Dan Rhodes is the author of Anthropology and Timoleon Vieta Come Home. His latest novel, Gold, is the tale of a Japanese woman finding her place in a small, Welsh seaside community. It is a short book and, according to the book’s publisher, Canongate, read it and “you’ll laugh, probably cry and you’ll be finished in time to go to the pub”.
“I was reading a new novel the other day when it struck me that the author might as well be a murderer. It wasn’t a bad novel, it was just too long. Passages that could and should have been lopped out had been left in, but I felt I had to plough through them in case they had any bearing on the story. It might have been a really good read if the author had had the gumption, or the balls, to shave off a hundred pages. And here’s where the murder comes in. Say it takes the average reader an extra two hours (two hours they will never get back) to read all the filler. And what if the book does well and finds 250,000 readers? By my calculations this author will have wasted a total of 57 waking years – the equivalent of a long human life. And what if this monster continues to publish such books? Surely that would make them a serial killer? I was about to dial 999 when I realised that maybe, just maybe, I was getting a little overexcited.
But it seems obvious (doesn’t it?) that writing overlong books is at the very least plain bad manners. I can’t understand why writers are so often pilloried for writing short books. Brevity is mistaken for laziness when more often than not it’s the opposite that is true. My new book, Gold, clocks in at 198 pages, and I’m convinced that, apart from in truly exceptional cases, this is about as long as a book ought to be. Of course I fully expect to eat my words next time I read a run of 400 page marvels, but in the meantime here’s a list of works of fiction that I love which, in the edition on my shelf, don’t run a page over the 200 mark. All killer, no filler.”
1. The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe
This beauty is a handy cautionary tale for anybody experiencing the agony of unrequited love. It’s a one-sitting life-saver.
2. The Bride Wore Black by Cornell Woolrich
His name makes him sound like a range of cardigans, but Cornell Woolrich was in fact a writer of highly-wrought suspense fiction, this one being a fine example. In his 1948 book Rendezvous In Black, the main character is called Johnny Marr, and at one point he has a fight with a man called Morrissey. A must-read for Smiths fans.
3. The Catcher In The Rye by JD Salinger
An obvious choice, but so what? It’s a cracker. I wonder if prize panels these days would dismiss this as being ‘somewhat slight’? I expect so.
4. Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
The book is sadder and funnier than the film, and it doesn’t end with a rom-com-cop-out. Holly is more vulnerable and hopeless – still very sexy though. Would this be a good time to mention that I loathe the word novella? It’s so frilly and twee. Slim volume, short novel – anything but novella.
5. The Plains of Cement by Patrick Hamilton
Admittedly this is the final book of a trilogy, Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky, but it was first published as a freestanding novel. The Plains of Cement is brilliantly excruciating – Hamilton tortures his characters, the reader and, I expect, himself. He’s the best pub writer I know, and reading him made me realise it was time to write a pub book of my own. Gold is very pubby.
6. Pobby and Dingan by Ben Rice
I can’t imagine ever being on civil terms with anybody who doesn’t love this book. It’s a beautifully crafted tearjerker. Ben Rice is a hero of restraint. So far this is his only book, and I really admire him for taking his time. Whichever committee of dullards decided to call the film version Opal Dream should be given community service.
7. Zazie In The Metro by Raymond Queneau
Since I first read Zazie I dreamed of writing a daft Parisian romp of my own, something I finally managed with The Little White Car. Europe seems a lot more comfortable with slim volumes than Britain does. Maybe there’s a half-baked comparison to be made with our obesity crisis.
8. Candide by Voltaire
Reading a book as hilarious and intelligent as this, it’s baffling to think that even now the use of humour in fiction is routinely mistaken for a lack of seriousness. And Voltaire knew when to stop (I’m prepared to believe that the lamentable sequel was written by an imposter).
9. Fear and Trembling by Amelie Nothomb
I’ve got quite a few Amelie Nothomb books, and they’re all tiddlers. I wouldn’t have them any other way. She’s one of the writers whose new books I get very excited about, and my heart would sink if she ever wrote an epic.
10. Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Brilliant writer, brilliant book. And guess what? It’s short.