Booker win breaks youngest and longest records
The 2013 Man Booker Prize goes to a novel of a weighty 832 pages. The judges say it’s a serious work by a promising young literary star. But are big books just too long for modern readers?
Two things are immediately noticeable about this year’s winner of The Man Booker Prize for fiction. First of all, Eleanor Catton is only 28, the youngest novelist to triumph in the history of the award. Second, her novel about the gold rush in the 1860s in New Zealand is a gruelling 832 pages long, which is also a record.
The Luminaries was heavily influenced, says Catton, by Victorian mystery novels like those of Wilkie Collins, densely packed and involved yarns that tend to run to several hundred pages. But unlike her literary heroes, this rising star wrote her winning second novel as a Microsoft Word document on the computer, so she did not realise how long it was until the manuscript arrived.
‘The nearer the end I got,’ she told an interviewer the morning after receiving her £50,000 prize, ‘I realised that when I pressed save, it took an awfully long time. It wasn’t until I received the proof of the book that I was like, “Jeepers, this is actually quite big.”’
The task of checking the proofs even forced her to buy a larger handbag.
Dealing with themes of money, the law, revenge and love, The Luminaries has been described as epic in its ambitions as well as its length. But the judges of this year’s Booker have had to defend their choice against accusations that the literary world is over-impressed by weighty tomes at the expense of beautifully crafted shorter works.
The panel of five was impressed, they said, ‘not by length but quality — and we have got quality.’ Although one of them joked: ‘Those of us who didn’t read it on e-readers enjoyed a full upper-body workout.’
Such a long book certainly fits in with Henry James’s description of novels as ‘large, loose baggy monsters.’ But even among literary types, not everyone believes that a narrative should be spread out quite so generously. The American writer Michael Cunningham says there is a ‘fixation’ on ‘giant books… that are usually a demonstration of the writer’s scope and precocity. When someone hands me a 750-page tome, my first reaction is: I don’t want to read your giant book!’
Weighing in to the debate
For some, the size of a book is a sign of the author’s serious intent, their hard work and dedication to the peculiar job of creating a parallel reality. In a long novel, the reader can really get to know those fictional characters as if they were real.
But other readers will want to steer clear of Eleanor Cotton’s new book, however good the judges think it is, because of its sheer size. In the age of Twitter, where messages of 140 characters rule, how can any author, obscure or celebrated, believe that readers will slog through over 800 pages about their imaginary world? Writing at such exhausting length is a mark of arrogance.
- Do long books put you off reading?
- Can you tell anything at all from the length of a novel? If so, what?
- Condense the plot of a well known work of fiction into a 140-character tweet.
- Creative writing in the opposite direction: take the short first line of any novel you pick up, and invent your own elaboration on its theme.
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“A tweet is all you need.”
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Q & A
- But I love long, involving stories!
- Great. So, it seems, does the literary establishment, if this week’s decision is any indication. Great writers like Marcel Proust and Leo Tolstoy specialised in very long novels: one because he wanted to draw out the texture and flavour of every moment of his protagonist’s memories, the other because he had themes that spanned history, family conflict and politics all at the same time.
- I feel tired just hearing about that.
- Well, short can be beautiful too: Shakespeare famously had one of his characters say that ‘brevity is the soul of wit,’ and journalists are trained to write as concisely as possible. Think of what poets pack into a few brief sentences. If you go off long novels, maybe you could become a fan of the haiku!
- Man Booker Prize
- The other books on this year’s shortlist were NoViolet Bulawayo, for We Need New Names; Jim Crace, for Harvest; Jhumpa Lahiri, for The Lowland; Ruth Ozeki, for A Tale for the Time Being; and Colm Toibin, for The Testament of Mary.
- Wilkie Collins
- Seen as the father of the modern detective mystery, this Victorian master of suspense is most famous for The Woman in White and The Moonstone.
- Henry James
- One of the most highly regarded novelists in any language, the American writer (1843-1916), who made London his home, is a bit of a Marmite writer. Some people find his long, involved sentences help convey very subtle characterisation and complex moral dilemmas; others just find his prose style impenetrable.
- Michael Cunningham
- Best known for his novel The Hours, which was turned into a film with Nicole Kidman playing the role of the writer Virginia Woolf, Cunningham tends to produce books that are much shorter than a lot of contemporary fiction writers.
- Often about nature, these very short, two line poems are derived from a Japanese tradition of conveying an emotion through an image from the natural world.