Massive Tomes vs. Pocket Novels: An Author-by-Author Analysis


A couple weeks ago, we read a wonderful essay over at The Millions in which the author dissected the feeling of reading a Great Big Important Novel — versus, say, a Slim Prestige Novel — suggesting that part of what we love about a GBIN comes from a sort of literary Stockholm Syndrome, a somewhat sick scrounging for brief moments of kindness between hundreds of punishing pages. This may be so, though there is something inherently satisfying and unrelated to prestige about sinking into a novel that is long enough to become your companion for weeks or months, and we’ve always been sorry when a wonderful (and wonderfully long) book is finally over. Fair warning: your author is one who cannot bear to leave a book (any book) unfinished after reaching the point of no return at about page twenty, and considering this, it seems helpful to dissect the merits of the long versus the short in the oeuvres of particular authors, so we can all make informed decisions whether to imprison ourselves within the pages of a doorstop or breezily choose the shorter version. Click through to see our picks for the long versus the short of some of our favorite authors, and let us know whether you agree in the comments!

David Foster Wallace: Infinite Jest vs “Good Old Neon”

“Good Old Neon” is generally regarded as one of Wallace’s best stories – though like any author with droves of fanboys and girls, everyone has their own picks, and we could have chosen many. Objectively though, the story won an O. Henry award in 2002 and is an intense exercise in narrative play and controlled voice, and is representative of Wallace’s convictions and preoccupations in many ways. However. As sharp and suggestive as this story is, or many of Wallace’s stories are (and we admit, many are not), it’s a perfect snapshot whereas Infinite Jest is the Criterion Collection, a work that could easily swallow “Good Old Neon” and incorporate it into its body. The question of whether his fiction or his essays are more brilliant is another matter — but as far as his fiction goes, sorry kids, there’s no skimping on this author.

Winner: Infinite Jest

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov vs. Notes From Underground

The Brothers Karamazov is a careening family epic that is absolutely worth reading, a poignant and engrossing classic that will endure for years to come. But to our mind, Notes From Underground is a hilarious, sorrowful, satisfying piece that manages to milk one conceit into an affecting wonder of a book.

Winner: Notes From Underground

Roberto Bolaño: 2666 vs. The Savage Detectives

In his Millions essay, O’Connell quotes from 2666, citing Amalfitano’s explanation of a young pharmacist who chooses the smaller novels over the larger, wailing that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.” True to Bolaño’s own declarations, The Savage Detectives is a round gem of a novel, but the deep, dark 2666 is an imperfect, difficult masterpiece.

Winner: 2666

Herman Melville: Moby Dick vs. Billy Budd

We’ve always loved Billy Budd. It was what teachers assigned in high school and even in college when they thought we wouldn’t read Moby Dick, but though we thank them for their consideration of our busy schedules of listening to music and going to parties, we probably should have just gone for the jugular and read the classic. Billy Budd is wonderful and we’ve always thought that we could feel its origins as a poem in the language, but it’s just diet Moby Dick. I mean, look at the cover.

Winner: Moby Dick

Franz Kafka: The Trial vs. The Metamorphosis

Now, we admit — The Trial isn’t exactly a tome. But for Kafka, whose three novels are all under 400 pages and all unfinished, it was certainly an undertaking of epic proportions. Kafka is, after all, a short story writer at heart, not a novelist, and accordingly, The Trial, like his other novels, feels a little flabby and unconsidered in places, while admittedly blossoming into brilliance at many opportune moments. The Metamorphosis, however, technically classified as a novella, is Kafka at his considerable best, rivaled only in this author’s mind by my personal favorite, “In the Penal Colony.”

Winner: The Metamorphosis