Every time we praise a literary book for its heft, we contribute to a kind of aesthetic confusion. The sheer length of a text is not a mark of its literary excellence or worth. Rather, it’s a reflection of the material conditions of the author’s life: a mark of the amount of time—free from more urgent obligations—that the writer possessed. When we talk about the length of a work, we need to acknowledge that we are talking about privilege. Not excellence, not talent. Privilege.
Publishing flash pieces in national journals twenty years ago, I lived below the poverty line. I was raising a child. For maternity leave, I’d been granted two weeks. I had no family nearby. For a while I was single, and for a long while I was putting myself through college and then graduate school. Snatches of time late at night at the kitchen table—after my son was asleep, before I fell asleep, too—were typically the only opportunities I found to write.
My published pieces were correspondingly short. I knew that the traditional benchmarks of literary achievement were well beyond my reach—and would remain so—due to the conditions of my life.
I could not write for hours at a time on the weekend. I could not go to literary colonies and devote myself to writing while someone brought me little lunches in a basket. I would remain a “no-book writer” for years.
Only when I’d earned a sabbatical did I manage to write my first book. Only in my mid-forties, with my son safely raised and through college himself, have I published my second and third. My student loans paid off, I work only one teaching job now, instead of two. I still teach full-time, but I have the luxury to sit and write on weekends and in the summers.
As the conditions of my life have changed, the length of my published texts has grown. These are tremendous privileges.
In the critical assessment of literature, length is still considered a hallmark of virtuosity, and the hoary notion persists that the Great American Novel is a standard of literary achievement. This fact has unfortunate gender and class implications, as short forms—especially flash forms—are particularly amenable to writers snatching time from obligations.
Such writers by definition include family caregivers, who continue to be mostly women, and people from poverty and the working class. Due to the continuing intersection of economic hardship with racial and ethnic minority status in our culture, they also include many writers of color.
The elderly caregiver writing from a position of poverty might be able to find only ten minutes or half an hour at a time in which to compose new work (and then similar brief blocks in which to revise it). But the intensity, urgency, and quality of her work might be just as worthy of literary attention as a well-written novel. The compression of her prose, rather than being denigrated as an inability to handle greater textual heft and complexity, might instead merit praise for its economy. Her vision might be fresher and more revealing than that of the latest fat tome about upper-middle class families, their purchases, their lusts, and their woes.
Longer isn’t better. Sometimes it’s merely loose and rambling and self-indulgent. Or showy. Sometimes the impact of an entire book isn’t as strong as that of a powerful, incisive flash piece. Small doesn’t mean insignificant or reductive. Think atoms. DNA. Brief pieces can explode.
To take full account of this insight, we need a paradigm shift in how we see, how we judge, how we talk and write about literature. We need to let ourselves respect the lure and power of the small.
Joy Castro is the author of the memoir The Truth Book, the literary thriller Hell or High Water,and the essay collection Island of Bones. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, and The New York Times Magazine. She teaches creative writing, literature, and Latino studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Artwork by Gabrielle Katina