The Long and Short of It

by Kristen Holt-Browning

Sometimes, I just want to sink into a thick, wide-ranging novel. Getting lost in a world completely unlike my own, or sliding deep into the consciousness of a character—my earliest reading memories are of experiences like this, whether I was reading Black Beauty or Little Women.

Over the last several years, I’ve been drawn a bit more toward work that is lean and spare. I suspect this is because I feel inundated by news and social media on all fronts (who doesn’t?), and I long for something focused, quiet, and controlled. Then again, sometimes the best way to drown out the everyday noise and chatter is to dive deep into a long book. It’s like food cravings: sometimes all I can think about is pasta drenched in a hearty meat sauce—but then, on another day, a crisp, fresh salad calls my name.

Lately, I tend to ping-pong back and forth between these reading tastes. I’m reading Marlon James’s new novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf, as well as The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. James’s book is over 600 pages long, and is the first installment of a proposed trilogy. Drawing on African myths and narrative traditions, James has created an entire universe which, while rooted in African sources and sensibilities, is also profoundly original (the book includes maps of the various regions and locations which the characters inhabit, such as The Darklands, The Blood Swamp, and The House with No Doors) and unabashedly expansive (it also includes a list of all the characters, which is helpful, given that there are over 50). I’ll be honest: I don’t want to enter the world of Black Leopard every day. It’s a violent and complex one, and sometimes, after a day of work and kids, that’s not what I want. But even on the days I don’t visit, I marvel at the scope of the book, and the many threads it weaves.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis clocks in at just over 700 pages—but it includes about 200 stories. The longest are no more than 8 or 9 pages; the shortest, a paragraph or two. Many of them are singularly unnerving, not only in content but in form: how does she compress an entire narrative down to a couple of pages? When I read Davis, I often finish a story and my first instinct is that I’m disappointed that it’s already done. But this isn’t because the story seems incomplete—if anything, it makes me a little sad to realize how succinctly a story, or a life, can be summed up (not that it’s easy to do as a writer!).

Reading Marlon James, I’m reminded that, as a writer, I have the right to go big, and to offer my readers entire worlds. Lydia Davis, meanwhile, reminds me not to burden my stories and poems with anything they—and the reader—don’t need.

I’ve now tried my hand at writing a (still unfinished) 250-page novel, as well as several poems that are no more than a page. I’ve written lyrical essays that clock in at 15 pages, and barely 1 page. The writing has its own necessary length—whether it’s 500 pages, or 5.

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