HOT INK AUGUST 13, 1997 FEATURES

h = o = t   +   i = n = k

Does Size Really Matter?
(A Book Length Pro & Con)

pro
          s ize counts.

It counts a lot, but this wasn't always the case. I read quickly, and never had a problem with cruising through many books a week. I believe in libraries after all, where I can eat free books like junk food, going on weekend-long binges. College days were good days, when I had many hours to devote to reading and I was awake enough to do so.

Little books were just fine when I moved to NYC, because I worked at a really terrible book chain (need I mention any names?), the first job I could get, and I was surrounded by every book I could ever want, pretty much, and I could read those for free. The libraries in this city are lame, and finding something that's both new and desirable is a matter of pure luck, while finding something specific is almost impossible. (Yes, the large, beautiful main library is neat, but they ain't serving up entertainment.)

Now that I'm employed in a soul-grinding, 10-6 "real job," I find myself wanting BIG BOOKS. Books that I can live in for a while. Basically, I want a dependable alternate universe; I want to know where I'll be when I get up and get on the subway (before I start falling asleep halfway in to work), at lunch, at night before I go to bed. I want some security, instead of that what-do-I-read-next dilemma of your average-length volume. Basically, I want to be consumed by my diversions.

I think it started with Infinite Jest. I loved that book. (I also fell in love with Mr. Wallace, and had [dAVID fOSTER wALLACE] this dialogue going on with him in my head for the longest time, especially after I read A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, but now that he's got that McArthur Grant, I'm sure he'll never look at me.) I rushed through it because I was dying to find out, well, everything, although I thought it would have been better if the PGOAT's deformity had been extreme beauty, but really, I need to read that thing again, and more slowly, except for maybe the tennis parts, since I don't really dig sports all that much and they caused my eyes to sort of glaze over. I didn't have to find a new book to read for three weeks; my biggest problem was not going narcoleptic at night.

That was last fall, and now I'm reading Gravity's Rainbow (finally--I've had it for something like ten years, starting it over and over, even though I've read all of his other books, except for the short stories and the new book). I find myself seeking out long, tasty books that let me hide for a while. Next I might hit Ulysses for a repeat read, or maybe V., although I'm afraid that too much Pynchon at one time might make me crazy, and that book isn't all that long. Maybe I'll even dive into Remembrance of Things Past, which isn't long in absolute terms, but it seems that way.

Do I have abandonment issues? Sure I do. I want a hearty meal, a stable partner, a trusty sidekick. One that fits in my backpack.

--   Maureen McClarnon


con
          i t's not the size that moves me.

In fact, a book as weighty as War and Peace leaves me cold. Infinite Jest is still an uncracked lump on my second shelf of unread books.

Because it's not how many words you put on a page. It's what you do with them. A writer who measures out their words like water in a desert is someone I feel I can trust. What does it matter if a writer can throw 400 pages of tawdry prose at me, when one judicious phrase can knock my world spinning?

This is not to say that I'm some high-brow snob who only likes snotty literati, like Joyce Carol Oates (to be honest, I don't think she can tell a story to save her life.) Any reader would understand a comparision between, for example, Stephen King and Shirley Jackson.

The comparision is apt, as King taught her books in a class on "Contemporary Writing" at Michigan State a few years before his pursuit of the "Longest-Horror- Novel-Ever-Written" Prize began. Her story, "The Lottery" is often reprinted in literary anthologies as an example of a tight short story. As King himself acknowledges, Shirley Jackson's Hill House is the most terrifying psychological suspense novel this side of Hades.

Shirley Jackson can write. Whether Stephen King can is a matter of some debate. Wading through the mountains of description and endless reiterations of the "innocent-American-kills-foreign/alien/ancient-horror" scenario does little to convince a reader that he can write. Because it's not the mere accumulation of weight that brings us to recognize greatness.

The difference between King and Jackson's brands of horror literature is that Jackson weighs the effect of individual syllables as if words are lethal weapons. King, on the other hand, repeats EXACTLY the same metaphor on page 63 and page 279 of The Stand (expanded paperback edition). I'm sorry to break it to you, but any edge the King rep once had is more than a little blunted.

And what of books that really matter? Maureen claims to love David Foster Wallace. Yet I just can't get past the fact that Wallace's prose is dense with farcical allusions, derivative footnotes, and endless tangents. Perhaps it's the postmodern thing, and perhaps it's hip.

Intellectually, I can enjoy that. But I read to get a high that's like nothing else. And Wallace just isn't turning me on. His intermidable jest makes me wonder if he can really write, or if he is simply a word-processing machine disguised as a publishing property.

Here We Are in
Paradise [Tony Earley's
First Book] I prefer writers of much less pretension, and much more pointed hilarity. New South short-story writer Tony Earley, for example, can write a sentence that can turn you inside out. He writes about the fragile connections between people. Earley's precise, unaffected sentences spell out everyday details in a way that lifts them above the norm. In "Prophet from Jupiter" (my favorite Earley story), even a dog named "Shithead" has a sort of dignity. Earley can make you believe.

Ultimately, size doesn't matter. But I trust a writer less if she takes 200+ pages to deliver the same truth that could have been punched home in a spare 200 sentences.

--   Robyn Taobene

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