Sloane Crosley on Self-Diagnosing Novel Dysmorphia
Because in the Writer's Mind, Size Sometimes Matters
Several months ago, I was sitting at a little table in a little restaurant, when the conversation turned to the topic of the long novel. The publishing community loves this discussion. It gives us the rare opportunity to superimpose math on a distinctly incalculable entity. The usual questions arose: Was the attention span of the average reader changing? Was this a temporary trend or a greater fleeing from the distractions of the Internet? Just because there’s a lot of something, is it automatically worth our attention? Seated next to me was a magazine editor who had in his possession a galley of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity, which he plopped on the table like a pound of herring. I measured the height of the book with my fingers.
“Yup,” I said, nodding, “my novel’s about that long.”
A couple of people at the table had read The Clasp. They cocked their heads and blinked at me.
“Longer?” I offered.
“Umm… no, it’s not,” said one of them in a tone generally applied to “how many fingers am I holding up?”
“Yes, it is,” I insisted.
The magazine editor shook his head. I recognized the attempt to protect me from myself, to stop me from blithely throwing myself in the ring with the Franzens, the Tartts, the Pynchons and the Foster-Wallaces of the world. But this wasn’t a matter of quality comparison. This was a matter of guessing jellybeans in a jar. My novel was the same size and that was that.
Even after the all-seeing eye of the Internet revealed it to be a portable 372 pages, I insisted. The magazine editor flipped to page 372 of Purity, lifted it up like a condor and shook it. The 200 extra pages failed in the air.
Well. Clearly his copy was broken.
For a long time, I have been walking around convinced that I wrote a 700-page novel. Probably because I did write a 700-page novel. My editor, Sean McDonald, and I cut over 250 pages. Or, as I like to call it, “two years of my life.” There were tears. There was griping. There was nail biting (he’s fine now). As a result, The Clasp feels like a contestant on The Biggest Loser: ISBN. It lost so much weight so quickly, and now I am left with acute novel dysmorphia. This is a real thing. At one point I expressed concern that my book jackets (printed in bright colors) might be off-putting on a shelf. I had to be reminded that they would be covering a reasonable trim size. When friends texted “I’m on page 80,” I’d reply with a “wait till you get past the prologue!” I felt for the actor reading the audio book. I still think the price is a real steal for a novel of its formidable proportions. It’s not. It’s a normal price.
And what of the cutting room floor? I wish the scratched pages could be repurposed for another novel but they can’t. In this interview with Joshua Ferris and his editor, Regan Arthur, Ferris mentions cutting 200 pages—whole characters—but dismisses the idea of salvaging them. Those pages lived to serve a story that is no longer there. I know what he means. They are training wheels and you can’t make a second bicycle out of training wheels. I mean, you can. But only suitable for a small monkey.
That being said, there is something intangible to be salvaged from my scratched pages. Five years ago, I thought I was going to write one kind of novel and I wound up writing another. Those pages were cut because they didn’t belong or slowed the narrative. As massively inconvenient as it is to overshoot like that, I have learned more about being comfortable in my own skin by writing an oversized novel than if I’d never written those pages at all. And just because dramatic weight loss worked for me, doesn’t mean all of the big boys should be trimmed. The most recent tote-dominating tomes (Purity, A Little Life, City on Fire) are long for good reason. It’s not blubber we’re dealing with, it’s muscle. And yet, despite the praise they all deserve, there will always be those critics who say things like “eh, it needed to be 125 pages shorter.” So mathematical. The funny thing is, they’re rarely talking about the same set of pages.