On a broader scale, while I sympathize somewhat with Ian’s complaint, I don’t think it holds water as anything more than reader-response criticism.
I might consider that more biting, had it not been preceded by a paragraph of almost pure reader-response criticism. Sure, there is the veneer argument, that longer immersion improves the art. Still, the core of the paragraph is that you were swept away in the novel, as I was not. Fair enough. I never knew I had such lofty goals as to rise above reader response criticism, or that the response of the reader/listener/witness to an act of art had fallen so out of favor as to no longer be valid when expressed.
True, the artist does not have to consider me when they create art. If you want to think of modernism, or post-modernism, or some other movement, as freeing the artist so be it. Just as the artist is free, I am free to not like it.
This is all very interesting to me. I started out, over on my blog, thinking about how the novella was under used. I thought that I would write about the advantages that I thought it had, which were being passed up for other formats. That turned out to be a long post, so I decided to break it into three or four parts. Needing an example of a book that I thought did not justify its length, I poked Underworld. And here I find myself drawn into an argument about the book’s merit. I hated Underworld. I made that hate known. I had not realized that my disliking the book as a reader required some elaborate justification. I think it’s shit. It does not appeal to me. That might just be my reader-response, but it’s a strong one.
Still, while long novels, when sufficiently good, need no justification, I will take a moment to address some of what Colin brought up in his post.
Underworld is a beautiful book. It is long, it is messy, it doesn’t always make linear sense. Neither did the second half of the 20th century, which is kind of the point. With such a vast scope, it would be a tedious simplification to create a neat and tidy story line, or even twenty neat and tidy story lines. Forty-six years of American History do not distill peacefully, nor should they. If you want to narrate the postmodernization of American culture, an 800 page sensory assault is damned good way to go about it. To present such an event as shorter novel or a collection of affiliated short stories misses the point. Yes, reading Underworld is a huge demand on your time, but it cannot be anything else. The subject matter is completely interdependent. Each element of the novel illuminates each other element, and without all of the lights, you miss what’s happening. Individually, each character and story is a small, well crafted glimmer. When they’re crammed together, you see the explosion at hand.
No, 46 years does not distill peacefully. I wouldn’t expect it to. Why? Because 800 pages is a tiny frame in which to fit 46 years. Underworld can’t do it. Even with all the stuff thrown in, it can’t do it. 46 years of America is simply too vast. Additionally, if you are going to say that the novel depicts the postmodernization of American, I’d like you to tell me what you think that post modernism is. In trying to depict too much, I personally feel that he depicts nothing.
I also disagree that the subject matter is completely interdependent. The graffiti artist has no bearing on the man who watches the atomic bomb get dropped, unless you are willing to accept “they are all American” as a sufficient argument in considering them all interdependent. There are themes, true, but portions of the novel interact with some other portions and not with others. As such, I don’t think that large swaths of the novel illuminate each other any more than The Great Gatsby illuminates The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. In fact, despite being different books, those two illuminate each other more than some parts of Underworld illuminate other parts of Underworld. Why? Because they share thematic material.
Authorial arrogance is forgivable when the product is beautiful or powerful or profound. But to ask that a work of art be cropped down or reformatted to fit your schedule is the arrogance of a critic, far harder to defend than that of an author.
All I can say to this is that I think you have totally missed the point of what I was trying to say when I started talking about the novella. I don’t know that I expressed it as well as I had initially intended, but it’s too late for that. Listen, all writing is arrogance. Wait for part two. This is not about me, as a “Critic,” coming at Underworld. The original point I was trying to make on my blog is that if a reader likes or dislikes a novella, they will have less time to think on it than with a long novel. Part of why I hate Underworld so much, was that I had plenty of time to savor how much I was hating it, as someone was egging me on about how I should finish it.
But to bring it back to the point I am (slowly, oh so very slowly) posting about on my blog…
You say that by being so long it created an emotional landscape within you that interacts with your daily life. Has no piece of writing with a shorter duration had a similar effect? A work does not need to 800 pages to have that effect, thought some can be that long and have it. Why is this advantageous to the novella, instead of merely a neutral point for both novel and novella? That will be part two of my postings on the novella.
My apologies to the readers. Colin and I have been going around and around about Underworld for ages, and I should have just used some other long book, to avoid raising his hackles.