The Lighthouse

the lighthouse

15 September 2011

Too many words

There is a brilliant line in the movie 'Amadeus' which has the king telling Wolfie (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart) that the piece of music he composed has "too many notes".  Naturally, being king qualifies him to know about such things, and of course there is a mathematical formula for how many notes a musical composition should have.

The book I am reading has too many words. I'm not a king - err Queen.  I'm not even a minor, non-royal duke (make that Duchess) but as I have experience with reading, I feel qualified to offer  critique from a reader's point of view.

There are writers who indulge in four pages of very small type to describe the lace edge of a handkerchief (don't try to hide, Edith Wharton)  There is a nation of authors who delight in taking an entire novel to enumerate the endless sufferings and bad judgements of their characters (da, Russians, you do) Even Charles Dickens does go on a bit, but I suppose he was providing an important service for his time as there was no reality tv and people needed something to while away the evening hours - serialized fiction printed in the newspaper was just the ticket.  Dickens would not have done well with Twitter.

My word heroine is Jane Austen. She demonstrates the Italian philosophy of quanto basta which means 'just enough' or 'as much as you want - no more, no less' which is exactly what you want from a book, right? For example, from a novel about deep-sea fishing quanto basta would be roughly 2.5 pages. On the other hand, a wonderful story about time travel spanning two hundred years, three countries, and two revolutions, would need eight books to provide quanto basta.  Austen isn't stingy with her words, but she isn't self-indulgent with them, either. It's so good to be left satisfied, yet feeling as though you could have handled just a little bit more.

This current book has surpassed 'just enough' and landed in quanto too-mucho.  The plot has promise, the characters are intriguing, but I can see what's coming from 400 pages away and the author is using too many words to get there.  She repeats, and says again, and reiterates to the point that I'm skimming paragraphs and skipping pages - I gave chapter 32 a complete miss. While the deja-read it is frustratingly unnecessary (I do remember that Margaret has dark hair, I don't need to be reminded every time she speaks) at times the excessive wordsomeness of the authors style comes across as stodgy, which is too bad as it weighs down a story with potential - at least for this modern reader's palate.

Mozart may have used a lot of notes, but he had a deft touch and a true ear - in the hands of a master, too many notes is quanto basta.

The book is North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell


  1. HAHA! Loved this. Just what book are you reading so I can be sure to scratch it off my own list. You should consider submitting your reviews for publication! (No doubt, they'd be much more enjoyable than the book itself)

  2. Bella, how tardy I am! Did I already tell you in an email what book it was that had me tearing out my hair in frustration here? It was Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South - which made for a lovely tv mini series but was more than I could handle in a novel.