I like long books. I finally read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (once again confirming the safe distance I maintain from the literary cutting edge). I enjoyed every blessed word. Other doorstops I have liked include: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, The Crimson Petal and the White, The Corrections, An Instance of the Fingerpost, The Power Broker, Wolf Hall and the list continues. That said, I am acquainted with of the hazards of nattering on. Most every day, I can witness my five-year-old tune out as I over-explain whatever gentle, educational, object-lesson- filled point I am trying to make. Nothing like seeing the light of intellectual engagement switch off.
My enthusiasm for length, however, is finite, and pretty much stops where the query letter begins. Pitches for 150K first novels are usually non-starters, and 125K does its author no favors (200K and above is tantamount to self-immolation). Why? Lazy editors? Lazy readers? Hypocritical agents? Perhaps. But also, more often than not, unnecessary verbiage. I just looked at a collection of essays from a talented writer that were three times as long as they needed to be. My advice to him will be to lose two thirds of the material. Maybe three fourths. Or rewrite them as haiku. It’s hard not to fall in love with our own words, and many writers find the business of cutting excruciating. One client of mine likened it to surgically removing his own tonsils. Much as he knew he did not really need them, there was still a lot of painful, mucky bloodletting along the way.
So what do you do when you suspect that something more than a judicious trim is in order? Or when you are convinced that every word is essential (also a reliable indication that you should unleash the red pen). Recruit a merciless fellow writer? Pretend to be a heartless editor/agent with zero respect for excellence and a mindless allegiance to word count? Or curse Jonathan Franzen for using up all the extra words?