumes are selling and are popular. I am interested, though, in why so many long books are written, and have a few tentative thoughts on the subject.
First, cutting one’s deathless prose can be most unpleasant. Faulkner famously counseled writers to “kill your darlings” — that is, to be especially ruthless about getting rid of those passages in which you take the most pride, because they are usually pretentious and full of writerly look-at-me. To paraphrase something that (I think) Elmore Leonard said: he always cut anything that seemed like writing.
Leaving things out can be very difficult for non-fiction writers. If you spend long enough on a subject, you can lose some perspective about what is interesting; everything about [Barbara Stanwyck, or Ted Williams, or whatever subject] has become interesting to you. Everyone should be interested in it! Moreover, you will likely recall just how difficult it was to fill in some ellipsis in the historical record, or what inventive research strategy and series of penetrating inferences revealed the truth which lesser writers had missed, and those memories makes it doubly painful to cut those passages. But leaving stuff out is one of the reasons writers pull down the big bucks. Or so I have thought.
I offer a second, slightly more subtle reason, that may help explain the door-stopper phenomenon. Some of my worst moments as a writer come when I read over a passage and think, with a sinking heart, “Wow, that’s shallow.” I try to cut those passages. But I think the fear of the shallows may be a factor in the production of door-stoppers.
The presumptuous act of writing — demanding that other people pay attention to your thoughts — requires the confidence that you are telling them something worthwhile, but also carries with it the implicit fear (nay, terror) that you have been entirely banal. Perversely, I think that fear of the shallows often drives writers (fiction and non-fiction) to pile in more and more material in the hope that the additional episodes and details will show the depth of understanding and greatness of soul to which we all aspire. No doubt it works sometimes. But I won’t be reading a lot of those books.
I wonder whether part of the cause may also be recent changes in the publishing industry and how we read. Do publishers want to give people the sense they are really getting something for their money, or are these giant new books less intimidating when read electronically? The whole “door stopper” image presumes a hard over book.
I wish I could explain the publishers’ rationale. You’re certainly correct that a long book looks the same on an e-reader as a short book. But I suspect — based on my limited experience — that long books do not sell as many electronic versions. I think there is more of a desire to display the long book on your shelf as a trophy. I’m remembering the concept of “Giffen goods,” from economics: that the demand for certain luxury goods actually increases as the price rises; their snob appeal increases. Perhaps that’s what’s going on? In any event, with an author “brand name” like Doris Goodwin, I suppose you publish what she provides and say “thank you.” The Stanwyck bio is more difficult to explain, though perhaps it’s wonderful . . ..
At my book group today, someone who read the new Goodwin book said it was anything but taut, and could well have been cut in half. On the other hand, Andrea just read Goldfinch and enjoyed every page.
A friend recently delivered a rant about how bad Goldfinch is and that no one should read it. Go figure.