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Lengthy or too long?

Lengthy or too long?

A curious truffle was unearthed in a recent piece about “cultural epics” – books and films of substantial length. The author did a bit of number crunching, using the Booker Prize as a database, and found that there was a trend for books of ever increasing size: “In 1970, the average shortlisted novel had about 248 pages. By 1980, that had ticked up to 294, and by 2000 it was 372 pages. Last year, when the prize was shared by Bernardine Evaristo and Margaret Atwood, the average shortlisted book weighed in at about 530 pages.” Val McDermid, the crime writer and 2018 Booker Prize judge, had some thoughts about this – a lack of skilled editors perhaps, or authors who refused to be cut, might be partly to blame. “Sometimes books and films merit length,” she said, “but a lot of stuff is quite self-indulgent and needs a serious edit. I’m reluctant to pick up something that’s more than 600 pages if I don’t have a previous relationship with that writer.” Perhaps though it boils down to a simple truth: a book is only too long if it is not good enough.

Margaret Busby, chair of this year’s Booker Prize judges, has given an insight into some of the thoughts that went through her mind when selecting which novels should progress. Rather than wanting simply to whip through the 162 submissions and get to a more manageable number, she found herself reluctant to cast books aside. “I have a strange way of seeing things,” she says, “because as a former publisher, former editor, I know that every single title that we read has been championed by an editor and publisher who thinks it is a brilliant book, and so I bear in mind that there is something attractive about every single submission to make that editor or publisher feel it deserves a wider audience”. She may not share or indeed find that feeling but is aware that there’s blood, sweat and tears on every page, so it is a courtesy not to dismiss a novel but give it time and space. The judges have had to become hard-nosed but Busby makes it clear that developing one of those is not a painless procedure.

In a recent interview, Tsitsi Dangarembga put aside her troubles with the Zimbabwean authorities (she was arrested for protesting against government corruption) to discuss the interrelatedness of fiction and politics. She suggested that “Writing about what goes on in Zimbabwe and the continent in a speculative manner might be the solution to enable young people to engage with the situation from a different point of view.” And she has some personal experience of the power of prose: “People have come to me and said how wonderful to have the painful experiences of being African, and especially an African woman, put down on the page like that because it helps them to work through.”

Marlon James, Booker Prize winner in 2015, recently discussed the origins of black fiction. It is all to do with myth, he reckons: “When we get faced with big questions, we go back to the myths. We go back to the old stories,” he said. As a man with a lively turn of phrase, he likened the instinctive move to music: “If you’re in rock ‘n’ roll, eventually you have to go to the blues.” This return to the most ancient, verbal stories is why, he says, “All my novels have always had supernatural, magical, unexplainable elements.” But there’s a more considered aspect to it too and a wish to expand the ancestry of his writing provenance by “searching for my own mythologies”. He says that “As a Black man born in the diaspora, our ground zero tends to be slavery. And surely there is more to Blackness and Black history and Africanness than that.”

The South Bank Show, the longest-running arts programme on British television, is due for a return. Among those to be given the Melvyn Bragg probing in the new series is Bernardine Evaristo. Their discussion will range from Evaristo’s childhood and the development of her career to matters of race and diversity – last year’s joint Booker Prize win will also feature. Should you wish to set your recorder early, the programme will air on Sky Arts (free to air) on Sunday 29 November, at 22:45.