I have been reading, not very enthusiastically, Haruki Murakami's 1Q84. One of the major plot elements involves a writer who is hired to rewrite a young girl's fantasy story and make it more readable, a act somewhere between forgery and hoax. Oh, irony.
The book itself feels like the end result of such a larceny: it reads less like Murakami and someone who read several of his books and performed a point-for-point mimicry of his style. (I know full well he wrote the book, which makes it doubly depressing.)
Not long before I started plowing through 1Q84 I wrote — and shelved for a rewrite — an essay on why most of the current crop of fantasy and science fiction is so ponderously overwritten. I sensed a number of different issues, all of which fed into each other. Modern word-processing technology makes it far easier to write long without feeling like you’re writing long; publishers prefer bigger books to give people more of a feeling they’re getting their money’s worth; and the arts of editing and economical, selective storytelling are being pushed aside because of all this. I don't think most of these problems are entirely new: the word processor and PC allow only incrementally more over-writing than the typewriter itself, and publishing has always been a for-profit affair. I do think they're becoming far harder to downplay, though.
What I missed, at first, was how all this is happening to “literary” fiction as well. There seems to be more Big Fat Books than ever, crammed with incident and detail and plotting and yet somehow every bit as vacuous as their also-overplotted and -overstuffed genre fiction counterparts. Somewhere along the way we forgot — or just chose to ignore — that length and breadth and scope are not the same as depth, and such willful ignorance has given us a generation of doorstoppers that seem like literary prequels to some inevitable TV miniseries. (This isn’t to say a TV miniseries is anything but a soul-deadening waste, only that the priorities seem all wrong.)
Many writers working today seem to think including that many more individual ingredients or external references in a story automatically makes it deeper, or at the very least a more "interesting" or "textured" read. Sometimes it can, but more often than not it just adds ostentation and ponderousness. Most good writing is concise not because long stories are not worth telling, but because longer stories are exponentially more difficult to tell well, and because oceans of detail become exponentially harder to manage with their growth. A smaller program is easier to debug and maintain than a longer one, because every line of code you add to a program increases the number of potential bugs and adds to the amount of time that has to be spent in cross-testing. You save yourself a lot of trouble by being that much more selective about what part of the story to tell and to what end.
I have gone on about this before, I know. I went and pulled some of my favorite, most eagerly-revisited novels from the shelf — No Longer Human, which I'm giving a close re-read now for the comic adaptation currently being released; Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway; Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground; Sōseki's Botchan; Inoue's Tun-huang. They're all short works, none more than 200 pages or so. The point I make again and again is there is nothing "missing" from them any more than Casablanca was "missing" color. Obviously you can trim a story down too far for its own good, but a good story works because it is complete as-is.
In an interview, which I can't find at the moment, Murakami claimed the basic idea of the story was to have its two main characters — Aomame and Tengo — come together very slowly, and to delay that process as long as possible. I'm paraphrasing, so I suspect I'm not getting the precise wording, but that's the general idea: he wanted to draw the story out as long as he could. That struck me as self-indulgent and self-defeating. You don't write a longer story just because you can; you write a longer story because you have to.
That's the trick, though. How you justify that length makes all the difference, and that's not something certain writers seem to be good at doing. I know I'm not good at it, so I've tried to keep my own work within the 100K-125K range (with the occasional burst of up to 200K or more), because I know anything beyond that for me is going to be a waste of everyone's time, mine included.
I also know that I should not ascribe my own habits and limitations to other writers, and I try not to do that as a reader, but some of it bleeds through anyway. I would not read a long book merely because I want to be entertained for that much longer than a short book. If I wanted only that, I would simply read that many more short books. I would, however, read a long book that justified its length by giving me perspective on its people and its events that simply aren't possible in a smaller space. This is not something I can condense into a formula off the top of my head, except maybe by pointing to where I see it (The Count of Monte Cristo, The Tale of Genji, Wolf Among Wolves / Every Man Dies Alone, maybe John Dos Passos's U.S.A.) and where I don't (Infinite Jest, 2666, and, yes, 1Q84).
I also know, in the end, a lot of this comes down to the justification used by both the reader and the writer. Nothing I have offered here is anything more than a variation on that justification, really, and I would be the last person in the world to expect people to suddenly start chopping their manuscripts by one-fifth because of lousy little ol' me. People are going to write what they want to write, long or short, and the most I can do is explain why, in my eyes, it's a net gain to be concise. And that doesn't even take into account how someone else's "concise" can be a one-thousand page volume. If I'm biased, so be it; the least I can do is own up. Shorter isn't always better, but it seems the wisest place to start.