Novelists Who Go All Epic All the Time, Or Not

Some authors write almost nothing but epic fiction — long, intricate, challenging, ambitious books that take years to complete. Think Marcel Proust (In Search of Lost Time); Murasaki Shikibu (The Tale of Genji); Donna Tartt (just three novels — including The Goldfinch — since 1992); Jonathan Franzen (Freedom, etc.); James Clavell (Shogun, etc.); Samuel Richardson (Clarissa, etc.); and a few others.

But most authors — including those known for doorstop books — occasionally change things up with shorter novels. Even Charles “The Tome King” Dickens wrote the occasional modest-length work such as A Christmas Carol and Hard Times.

As did Leo Tolstoy, whose canon includes not only the lengthy Anna Karenina and the very lengthy War and Peace, but novellas such as The Death of Ivan Ilyich, The Kreutzer Sonata, and Hadji Murat.

The same can be said for George Eliot, whose Silas Marner is quite brief compared to her hefty novels such as Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda; Wilkie Collins, whose A Rogue’s Life is many fewer pages than The Woman in White and Armadale; John Steinbeck, who mixed sweeping novels such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden with shorter fare such as Cannery Row; and James Michener, who wrote many huge fictional works (think Hawaii) but also relatively quick-to-read novels such as Caravans.

And though those books are barely remembered now, Miguel de Cervantes penned a number of shorter novels in addition to his lengthy masterpiece Don Quixote.

Heck, most authors need a change of pace (writing one epic after another can lead to burnout). And sometimes writers just require 200 pages or so to say what they want to say in a particular book.

The idea for this post occurred to me last month when I was reading Neil Gaiman’s interesting fantasy novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane — a shorter and simpler (but not simple) novel than his deep, complex American Gods.

Your favorite authors who go the mostly epic route or the change-of-pace route?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which covers everything from a July 4th parade to commemorating a lost African-American landmark — is here.

55 thoughts on “Novelists Who Go All Epic All the Time, Or Not

  1. Dave, here I am going off-topic as usual, but I’ve finally gotten back in the flow of reading again. I’m halfway through the latest Louise Penny novel “Glass Houses,” which I love already and hope to finish today. I’ve decided that’s a much better distraction than reading about the news, which keeps getting worse by the day, other than the amazing rescue of the Thai soccer team, although I’m saddened by the death of one of the divers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kat Lib, glad you’re back to reading and that you are (not surprisingly) enjoying a novel by the great Louise Penny!

      Yes, reading a novel is an excellent escape from the extraordinarily demoralizing, often-Trump-related news out there. But I still follow the news — partly out of obligation, partly out of perverse fascination, and partly because my local weekly column requires me to be up on current events. Plus I hope, hope, hope that the Teflon shield that has so far protected Trump from any consequences for his cruel, disgusting, illegal, treasonous behavior will finally fail him — though it doesn’t seem likely. 😦

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      • I was talking to my best girlfriend last night about the Jefferson Airplane (she’s reading a book by or about Grace Slick). In particular the song “Wooden Ships” that I knew from Crosby, Stills and Nash, but forgot that it was also recorded by Jefferson Airplane, because Paul Kantner co-wrote the lyrics with Stephen Stills. I just listened to the version recorded by JA and like it better than the one by CSN. I really never knew what the song was about, but now know it’s about a post-apocalyptic world after a nuclear holocaust between the US and Russia. Now I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon, other than the cyberattacks that are bad enough, but it gives one pause, especially if North Korea flexes its muscles even more than before. Well, this is such an upbeat comment for a Sunday morning! Sorry, Dave!

        Liked by 1 person

        • I didn’t know “Wooden Ships” was also a Jefferson Airplane thing! And that nearly 50-year-old song does have some relevance to today.

          Hard to be upbeat in today’s world, whatever day of the week.

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  2. Good that you pointed out this Dave. Carlos Fuentes has his epic novel “Terra Nostra” and a shorter one “the Old Gringo”. There are just times that you by one glance only, finishing a novel more than 1000 pages could be a daunting tasks. Thus when I finished Terra Nostra, I congratulated myself by buying myself a drink!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, maximcartography! Carlos Fuentes is a great example of an author who has went both the epic and non-epic route.

      I hear you about glancing at an enormous book and thinking how daunting it would be to read. Sometimes very rewarding, of course. I’ve enjoyed some huge books (such as “The Count of Monte Cristo,” “Shogun,” etc.) that I didn’t want to end. 🙂 And, yes, whether one has a drink or congratulates one’s self in another way, it is very satisfying to complete a lengthy novel.

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  3. Hi Dave,

    I know it’s not really accurate, but I first thought of Stephen King when reading your blog this week. My favourite story of his is the epic seven novel “Dark Tower” series. My second would be the not quite as epic “The Stand”. King has also written some of the best short stories I’ve read including “Quitters Inc.” and “The End of the Whole Mess”.

    Someone at my book club insisted that I read “Of Mice and Men”. I’m not sure how it was still on my TBR list. But I read “Grapes of Wrath” in the last year or two, and wasn’t ready for another harrowing Steinbeck. Until I saw how short “Of Mice and Men” is! Funny how both of those Steinbeck stories had a lot in common, given their very different lengths. It bothers me a little when people talk about books being too long (or too short). Good books are just as long as they need to be. I can’t imagine being so horrified by “Of Mice and Men” if it had been longer. Just as I can’t imagine being so swept up with Joad family if “Grapes” had been shorter.

    Having said that, I’ve greatly enjoyed thinking about your blog this week. Apologies that I haven’t commented earlier. And I second Pat’s comment below about being grateful for you being able to put this blog together so well week after week, though I also don’t know how!

    I’m also grateful for your recommendation of “Master and Man” some time ago. I’d struggled through both “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” in the past, but enjoyed “Master and Man” much, much more than the lengthier Tolstoy novels.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan!

      Stephen King definitely fits this topic with his mix of huge and shorter novels. (Still waiting for the first of the “Dark Tower” series to be in my local library. 🙂 )

      “Good books are just as long as they need to be” — love that line, and there’s a lot of truth to it. But, yes, a person might be more liable to read a novel when it’s shorter. That’s often the case with me when I try a new author — reading a shorter novel to see if I like her or his work before moving on to longer stuff.

      So glad you liked “Master and Man”! Much of Tolstoy’s shorter fiction is incredibly good.

      Last but not least, thank you for the kind words about the blog! 🙂

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  4. High-schoolers, of my generation at least, were forever grateful for “Silas Marner”, as it was shorter than most anything else George Eliot wrote. Ditto Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”.

    Don’t know how many planned their posterity, but certainly, an astute author as early as 200 years ago could have recognized by the first furtive fidgets around him that denizens of succeeding ages would be ever more incapable of sitting still long enough to read anything lengthy. And plan an appropriate offering for a predictable future, though I suspect few consciously did, except insofar as they wrote for magazines and made things to fit, such as short stories and novellas.

    It is then to some degree by a kind of happy accident that we today have so many small fictions from which to choose, that we might be acquainted with many authors a little, and few authors deeply. I, for one, am grateful to have had access to short samples, and as I have only occasionally the quality of attention to which I would like to give worthy, lengthy books.

    But here I turn my argument on its head, such as it has one. Today there is much binge-watching and video game marathoning all around us, and these activities take up hours on end.

    I suspect that the creative mental effort intrinsic to close and attentive reading is less pleasant and attractive to us today than the comparatively passive pleasure of watching much teevee, even best quality teevee. And the passion for gaming is likewise another order of engagement and concentration, in which the participant participates, actively,and does not passively observe, or creatively construct their own images out of the words they read on a page.

    Books are passe, have been since the rise of films, which are mostly passe after teevee, which is passe now thanks to that series of tubes we call the interweb, and also phones that do everything for which an app might be written, which seems like: everything.

    But I’m an old fashioned guy. Very. Happy to be among a happy few, happy even with my reduced capacities, to have plenty of reading awaiting me on the shelves that surround me, though when I’ll tackle the next weighty tome of literature i cannot say. Good thing some of the books on hand are full of short stories.

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    • Yes, jhNY, great that there are some short novels from iconic 19th-century authors! Even the terrific-but-wordy Balzac had the relatively brief “Eugenie Grandet.” And those short novels can be a gateway into longer ones by the same author. I liked “Silas Marner” so much that it spurred me to read several much heftier books by George Eliot.

      And I agree that, for many people today, even shorter novels (old or new) don’t have enough excitement compared to TV, video games, surfing the Internet, etc. — as you note. A shame.

      Glad there are some people — such as yourself and other commenters here — who still love books. 🙂

      Thanks for the excellent comment!

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      • Thanks, jhNY and Dave for your comments about books. Bill’s grandson has been helping us with outdoor projects the past couple of weeks, and as alluded to, Bill remarked how his grandson kept checking his phone all the time. I admit that I spend too much time on my laptop, but once I leave it, I only use my phone for phone calls or looking up important things — imagine that! Btw, jhNY, the high school I went to didn’t have us read “Silas Marner,” but “Bleak House.” I think I was the only one in my class that actually read the entire book. I can still remember spending most of the night prior to our discussion on it actually finishing it!

        Liked by 1 person

        • “Bleak House”! That’s a high school that challenged its students! Impressive that you were the only one to read all of it, Kat Lib.

          I also probably spend too many hours on my laptop — mostly writing, but doing some time-wasting stuff, too. Like you, I’m not as addicted to my phone.

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          • On reflection, I think I was in an AP English program, so perhaps not everyone had to read such a long book. But still… This is the class where my teacher accused me of plagiarism, because in an essay on “Idylls of the King” I was able to refer to my notes from a class I’d taken a year back in PA prior to moving to a new school in MN. I explained this to my teacher and she informed me I had to footnote even any non-direct comments I’d heard — perhaps she was right (?), but it was like feeling like a criminal, though I got out of getting an “F” for the first time in my life!

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      • Before printing was cheap, scholars memorized whole books, and could recite them, thanks to mnemonic learning methods. After, scholars became expert at knowing which books contained what, and where to locate them on the shelf. Now, access to billions and billions of facts and other stuff requires only that a scholar knows where he left his phone. Sadly, what he might do on that phone is hardly his business alone. Heck, several outfits have made his doings, and everybody else’s, their business model.

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        • I used to think I’d make a very good researcher, because I’d like nothing better than to pull out my own books or go the library to do research. Now, everyone can be their own researcher just a few clicks away. Which while more efficient, it’s not quite the same thing.

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  5. In the realm of poetry, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning demonstrate for me that range of length that many authors have between the shorter and longer approaches. Their deftness in maintaining the beauty found in their shorter poems in their longer works amazes me. On another note, I just finished off American Gods last week and I’m excited to enjoy a little shorter one from Gaiman in Ocean at the End of the Lane!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, beccamayest! Glad you mentioned poetry! I’m no expert on poetry, but have read and enjoyed a little of the work of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Some poets can indeed expertly go long or short — Walt Whitman is another 19th-century example.

      Hope you liked “American Gods” and will like “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ironic that, given the voluminous Cantos, Ezra Pound, as poet, is most often anthologized for “In a Station of the Metro”, which contains fourteen words. Pound said it only takes 4 lines of good verse to become an immortal, so maybe he got halfway there. (a joke)

        Also: Milton. “Paradise Lost” is justly praised and less often read– but his “Lycidas” is a splendid pastoral, and probably these days is read more often because it’s short(er).

        Liked by 1 person

        • jhNY, two great examples of poets who wrote both long and short(er)!

          “Paradise Lost” was torture for me when I had to read it in high school; I wonder how I’d feel about it if I reread it now.

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  6. I might chance to bring up Edgar Allan Poe for this one. He’s always been one of my favorite authors and I have his complete works. What always amazes me about them is while he is known for the classic horror stories (and he certainly has an abundance of excellent ones), some of his poetry is incredibly beautiful and moving. I think a lot of the tragedy in his life bled into his writing in many different forms and that’s why I’ve always admired him. I also have always loved Steinbeck who you mentioned. “Grapes of Wrath” is one of the novels that inspired me to be a historical fiction writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, M.B.! Poe was definitely a versatile writer during his mostly unhappy life. I totally agree that his poetry was as wonderful as his classic stories were spooky. Plus he wrote the very absorbing sea novel “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” — said to have partly inspired Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” And, like you, I greatly admire “The Grapes of Wrath.” I’m glad it was a writing inspiration for you.

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      • As we’re talking about Edgar Allan Poe and his poetry, I’d like to mention at least two songs that were covered by folk singers based on his work: “Annabel Lee” by Joan Baez and many others, and of course “The Bells,” by Phil Ochs. Dave, as we’ve talked about before, the latter song can drive one a little crazy, with its repetition of “Bells, bells, bells, bells…” and is already stuck in my mind for probably the rest of day. 🙂

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  7. Joyce Carol Oates has written sizeable novels like Blonde, What I Lived For and We Were The Mulvaneys. I plan to re-read the latter as have on a shelf, then plan to donate for someone else to have opportunity to read. She has smaller in page size novella books like Black Water or Fair Maiden.

    A novella described as “that of a rapturously extended prose poem driven by a narrative; the more suspenseful the narrative, the more dreamlike and obsessive the atmosphere..”
    That definition works very well particularly in the context of Oates’ writing style, gothic and dark storylines.

    Still intense story telling as in her short stories, Black Dahlia just purchased at my local library book sale.

    What an extensive catalogue she has as is now 80 years old and actively writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Michele! Excellent comment about Joyce Carol Oates, who IS amazingly prolific with her novels of various lengths. I read one of the shorter ones — the interesting “Solstice” — after you recommended Oates to me.

      Your mention of a prolific living novelist reminded me of Stephen King, who has certainly mixed many tomes (“The Stand,” “It,” “11/22/63,” etc.) with many shorter novels (such as “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon”).

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      • I read Joyce Carol Oates back in my college days, but became disenchanted with her when she wrote about her love for boxing, which I can’t abide. A few years back I read “We Are the Mulvaneys” which I really liked, then her memoir about the death of her husband, “The Widow’s Story,” which I loved. I had a computer tech come to my home when I moved into my last home in Kennett, who saw the Mulvaneys book on my shelf and told me about a close friend who went to Princeton and was walking around campus one day and witnessed the very petite Oates being enveloped in the arms of the very tall Maya Angelou. I’m not sure why I love this so much, or why I even remember it, or even if it ever happened, but I do.

        P.S. I finished the very long book by Karin Slaughter, “The Good Daughter,” yesterday and enjoyed it very much.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Kat Lib, it sounds like you have the proverbial mixed feelings about Joyce Carol Oates. Like you, I’m not a fan of boxing, or football for that matter — two very dangerous “sports.” I also love that image of Oates and Maya Angelou!

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  8. I seem to be completely stumped by your post this weekend, other than the novelists you’ve already mentioned. It’s been so long since I’ve read Tolstoy and Dickens, it seems like a lifetime ago. I must admit to having many of their novels on my bookshelves, but I haven’t delved into one for a long time. I mentioned George Eliot’s “Silas Marner” recently, which I loved. I’ve also read “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” while I have “American Gods” still sitting on my shelves. I’m not sure if it’s just getting older and being retired that I don’t seem to want to get into anything that is too long. I’m getting to the point where most of my major tasks regarding my move have been completed, so I look forward to the days when I can spend most of day playing my piano, as well as reading in my sunroom! 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • That’s okay, Kat Lib! I was stumped for a while in thinking of a blog post for last night, and finally came up with this one — not exactly a huge conversation-starter of a topic. 🙂 After writing nearly 300 book pieces over the years, new ideas aren’t as easy to come up with as they used to be. 🙂

      I hear you about longer novels. I currently ration them out — maybe one every half-dozen books or so. I’m now reading Rosamunde Pilcher’s fabulous “The Shell Seekers,” which clocks in at 632 pages. I can totally understand your looking forward to having the time to read more when your move aftermath is complete.

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      • So, you’ve actually written nearly 300 blog posts? That’s truly impressive, especially since I know you’ve written so much else about cartoons, columnists, etc. I’m getting to the point where I’m going to drag out my books of Calvin & Hobbes, Pogo and Peanuts. 🙂

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        • Thank you, Kat Lib! 🙂 Yes, nearly 300 blog posts about literature for The Huffington Post (2011-2014) and here (2014-2018), along with various non-book pieces for other outlets. It’s actually easier for me to write constantly; if I don’t write a blog post, column, or story for a few days, I feel kind of rusty and sometimes approach the dreaded writer’s block.

          I love comic collections — such as the three you mentioned. I have several “Calvin & Hobbes,” “Peanuts,” and “Pogo” books — all so intelligent, funny, and well-drawn.

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          • So, Dave, I decided to read a book today, and I chose one that was written by a favorite thriller/detective author, Karin Slaughter. I didn’t realize it was so long, clocking in at 632 pages (in the mass market/trade paperback formula, whatever it’s called). It’s “The Good Daughter” and is definitely a page-turner, but I had to give it up at page 340 due to eyestrain. I hope to read it all the way through tomorrow. I’m a fast reader, but I do have my limits, especially after about 7:30 pm. I’ve read many of her (shorter) novels, but this one has surpassed my expectations.

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  9. I’d like to mention Dostoevsky, who’s known in the West mainly for his big novels, but who also wrote a number of short stories and novellas, most notably “Notes from Underground” but also things like “The Gambler,” “A Raw Youth,” “Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” and “The Village Stepanchinkovo and its Inhabitants.”

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    • Thank you, Elena! Glad you mentioned Dostoevsky, who definitely did write various-sized novels — including the very long “Brothers Karamazov,” the pretty long “Crime and Punishment,” the medium-length “The House of the Dead,” the works you listed, etc. I read “The Gambler” many years ago, and it was the only Dostoevsky book I’ve gotten to that didn’t really grab me.

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      • Like many very prolific writers with long careers, Dostoevsky’s works are quite varied, not just in length but in subject and quality. Of his short works I think “Notes from Underground” might be best, but it’s also the one I’m most familiar with.

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        • Very true, Elena! I can’t think of any renowned author with a long/prolific career who didn’t write the occasional so-so novel amid her or his great novels.

          I will look for “Notes from Underground” during a future library visit!

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