Men and Their Novels

Where is the widely adored literary mega novel by a contemporary female author?

When two bookish people move in together, there is the matter of combining (or not!) the separate book collections. Alexander Chee wrote about this recently, saying he and his partner didn’t combine until they’d been together for years: “Our libraries struck me as something like Rilke’s ideal for love—two solitudes, side by side.”

Surely, the real test is when you purge the shelves of duplicates. When you get rid of one of your two copies of Native Son, you’re saying that there will be no solo life beyond this—these strands will never be teased apart.

When my girlfriend Jessica and I moved in together last fall, we combined our many hundreds of books, putting our duplicates side by side. Turns out, we have matching volumes by Amy Hempel, Deborah Eisenberg, Wells Tower and a gigantic book by the quintessential pretentious white guy, Jonathan Franzen.

We stood contemplating that Franzen doorstop one night, wishing he wasn’t taking up so much real estate, when I glanced around at the other big books and noticed they were ALL by men. No exceptions.

I was impressed with myself for noticing this—it seemed very evolved of me, I thought—so I pointed it out to Jessica.

She just nodded, wearily. This was not news to her.

We also have huge books by David Foster Wallace, Bob Shacochis, Vikram Chandra, Haruki Murakami, Denis Johnson, two by Thomas Pynchon, and one very hefty tome by Roberto Bolaño. We don’t own The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, but I’ve seen that book, and from a distance it’s got more spine than a baleen whale. There are, of course, countless others.

Where is the widely adored literary mega novel by a contemporary female author? We have beloved and moderately sized novels by Zadie Smith, Tiphanie Yanique, Ruth Ozeki…

I gather Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is quite long (544 pages, according to Google), and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall clocks in at 604 pages. But Infinite Jest is more than 1,000 pages. Then there’s Proust and Karl Ove Knausgård (multiple thousands of pages, each). DeLillo’s Underworld is more than 800 pages and Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon is almost 800. Murukami’s 1Q84 is 946! I can’t think of a notable living female author of literary fiction who’s written a book longer than 800 pages.

I presented this observation to Facebook and a lot of people—mostly men—took umbrage. Several brought up George Eliot, who was a woman, yes, but she wrote UNDER A MALE PEN NAME(!), and she also wrote more than a hundred years ago, when novels were often very long, and she was paid by volume of writing, rather than volume of sales. Facebook also brought up various obscure authors. And Ayn Rand.

There are many female genre writers who write long books, but that’s different. (The final Harry Potter book is super-long, and although it’s really awesome in many ways, it’s just not “literary fiction.”)

Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke is an interminable, exhausting book, and having trudged halfway through its grim mass, I’m sure the only reason it won the National Book Award was that it eats so much shelf space. Charles Baxter once wrote, “In the tradition of Western literature we have come to believe that, at least with the novel, length is synonymous with profundity.”

When Johnson—one of my favorite authors, mind you—was shortlisted for the Irish Times International Prize for The Name of the World, he lost. Michael Ondaatje won for the forgettable Anil’s Ghost. This might be apocryphal, but I heard that in his acceptance speech Ondaatje said Johnson clearly should have won, but his book was short.

In a Paris Review interview, short story writer Deborah Eisenberg said, “There’s a certain—rarely acknowledged but definite—attitude of condescension directed towards short fiction, as if nothing of real importance could be conveyed in less than x number of pages. I’ve certainly been made to feel that stories are a kiddie form, appropriate to women, as if stories were the equivalent of knitting socks for the men, who are out in the mines, actually doing something.”

It’s not that I hate long books. My favorite novel is Ada, Vladimir Nabokov’s most immense offering. The length of a story can make a reader’s immersion more complete, the attachment to the characters amplified for having been through so much with them.

But lengthy literary fiction is clearly a male compulsion. Maybe only a man would think his readers should pay for the privilege of sitting with his voice for that long. It could be a problem of the book-selling market or publishing industry. It’s probably all of the above.

I don’t want to stop seeing long books by men, I’d just like to see some by women, too. In the meantime, looking at our bookshelves, I can’t help but be reminded of those guys on the subway who spread their legs, taking up multiple seats during rush hour. It’s called man-spreading. Because only men do it.

Peter Mountford is the author of the novels The Dismal Science and A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism. Photo by Sarah Samudre.