A Word Count Doesn’t Have to Mount

The long and short of it is that I discussed long novels last week and will discuss short novels this week.

Literature’s best short novels pack a lot of plot, nuance, emotion, character development, and prose/dialogue mastery into a limited length. Then, you can quickly move on to the next title on your too-long reading list. 🙂

How short is a short novel? Part of that is in the eye of the beholder, but I think under 200 pages (or maybe a bit over) fits the bill — with page size and type size a factor. A short novel is often called a novella, of course, and a web search indicates that a novella is at least 10,000-20,000 words and less than 40,000. But I feel a short novel can extend to 60,000 words or so.

Obviously, there’s a blurring between a long short story and what’s on the short end of the novella spectrum. For instance, James Joyce’s very poignant “The Dead” is considered a story, but its nearly 16,000 words are on the lesser end of novella territory.

When one thinks of top-tier short novels, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is often the first title that comes to mind. So much packed into a small package, with some of the most beautiful writing…this side of paradise.

Another excellent short novel is Ethan Frome, in which Edith Wharton stepped outside the upper-class New York City milieu her books frequently frequented to tell the sad story of a rural Massachusetts man.

Other short 20th-century novels I’ve found compelling include Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, Carson McCullers’ Reflections in a Golden Eye, Toni Morrison’s Sula, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, and Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey, to name just a few.

The best short novels written in the 19th century? Among them are Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (posthumously published in 1924), Leo Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, and H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine.

The 18th century was known for fairly long fictional works, but Voltaire’s scintillating Candide is rather concise.

Your favorite short novels?

My 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a League of Women VOTERS branch being against VOTING for Board of Education members, and about a visit to my town by Vice President Kamala Harris — is here.

A Short Post About Long Novels

Don Quixote with a lance less lengthy than the book in which he stars.

I mentioned The Winds of War in last week’s post but will mention it again today because it’s a long novel that I’m still reading. But what theme can I think of that would warrant giving that 885-page book a second consecutive mention? Hmm…how about a post discussing long novels I’ve read and liked? 🙂

Herman Wouk’s World War II-themed novel is certainly holding my interest — and part of the reason is its length. All those hundreds of pages are helping me get to really “know” the characters and see how they mature and react to things as time goes by. Plus it can be wonderful to get totally absorbed in a novel’s world for a couple weeks — and a reader can’t help but be impressed by the time, research, and prodigious effort that go into writing a doorstop book.

Of course, there are also downsides to long novels. They can drag in spots (though this is not always the case) and they take time away from other books. You’ll spend about the same number of hours reading a 1,000-page novel as four 250-page novels, if my math is correct. 🙂

The title that most comes to mind when thinking of fiction “tomes” is Leo Tolstoy’s iconic War and Peace, which clocks in at 1,440 pages in at least one edition. Fortunately, it’s a very readable novel.

Also very readable, and often quite funny, is Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote — 1,056 pages in an edition I saw listed online. Victor Hugo’s mesmerizing Les Miserables? 1,232 pages. Stephen King’s apocalyptic The Stand? 1,152 pages.

Among other in-the-vicinity-of-1,000-page novels I’ve read are Alexandre Dumas’ scintillating The Count of Monte Cristo and James Clavell’s breathtaking Shogun.

In the 700-plus or 800-plus-page realm? Fyodor Dostoevsky’s tour de force The Brothers Karamazov, George Eliot’s masterful Middlemarch, Charles Dickens’ compelling David Copperfield, Herman Melville’s whale of a book Moby-Dick, W. Somerset Maugham’s memorable Of Human Bondage, William Thackeray’s vivid Vanity Fair, Donna Tartt’s riveting The Goldfinch, Eleanor Catton’s eye-opening The Luminaries, Henry Fielding’s colorful Tom Jones, Don DeLillo’s uneven Underworld, etc.

Of course, trilogies (such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings) and longer series (such as J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books) can stretch over a thousand or several thousand pages, but I’m focusing on stand-alone novels in this blog post. There ARE individual novels within a series — such as Diana Gabaldon’s eight-volume-soon-to-be-nine-volume Outlander saga — that are each 1,000-plus pages.

Then there’s Marcel Proust’s seven-volume In Search of Lost Time, which goes on for a whopping 4,000-plus pages. I only read part of it before giving up, so I really shouldn’t discuss it much here. I found the writing beautiful but also kind of tedious at times.

This blog post has mentioned only a short list of long books. Your favorite doorstop novels?

Speaking of long, here’s my favorite song by the hugely underrated band Renaissance. The “Ashes Are Burning” version I linked to is 12 minutes, but the band extended it to about 30 minutes (!) at some concerts.

My 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about an impressive women’s march for reproductive rights, a raise for teachers, and more — is here.

The Important Human Factor During Important Events

Characters from “The Winds of War” miniseries.

When novelists write about war and other major events, a way to build maximum reader interest is to focus on a limited number of characters. That approach personalizes those major events as they get filtered through the characters’ eyes. Very effective and very relatable.

The limited number of characters can be one person, one family, a few families, a few other people — that sort of thing. And the novels they appear in are of course usually in the historical-fiction genre.

One great example of this approach is The Winds of War, which I’m currently reading. Herman Wouk’s massive/impressive novel periodically offers a wide focus on World War II, including the lead-up to that huge conflagration. But Wouk mainly concentrates on how WWII affects the Henry family: stoic U.S. Navy officer Victor, his oft-dissatisfied wife Rhoda, and their three young-adult children: high-achieving Warren, less-driven Byron, and feisty Madeline. A handful of prominent secondary characters are also featured.

The fictional Victor “Pug” Henry ends up meeting and observing many major real-life WWII players: FDR, Churchill, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, etc. 

Another WWII novel that takes the small-scale/large-scale approach is Elsa Morante’s Rome-set History, which tells the memorable story of the hapless Ida and her two charismatic sons as they navigate the horrors of war and fascism. Each of the book’s sections starts with a detailed list of a year’s real-life events — some of which are then experienced by the fictional characters. Hence the novel’s title, and a literal way of combining the personal and the universal.

The latter-1930s Spanish Civil War was humanized by Ernest Hemingway in his Spain-set For Whom the Bell Tolls via American dynamiter Robert Jordan and other characters in what is my favorite Hemingway novel. (My wife’s Michigan father was a volunteer fighting the fascists in Spain as a member of what’s often called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s absorbing Half of a Yellow Sun tells the story of the late-1960s Nigerian Civil War (also known as the Biafran War) from the perspective of a small number of characters such as Olanna, Ugwu, and Richard. They are individuals, but also represent the way different classes, genders, nationalities, etc., experienced the heartbreaking conflict.

Geraldine Brooks’ intense novel March views the U.S. Civil War from an interesting angle — that of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s beloved Little Women. He goes through a LOT while trying to aid the Union cause, and his harrowing experiences shed lots of light on war, slavery, and more.

Speaking of war novels, Erich Maria Remarque masterfully did the humanizing thing in a number of books — including All Quiet on the Western Front, Arch of Triumph, The Night in Lisbon, and A Time to Love and a Time to Die.

The hellishness of American slavery is brought home on a personal level in novels such as Alex Haley’s Roots — subtitled “The Saga of an American Family.” The famous book starts with a focus on the captured-from-Africa Kunta Kinte, and a number of the other major characters are his descendants. Yet there’s also a wider lens on the brutal system of slavery.

Julia Alvarez’s compelling In the Time of the Butterflies looks at the Dominican Republic’s Trujillo dictatorship through the eyes of four sisters — Minerva, Patria, María Teresa, and Dedé — who oppose the murderous regime. A very risky proposition for three of them.

John Steinbeck set The Grapes of Wrath during the days of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and mass migration to California — and has the sympathetic Joad family go through it all. Meanwhile, the riveting book includes a number of Joad-less chapters focusing on the social conditions of that 1930s time.

Your favorite novels that fit this post’s theme?

My 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about four community organizations that may sadly lose their free office space when their building is sold — is here.