I’ve been thinking about the difference between a stuffed novel and an overstuffed novel since last week, when I wrote reviews of Hard Red Spring, by Kelly Kerney, and The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, by Dominic Smith. Hard Red Spring is an amazing book full of ideas that I’ve been asking friends to read ever since I finished it. The Last Painting of Sara de Vos…not so much with the recommending. Both novels are ambitious, crossing timelines and asking big questions. The difference is that the execution failed in The Painting of Sara de Vos.
One of the things I cover in my library research workshops is choosing a topic that’s not too big and not too small for the assignment. Too small a topic and a student won’t be able to find enough information. Too big a topic and a student will only be able to give cursory attention to the many things that need to be discussed to do justice to the topic. I have to tell some students that, if they don’t narrow their topic, they might as well write a book. To put it another way, I could quote Ron Swanson, of Parks and Recreation, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” To apply this to a novel: if an author can’t cover more than a limited number of topics for some reason, it’s time to scale things back.
What happens during the process of one of these half-assed books? Is it a matter of the author thinking they’ve included enough development? Did the book get pruned too much during the editing process? When I read novels that fail to do more than touch on big questions, I end up feeling annoyed that they didn’t take the time to let those questions and themes develop over more pages. If the book was pruned back too much, then the editor or publishers owe the author an apology for spoiling the novel. Big books don’t put off readers, not if the story is worthwhile.