One of the things I enjoy about Somerset Maugham's rather amateurish criticism is that his views are based upon the pragmatic - some would say philistine - principle that literature is, in essence, a form of entertainment or intellectual distraction. As somebody who attempts to think about literature, I have to take issue with this position, which recalls - or rather presages - the reductive absurdities of Professor John Carey. As an every day reader, however, I'm inclined to agree with Maugham. I do read to be entertained, although the quality of entertainment differs from book to book. Perhaps stimulation is a better word than entertainment. I read to be stimulated - look, I'll have to ask you to leave the room if you can't stop snickering - and I don't see anything wrong with that.
I raise this subject because I have been thinking about long books. I have always preferred short books, but it is only recently I have found myself avoiding long books altogether. I find myself incapable of reading them. At best, I get halfway through before giving up. Most of the time I don't even bother picking them up. The reasons for this new disdain for long books seem to be: 1) General lack of time; 2) Unwillingness to tolerate longuers; and 3) Need for variety. All reasonable excuses, but nonetheless it is a worrying development. Will I ever be able to read long books again? Or has my patience - not to mention my attention span - shrunk to the point where I can and will only read books under, say, 350 pages?
Maugham suggested that certain long novels from the nineteenth century, many of which were padded out in order to make up a certain number of monthly installments, might be abridged without damaging the essence of the work. Indeed, I often see second-hand copies of an abridged edition of Tom Jones from which Maugham himself culled about a third of the original novel. More recently it was announced that Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell will be re-released in a shortened version. If that is successful, it is not hard to see abridgment becoming a trend, if not commonplace.
Despite my present distaste for long books, I'm not sure about abridgment. There's an unpleasant, Reader's Digest feel about the concept, and certainly, in the case of dead authors at least, a disrespect for the original work. Maugham nominated Proust's In Search of Lost Time as a prime candidate for the chop, but I suspect most Proust readers, including those, like me, who have yet to make it through the giant book, would be aghast at an abridged edition, and refuse to even consider it. Judging by the contemporary fiction I've recently read and read about, more can be done in the way of whittling down books before they are published. Once they are out there, and particularly if they've been out there for as long as Tom Jones, it's probably best to leave them alone.
None of this solves my problem with long books. Perhaps I needn't worry about it. After all, I can't be stuffed reading Elizabethan poetry or German philosophy and that doesn't bother me at all. The thing is, I am interested in, and absorbed by, novels in way that I am not in other forms of literature, art or thought. And although there is plenty to be gained from the small masterpieces of the form, there is just as much sitting there in big whopping tomes, waiting to be discovered. I hope that one day I'll have the time and enthusiasm to do so.