Do Longer Books Equal Better Books? Using Our MCAT Skills

Session 09

Link to the full article: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/21/the-guardian-view-on-lengthening-books-read-them-and-weep

At 500 pages, The Overstory is a “majestic redwood” of a novel. Its place on this week’s Man Booker shortlist is testament that long books are fine by the judges. It’s the long-winded ones they rejected: “We occasionally felt that inside the book we read was a better one – sometimes a thinner one – wildly signalling to be let out,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah, their chairman.

Most readers can empathise, and may feel that the word “occasionally” was tactful. One book survey found that the average number of pages had increased from 320 to 400 pages between 1999 and 2014. Some think that the shift to digital formats has contributed, not least in removing the fear of being crushed beneath your duvet by your bedtime reading. Val McDermid, another of the judges, cited the inexperience of editors; commercial pressures which deny them the time they need to spend on books; and the unwillingness of writers to listen. The phenomenon of “book inflation” over careers has been noted: the last part of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle runs to almost 1,200 pages, and Paul Auster’s most recent novel 4321 is almost as long as his previous three books put together. The approving may credit increased boldness and mastery of material. The unimpressed blame growing authorial egos.

Writers are not the only ones reluctant to kill their darlings. Director’s cuts tend to expand rather than contract movies. Viewers of Apocalypse Now Redux – 49 minutes longer than the lengthy original – can testify that there’s sometimes good reason for studios to interfere with a creative vision. Yet executives too can overrate the long and sprawling.

One culprit can be the misguided sense that volume equals value for money. Another is the odd association between physical heft and artistic or intellectual merit – “weighty” is a compliment, “slight” is an insult. One film critic says that studios fear shorter movies will not be deemed worthy of Oscars. The very term the Great American Novel suggests a certain size, though that was not the original intent.

That may be partly the legacy of doorstop classics: Moby Dick, Middlemarch, and Crime and Punishment. (It’s not a purely western phenomenon: China’s beloved The Story of the Stone runs to 120 chapters). Ulysses needs all of its 700-plus pages to capture a single day, while War and Peace, at over 1,200, ranges over 15 years, five families, domestic drama and grand historical events. Readers gallop through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet (regarded by its author as a single novel) while short books don’t always keep their readers; A Brief History of Time, despite living up to its titular promise, was bought much more than read. But Persuasion, one of Jane Austen’s shorter novels, is arguably her best. Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking Mrs Dalloway is not much over 200 pages. Rather a single Bashō haiku than the 1,150-plus pages of James Clavell’s Shogun. The long and short of it is that authors must earn their length.

[02:30] Paragraph 1, Sentence 1-2:

At 500 pages, The Overstory is a “majestic redwood” of a novel. Its place on this week’s Man Booker shortlist is testament that long books are fine by the judges.

Jack says:

Majestic sounds like a good thing but we don’t know why it’s quoted. Maybe it’s someone else’s point of view. But it does say it’s 500 pages. The author says that the book was on a short list and apparently, the judges don’t mind it’s 500 pages.

[03:55] Paragraph 1, Sentence 3:

It’s the long-winded ones they rejected: “We occasionally felt that inside the book we read was a better one – sometimes a thinner one – wildly signaling to be let out,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah, their chairman.

Jack says:

Maybe the length of the book is not a problem but instead, we don’t want long-winded, which could mean confusing. Basically, the author is trying to say that they don’t reject long books, but other kinds of characteristics in books.

[04:50] What Paragraph 1 Means

Basically, long books are good, as long as they’re not long winded.

[05:00] Paragraph 2, Sentence 1:

Most readers can empathise and may feel that the word “occasionally” was tactful.

Jack says:

The author is talking about Anthony Appiah’s viewpoint.

[06:04] Paragraph 2, Sentence 2:

One book survey found that the average number of pages had increased from 320 to 400 pages between 1999 and 2014.

Jack says:

The first sentence in this paragraph wasn’t really important. It was just a transition. The second sentence is saying that books are getting bigger.

[07:15] Paragraph 2, Sentence 3:

Some think that the shift to digital formats has contributed, not least in removing the fear of being crushed beneath your duvet by your bedtime reading.

Jack says:

Some people think books are getting bigger because we’re not printing as many books, since they can now be found digital. Hence, the digital factor allows them to make longer books.

[07:54] Paragraph 2, Sentence 4:

Val McDermid, another of the judges, cited the inexperience of editors; commercial pressures which deny them the time they need to spend on books; and the unwillingness of writers to listen.

Jack says:

The author gives us a point of view as to why books are getting longer, and McDermid said that. A lot of students would be lost seeing the word (duvet” in the previous sentence.. Some think that the shift to digital format has contributed it. And this part matters because that’s telling us some people think it’s because of this transition to digital.

[10:03] Paragraph 2, Sentence 5:

The phenomenon of “book inflation” over careers has been noted: the last part of Karl Ove Knausgård’s My Struggle runs to almost 1,200 pages, and Paul Auster’s most recent novel 4321 is almost as long as his previous three books put together.

Jack says:

Just some examples of authors whose books have gotten really big. They’re showing how it’s over a career.

[10:50] Paragraph 2, Sentence 7:

The approving may credit increased boldness and mastery of material. The unimpressed blame growing authorial egos.

Jack says:

Those who don’t like books become bigger and bigger. When you answer questions, you don’t want your opinion or your take on it. They want you to feel like you’re the author. So when you’re reading, challenge the author if you want to. It keeps you more engaged. But when you answer questions, you want to be the author. You don’t want to bring in our opinions when you answer questions.

[13:20] Paragraph 3, Sentence 1:

Writers are not the only ones reluctant to kill their darlings.

Jack says:

The author is bringing in other people who are working and working and they’re not able to trim down their work.

[13:38] Paragraph 3, Sentence 2-3:

Director’s cuts tend to expand rather than contract movies. Viewers of Apocalypse Now Redux – 49 minutes longer than the lengthy original – can testify that there’s sometimes good reason for studios to interfere with a creative vision.

Jack says:

Director’s cut is usually longer as well. The author is bringing in one specific movie that’s longer and is potentially showing that there’s good reason it was edited down.

[14:34] Paragraph 3, Sentence 4:

Yet executives too can overrate the long and sprawling.

Jack says:

Probably they’re talking about movie executives and they overrate. So they probably prefer it and like it more.

[15:03] What Paragraph 3 Means:

It tells us that it’s not just books, movies are getting longer too. Writers are not the only ones reluctant or hesitant to “kill their darlings,” which means shortening your books.

[15:41] Paragraph 4:  Sentence 1:

One culprit can be the misguided sense that volume equals value for money.

Jack says:

The author talks about why things are getting longer, thinking it equals more value.

[15:59] Paragraph 4, Sentence 2:

Another is the odd association between physical heft and artistic or intellectual merit – “weighty” is a compliment, “slight” is an insult.

Jack says:

The author could be saying that bigger books and longer movies are seen as more artistic or better or smarter. They’re also valued more in terms of compensation. They’re worth more when they’re longer. So this is again another reason why books are longer.

[16:45] Paragraph 4, Sentence 3:

One film critic says that studios fear shorter movies will not be deemed worthy of Oscars.

Jack says:

A critic is saying that shorter movies aren’t worthy of awards. This goes with the idea of intellectual merit as Oscars are intellectual merits. So if they’re not long, then they may not be seen in a very positive, intellectual way.

[17:18] Paragraph 4, Sentence 4:

The very term the Great American Novel suggests a certain size, though that was not the original intent.

Jack says:

The term isn’t supposed to imply any sort of size, but it ends up doing so. It wasn’t the original intent, but the fact it’s great signifies it’s really big.

[18:00] What Paragraph 4 Means:

The author here is being very neutral, just pointing out other perspectives. It’s just pointing out what it looks like in society.

[18:27] Paragraph 5, Sentence 1-2:

That may be partly the legacy of doorstop classics: Moby Dick, Middlemarch, and Crime and Punishment. (It’s not a purely western phenomenon: China’s beloved The Story of the Stone runs to 120 chapters).

Jack says:

The author is pointing to three classics. “Doorstop” could mean they’re really big books that they can be used as doorstops. It’s just talking about the legacy of these books. And it’s not just an American novel, but also it’s happening in China.

[19:30] Paragraph 5, Sentence 3:

Ulysses needs all of its 700-plus pages to capture a single day, while War and Peace, at over 1,200, ranges over 15 years, five families, domestic drama and grand historical events.

Jack says:

The author points out more works of art that are really long.

[19:50] Paragraph 5, Sentence 4:

Readers gallop through Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet (regarded by its author as a single novel) while short books don’t always keep their readers; A Brief History of Time, despite living up to its titular promise, was bought much more than read.

Jack says:

These are just more examples of books. A short book is a Brief History in Time but why is it bought much more than read?

[20:44] Paragraph 5, Sentence 5-6:

But Persuasion, one of Jane Austen’s shorter novels, is arguably her best. Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking Mrs. Dalloway is not much over 200 pages.

Jack says:

This author who has many novels wrote a shorter novel that is probably arguably one of her best. So longer is not necessarily better. Then there’s another example of a book that is not very long.

[21:14] Paragraph 5, Sentence 7-8:

Rather a single Bashō haiku than the 1,150-plus pages of James Clavell’s Shogun. The long and short of it is that authors must earn their length.

Jack says:

So it’s comparing both short work versus a long novel. It suggests that it can longer as long as it’s good. Older works of literature were often long, and it can be longer as long as it’s good. It’s hard to see that last part. But you should know that to earn your length, it’s got to be good.

[23:00] The Main Takeaway of the Passage

We should know that books are getting longer which is not necessarily a good thing. At the end of the day, the writer needs to write a good book.

This is a pretty easy argument but the author is presenting this in a convoluted way. That one sentence could have been the whole thing. But CARS makes it so dense and convoluted but at the end of the day, it’s just a simple argument. And you could use this to help you get the questions right.

This is an example of a passage where the author doesn’t necessarily give us his/her opinion but tells us what it is as it is. We don’t always have passages with arguments that the author passionately agrees or disagrees with. But the author is arguing here that books are getting longer.

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