Nick Hornby, The Polysyllabic Spree
I happen to be in the midst of a different Dickens novel, Our Mutual Friend, nearly 800 pages long with enough characters to populate a village. I'm loving it. Several years ago I listened to an abridgment of Great Expectations and felt something missing. It was the same story I remembered, but it didn't seem like Dickens. The characters were there, at least most of them, but they seemed stripped of their personalities. We can be glad Dickens never had a writing coach.
I also happen to be reading Susan Hill's Black Sheep, just 135 pages long. The story covers a period of several years, much longer than Our Mutual Friend. Certainly much is left out of Hill's narrative that other writers would have put in, yet her book works, just as those by Dickens do.
Hornby observes that short novels are usually humorless because jokes are the easiest things to cut out. Certainly Dickens mixes a great deal of humor into his novels, humor that can be neatly excised in abridgments, but I doubt that Hill ever cut any jokes out of Black Sheep. It just isn't the kind of novel to have had any to begin with.
The proper length of a novel, it seems to me, depends on three factors:
Some writers, such as Thomas Wolfe, are just long-winded. An editor once complained of Marcel Proust, "I can't see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep." Other writers have a gift for saying much with few words. You might put Susan Hill in that camp.
Lonesome Dove and Gone with the Wind were stories that took many pages to tell. The Old Man and the Sea not nearly as many. We can often sense when a novel seems padded because the publisher or author wanted more pages than the story demanded.
There may be two kinds of readers. One takes pride in the number of books read and so values shorter books, or at least longer books that can be read quickly. The other is more concerned with thrift. Why take two thin books to the beach when one fat book will do the job? Long books usually give a reader more pages for the buck. Hornby writes, "Go on, young writers -- treat yourself to a joke, or an adverb! Spoil yourself! Readers won't mind! Have you ever looked at the size of books in an airport bookstall? The truth is that people like superfluidity."
That is, we readers like superfluidity when the writer is good and when the story is good.