Sprawling Novel Overload

I’m currently reading a 620-page novel called “The Nix,” and am about halfway through the book. My understanding is that it is the story of a lonely man trying to understand what became of his mother.

The book is well-written, frequently hilarious and getting to be a load. So far I have learned about the narrator’s childhood, his abandonment by his mother, his nowhere job teaching literature to uninterested college students (with a long, screamingly funny foray into the self-justifications of a girl who has been buying term papers online for years), his father’s background, his mother’s teen years, the writer’s obsession with a video game called Elfscape and his awkward reaching out to another Elfscape devotee who also is profiled, and the narrator’s adolescent-now-adult enchantment with the twin of a friend who was killed in Afghanistan, as well as a very realistic description of that event.

Next up, I gather, is a long set piece on the riots outside the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago.

Did I mention I’m only halfway through the book?


We have great writers now. The one above, like most current novelists, has completed an MFA in writing at a fine school. He now teaches college English, which seems to afford him some inside-college material and also plenty of time for abundant research into everything from Norwegian lore to historical events of the last 50 years or so.

Another recent novel, “The Sympathizer,” also was written by a professor. This author, a Vietnamese refugee also with time on his hands, wrote wonderful passages about the American abandonment of Saigon, the making of an influential movie ostensibly about Vietnam, the separate killings of two people, the gruesome gang rape of a Chinese spy, the process of re-education in a North Vietnamese prison camp, Americans’ bigoted views of Vietnamese people who arrived in the 1970s and Vietnamese Americans’ nostalgia for their traditional fish sauce.

“The Sympathizer” is another well-written tour-de-force. It won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for literature and, compared with “The Nix,” runs to an economical 371 pages. But it felt longer.

I could go on about the current trend of “sprawling” novels (especially the two previous years’ Pulitzer winners) but enough is enough.


I have time on my hands. I don’t work a full-time job, and I don’t watch television. I read lots of books. But if I am having trouble absorbing the literature of the moment, I can only imagine who among my countrypersons — bequeathed poor educations and absorbed with other commitments — is reading this stuff?


In the past, before the days of television, the interwebs and even radio, reading was a pleasant diversion. Charles Dickens’ works generally ran as series in weekly publications and, published as books, ran to 800 pages or more. Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” clocked in at more than 1,200 pages, and “Anna Karenina’s” recent editions run to almost 900 pages.

Frankly, “Anna Karenina” is worth that kind of time. But how many other 1873 novels of its length are we still reading today? Darned few, that’s how many.


I have not published a novel, but I have done a fair amount of writing (true, of varying quality) over the years. This work has taught me at least two things.

First is that you can fall in love with your own cleverness. Almost always, my favorite sentence, anecdote or passage needs to be edited out of the final draft of any piece of work.

Second is that, when you are juggling massive amounts of narrative detail, it is a good idea to consider cutting the work into two, or sometimes even more, pieces.

I’m just saying. . . .

2 thoughts on “Sprawling Novel Overload

  1. I agree about the lengths….many times I find myself becoming absorbed in a book but unable to give it the time it deserves,. I end up setting it aside and then spending time rereading it when I pick it up again. This tends to take away much of the appreciation the book deserves. Now that I am retired, this shouldn’t be happening -but it does. I didn’t realize how short my attention span has become!


    1. Good comment, and I think you should cut yourself some slack. I regularly find myself going back to review pages I read only yesterday. These novels have so many plot threads, characters and time switches that when I have finished them (eons later!) I have only general impressions to remember. I don’t have this problem with more focused noves, even long ones like Anna Karenina.


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