When is a nonfiction book more like a single long-form magazine article between harder covers?
Lee Israel's memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, detailing her escapades forging letters from and between the literary and artistic elite – Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, Lillian Hellman -- according to the New York Times, runs just 18,000 words (think a longish New Yorker piece).
A Publisher's Weekly review notes, "…at 128 small pages, the book is thin to the point of anorexia…" PW's and other reviews also, however, all praise Isreal's writing. Read an excerpt (or what amounts to about five percent of the book) and see for yourself.
Conventional wisdom has it that even a shortish memoir should run more in the neighborhood of 45,000 words. Yet I've read and admired many memoirs that are slim – A Three Dog Life (Abigail Thomas) and About Alice (Calvin Trillin) come most quickly to mind. A new one, Comfort, by Ann Hood, is another unhefty volume; like the other few examples, the trade off for size is how expansive it is in emotion and sensibility. And it's not that I believe a book's size has much to do with its intrinsic value or that a long, thick tome must automatically be good.
But I do find it interesting such books seem like a good publishing move at a time when consumers are reluctant to pay a few bucks for a magazine on the newsstand and the economy in general suggests less discretionary dollars to go around. Then again, maybe it makes perfect sense – a slimmed down memoir to go along with what we are told is the reading public's thinning attention span for words on actual paper.
And hey, when it’s a book about clever treachery, more or less "victimless" crimes going (more or less) unpunished, second chances, confession, redemption, and a bit of literary CSI-inspired how-she-done-it, why wouldn't it sell?
I’m sure I'll read it at some point. Probably before my Manhattan Midtown Direct train pulls into Penn Station from suburban NJ. And that's not a bad thing.
- Events 2015
- The Writers Circle (Northern NJ) Fall 2015. I'm teaching in Ridgewood and Summit
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