Short and Cranky

Like his mentor Saul Bellow, Philip Roth has been dedicating much of his late career to writing short novels. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal timed to the release of his new novel, Nemesis, he recalls discussing the art of concision with Bellow:

Mr. Roth began to think seriously about writing shorter novels about six years ago. He admired the shorter work of Saul Bellow, and at one point discussed it with him. “I said, ‘How do you do it? I know how to write a novel, and I like the amplification that goes into writing a novel, but how do you pack a punch in just 150 pages?'”

Unfortunately, the interviewer decided either not to follow up about what Bellow’s response was, or chose not to ask. I’ve spent some time trying to dig up some information about Bellow’s philosophy of the short novel, especially the ones he wrote during his own late period, but I haven’t had much luck. (They’re not my favorite books of his; though I have distinct memories of having read 1989’s A Theft and 1997’s The Actual, I can’t recall them packing much of a punch.) A Theft, in fact, isn’t really a short novel at all—it’s a short story that was deemed too long to run in the New Yorker, Esquire, and the Atlantic by their editors, so Bellow decided to go the then-unusual route of publishing it as a paperback original.* The problem, Bellow made clear to the New York Times, wasn’t the story but the growing contempt magazines had for serious fiction. ”I had already suspected for a long time that they are not interested in fiction very much any more,” he told the paper. ”Most of the serious magazines feel it necessary to have one story per issue, and the minimalists are much in favor because they don’t take up too much space. That way you can have all that room for advertisements.”

I may just be using the internet, Google Books, and Lexis-Nexis incorrectly, but it seems no journalist wondered why a novelist who made his name with bricks like The Adventures of Augie March and Herzog would shift gears later in life, and what differences there were between his widescreen novels and his novellas. Bellow did discuss the appeal of brevity for him, though somewhat quietly—he buried it in the afterword he wrote for his 2001 Collected Stories.** “[I]n my early years I wrote more than one fat book,” he writes. “It’s difficult for me now to read those early novels, not because they lack interest but because I find myself editing them, slimming down my sentences and cutting whole paragraphs.”

But his urge for tightening prose, he explains, involved more than just an editor’s instinct—the afterword as a whole is a lament for the death of readers’ attention spans, though his frustration is so velveted it takes a moment to actually register as frustration. His mood slowly darkens in the course of a paragraph:

[W]e respond with approval when Chekhov tells us, “Odd, I have now a mania for shortness. Whatever I read—my own or other people’s works—it all seems to me not short enough.” I find myself emphatically agreeing with this. There is a modern taste for brevity and condensation. Kafka, Beckett, and Borges wrote short. People of course do write long, and write successfully, but to write short is felt by a growing public to be a very good thing—perhaps the best. At once a multitude of possible reasons for this feeling comes to mind: This is the end of the millennium. We have heard it all. We have no time. We have more significant fish to fry. We require a wider understanding, new terms, a deeper penetration.

From there, some gorgeously rendered passages of get-off-my-lawn-ism ensue: Complaints about Michael Jackson’s new record deal making the arts pages, and then a list of all the things jockeying for our attention instead of books: “automobile and pharmaceutical giants, cable TV, politicians, entertainers, academics, opinion makers, porn videos, Ninja Turtles, etc.” Bellow suggests that future writers will have to both compete with and address this new way of living: “Such a writer will trouble no one with his own vanities, will make no unnecessary gestures, indulge himself in no mannerisms, waste no reader’s time. He will write as short as he can.” But he closes with a line I can’t help but read as a screw-you: “I offer this as a brief appendix to the stories in this volume,” writes Bellow, a man who had little patience with being told to write to length.

The mentee makes clear what the mentor would only state indirectly. “The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading are not within people’s reach anymore,” Roth recently told Reuters. In writing a short novel like Nemesis, he said, “I am with the times.”

* According to a 1989 story in the Independent, 60,000 copies of the British edition of A Theft had to be pulped because the cover misrepresented the title as Theft—a tale that echoes present-day events.

** The book treats A Theft and 1989’s The Bellarosa Connection as stories, not short novels.

5 thoughts on “Short and Cranky

  1. A bit more Bellow on length:

    Question: Your writing style has changed in the last decade. How would you describe the change?

    Yes, I think it has. I think it’s more condensed. I think it hits harder than it used to. I think I have a much greater desire to strike sharp blows, to find more exact formulations. I greatly dislike books that waste my time. I detest superfluous sentences, unwanted paragraphs, needless pages.

    Contemporary Literature
    Vol. 25, No. 3 (Autumn, 1984), pp. 265-280
    An Interview with Saul Bellow
    Matthew C. Roudané

    1. Thanks! Seems neither Bellow nor Roth can’t resist fist-fighting metaphors when it comes to discussin brevity….

  2. The shift to shorter books seems rather obvious to me: a writer gets old, and that means his or her stamina decreases, memory worsens, threshold of pain decreases, ability to concentrate for many hours in a day drops. They’ve lived more years than they will live, and as such want and need to make every word count and not waste anything. Spending years working on a substantial book that might work (or not) versus the same amount of time on shorter fare that can be finished – well, from a cost/benefit analysis, door #2 is more attractive.

    And also, in Roth’s case, there’s an even more unusual wrinkle: the LOA volumes of his work finish up in 2013. Clearly he needed to produce enough work to justify that deadline, right?

    1. I think you’re right that the aging process has a lot to do with it: The only example to the contrary that I can think of offhand is Theodore Dreiser, who was working on a pair of bulky (and by most accounts godawful) novels into his 70s, The Bulwark and The Stoic. DeLillo keeps insisting that he’s not deliberately writing short novels, and that each book he writes determines its own length, but that line gets a little harder to buy with each thin novel he’s written in the past ten years. (I suppose “Falling Man” is “standard” length for a novel, but it’s not among his best books—it *feels* thin…)

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