Tag Archives: Eleanor Catton

Big Books

Sitting on my bookshelf right now is Eleanor Catton’s debut novel, The Luminaries (832 pages), and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (771 pages). I decided to start with Tartt’s book, as it is shorter and Catton’s book is a historical novel, which I am not as fond of as other genres. I’m guessing it will take me at least 3 weeks to read The Goldfinch, maybe more, mainly because it’s too heavy to carry on the subway. If I had bought the e-version this would not be an issue, but I like to collect first editions and this one felt worth adding to my collection.

Earlier this month, Garth Risk Hallberg sold his 900-page debut novel for $2 million in a bidding war. The book has also been optioned as a film.

It is exciting to see this spurt of big books being published, but given the sad state of the US publishing world, I wonder how many people will actually read Hallberg’s book. Some journalists are postulating that big books are the antidote to Twitter, that there is a new satisfaction in reading something that takes longer than 24 hours to finish, but I’m not sure I agree.

Clearly there is a pride in reading a big book, but how many of you are willing to sit down with a novel over 700 pages? Or a debut novel, with an author you don’t know much about, and read 900 pages?

I went back though my reading history and identified the “big books” I have read over the years. The first one was Moby Dick (544 pages), which I had to read in high school. After college, I read Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (770 pages) while living and working as an English teacher in Slovakia. One of the pleasures of that read was that I lived alone and didn’t have much of a social life, so I was able to read for very long stretches. In my twenties a book club I was in took on Ulysses, but it tore apart the group, with most of us (myself included), struggling with the book to the chagrin of the two who enjoyed it. Most recently I read Bolaño’s, 2666 (898 pages). I loved that book, but remember that I had to intentionally set aside time to read it, and only took it on after two friends told me how much they liked it.

I’m all for publishing big books, and keeping this literary tradition alive, but I wonder how many people are reading these big books and not just talking or tweeting about them….So, I’m curious, what is the last book over 700 pages you all have read and when? And if you haven’t taken on a tome recently, why not? Please leave a comment.

Happy Thanksgiving — to a weekend full of reading!

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3 thoughts on the debut novel in 2013

ONE — You don’t have to be young to debut. The biggest surprise of this year of reading has been the age of the authors. While plenty of debut and emerging writers are in their twenties and thirties (enter Eleanor Catton), a quarter of the books I reviewed in 2012/2013 were published by authors over the age of 40 and there are many who debut after the age of forty or even fifty. Charlotte Rogan signed a contract on The Lifeboat right after her 57th birthday. Ben Fountain was a National Book Award finalist for Billy Lynn’s Long Hafltime Walk, also published in his fifties. And later this year I am going to review Lies You Wanted to Hear, by James Whitfield Thomson, who is 67. We live in a time when it is OK, even exciting, to celebrate authors who publish their first books after 40. There is even a blog, Bloom, which writes about emerging authors in this age band.

TWO — There is no formula. Some debut novels are written in first person, others in third. Some are sprawling and written in many voices, others are smaller and written from one POV. Some authors show more than tell and others tell more than show. I give Kevin Wilson a shout out for the debut novelist best able to show – I don’t think there is a single page in The Family Fang, which summarizes or recounts, but each of the books I read had a unique voice, a flair which made me feel like anyone who cites a rule for what kind of novel can make it is not reading what is being published today. And while the two most experimental books I read this year, Thrill-Bent by Jan Richman and Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner, were published by small presses, Tupelo and Coffee House Press, respectively, mainstream publishers do take risks. When I read The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, and published by Reagan Arthur/Little Brown, I was drawn in to the story and the prose, but never would I have predicted this book could be a finalist for the Pulitzer. And Narcopolis, by Jeet Thayil, published by Penguin, is a free spirited book that reminded me of the books published by small presses.

THREE — The novel is not dead. After reading such a range of debut novels in the past year, I feel strongly that the novel is alive and well in American culture; there actually isn’t enough time in a year for any one person to read and review all of the stand out debut books published. As a culture we might not read as many novels as we did 10 or 20 years ago, but there is an appetite for writing fiction, and it is exciting to read new authors and books.

What do you think? What have you noticed about debut novels in 2013?

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