Some people, myself included, have used the word « Victorian » to describe our current brand of long-winded, bloated narratives, especially as pertains to books and this is actually a slander – against Victorian fiction, that is.
There’s no denying the Victorians were not models of brevity when it came to novel writing; what’s more, they were proud of that. Some of it had to do with commercial reasons but the main cause was that the complex, labyrinth-like plots they were so fond of couldn’t be told any other way. The Victorians were perfectly able to write short and to the point, the period after all was also a golden age for short stories. Their novels were long because they needed to be long. You just can’t pack Bleak House or The Moonstone or Middlemarch into a hundred pages.
Don’t believe me? Try excising anything, even one word, from the aforementioned Bleak House‘s rightly famous first chapter. There is little in it that contributes directly to the main story – Dickens concentrates on venting his anger and disgust about the society of his time but in doing so he sets the stage for everything that is to follow. The chapter may serve no immediate narrative purpose but it is not gratuitous; it’s not something Dickens wrote only to show what a great writer he was or because he had space requirements to fill up. The rest of the book is ruled by the same law of necessity. Both admirers and critics of Dickens tend to see his novels as loosely plotted, rambling and digressive but they are only so on the surface. Cut out the littlest thing and the whole building collapses. The material commands the length.
Modern fiction is quite the opposite. Books are long because they have to be long, not because they need it. They have to be long because publishers won’t touch them otherwise. They have to be long because readers mistakenly think it to be a badge of quality, and also because books are so expensive these days that you want them to be worth your money. They have to be long, finally, because writers want them that way. Unlike popular opinion it is extremely easy to write a long book even when you don’t have a story sustaining it; all you have to do is jamming it up with everything that passes your mind, no matter how relevant it is to the matter at hand. The Victorians wrote long books because they had lots of things to tell; the Moderns on the other hand do because they have many, many things to say and no one to stop them once they’ve achieved best-seller status.
One good example is that of Stephen King, whose books keep getting bigger and bigger even though there’s little warranting it storywise. King is often described as a modern-day Dickens by his fans and he certainly is as far as length is concerned; he may even have outpaced his model by now. Whether he deserves the comparison on literary grounds is not for me to decide, but the criticisms unfairly leveled at Dickens that I mentioned earlier remarkably apply to him. King’s books, especially in recent years, are shapeless affairs whose length is not due to a big amount of susbstance but to the very obvious fact that he doesn’t know where he is going and has no idea where to stop. He is on record of saying that he doesn’t like plotting and it shows, especially in his endings as even the otherwise laudative author of this article has to admit. Resolution of any kind needs some thinking forward if it is not to appear arbitrary or forced.
This attitude toward plotting is perhaps the most crucial difference between the Victorians and the Moderns. Contemporary writers, even those doing genre fiction, are adamant that plotting is not their priority, that they are far more interested in characterization, social comment and what have you. Victorian writers shared those concerns too but they always knew where they were going – or make people believe they did – and they left no loose ends when the book was over. They knew that a novel is about people, but also about the things they do and that happen to them. In other words, they told stories.