My reading habit started with the State exams. It was a given that of the dozen or so novels on the reading list, we would all start with the shortest ones and, if we gambled sensibly, that might just be enough. To be fair to the Department of Education they had the good judgment to focus on authors who were skilled at the shorter form, and with writers like Hemingway, Golding and Steinbeck on the curriculum, it was clear that the Nobel Committee liked short books too.
In my 20s I read lots of big books – Don Quixote, Les Misérables, Middlemarch – and enjoyed their novel-length digressions and the feeling of commitment involved both in reading them and carrying their weight in my bag. But even during my Penguin Classics phase I was conscious that many 19th century novels were the boxsets of their day: published first in shorter volumes as serialisations and only gathered into a single work afterwards once the market for them had been proven.
When my children were young I mostly read instruction booklets and prescriptions. There was some poetry and a few short story anthologies in there too, but the tiredness was such that my eyes often felt like they had been soaked overnight in swimming pool water. Novels seemed like an impossibility.
In recent years I have rediscovered my book hunger, and my love and admiration for the sub-200 page novel has grown into something real. It’s not that they are short; it’s more that they are no longer than they need to be. There is something perfect about the narrative arc in them, like a free-kick that clears the wall and dips just below the crossbar. The characters are in your life long enough to become memorable, but they never outstay. They are like that interesting couple at your table at the wedding last year. Perhaps most of all, short novels free you from the idea of reading as a form of productivity, and of books as something to get through. You open them knowing that they won’t last long. They are what Irish writer Claire Keegan would call “an incision in time”: a carefully selected entry point into another life where you will be shown just enough before you will have to close it up again. And it is this preciousness that makes short novels so tempting to reread. Great books, as it turns out, are a form of Everlasting Gobstopper. You can read them over and over again and they never lose their flavour.
But making the case for shorter novels is not straightforward. Long books cost the same to buy as short books, so there is the consumer to think of, especially with hardbacks. What about the commuter, who makes 10 journeys or so a week and wants something that will last the distance. And then there are those who buy books as gifts. It’s all well and good showing your taste by buying Banana Yoshimoto’s latest hundred-pager, but it’s hard not to feel like a cheapskate when you hand it over.
In the publishing world, the unit of length is not pages but word count. My own debut novel Leonard and Hungry Paul comes in at a cool 79,391 words, or 245 pages in old money. I was determined to let the story tell itself, but it is of course possible that I was influenced by the chorus of advice on the internet imploring new writers to land their manuscripts somewhere in the 70-90,000 word range. It certainly became an unhealthy part of my routine that I would check my word count as often and as nervously as a weightwatcher climbing on to the bathroom scales.
Unfortunately, there isn't an accessible dataset that tells us whether novels have in fact become longer or shorter on average over time, though there seems to be a perception that Victorian novels were whoppers and that many modern books are "in need of a good edit". As a reader I can only observe from my enjoyment of Candide, The Count of Monte Cristo, Botchan, Ulysses and Brokeback Mountain that each era has produced its own memorable long and short novels, and that many great writers can write both. From this I draw the conclusion that suits me best: it is the story, and not the writer, that should decide how long a book is.
Here is a selection of sub-200 page novels I have enjoyed. All of them are available free of charge with your library card.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori (176 pages)
A charmingly funny story about a social misfit who is at her happiest among the daily specials and cheerful customer greetings of the Convenience Store. A gentle lesson about finding our own place in the world, rather than occupying the place prepared for us by others.
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell (160 pages)
The Spanish title of this novel translates as “Rescue Distance”: the distance between a mother and her child in danger. In this creepy narrative, the disembodied spirit of a woman’s nearly-dead son enters her consciousness to guide her towards understanding the mysterious tragedy that destroyed them. A book to play on every parent’s nightmares.
The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan (160 pages)
A narrative relay race in which a dozen or more characters recount interwoven stories about the Celtic Tiger’s sudden end in rural Ireland. One of those rare and beautifully-balanced novels that helps us to understand society through its people, and people through their relationship with society.
At Dusk by Hwang Sok-yong, translated by Sora Kim-Russell (192 pages)
In a similar vein, this novel tells the story of an architect, a successful mediocrity, reflecting on his escape from a slum childhood and the memories that draw his mind back there. Set against the characterless construction boom in Korea, it is a novel about the regrets of compromise.
The White Book by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (161 pages)
Han Kang won the International Booker for The Vegetarian and followed it up with this novel of sorts which, depending on your view, is either a tender evocation of grief and absence, or a jumped-up coffee table book. I'm in the former camp. I think Han Kang is a real artist and I hereby declare my willingness to enter her world on her own terms.
Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger (157 pages)
Arguably this is more of a twofer than a novel, but it is inconceivable that this matching pair of stories would ever be separated. Two precocious siblings, comfortable in language, abstraction, philosophy and everything but themselves, serve and volley the very best in conversational writing in this highly influential novel. Fun fact: if you read it backwards you turn into Wes Anderson.
Autumn Quail by Naguib Mahfouz, translated by Roger Allen and revised by John Rodenbeck (181 pages)
My favourite writer. Mahfouz was a civil servant all his life and won the Nobel Prize, the first Arabic writer to do so. This novel is set against the 1952 revolution in his native Egypt as a corrupt official finds himself marginalised and adrift in a country undergoing an uncertain transition.
Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff (128 pages)
If I told you this was about a foreigner who moves to rural France with her husband and young baby you would get the wrong idea. This is not A Year in Provence. It is an intense and disturbing book about a woman who confronts the darkest edges of her own isolation and wild unhappiness.