I became a writer on, and for, the internet. I wrote blog posts before I wrote novels, or even short stories. When I wrote, I did so conscious that my reader might at any moment get bored and close the tab. I wrote with a sense of urgency that bordered (not unreasonably) on panic.
This internet affect is palpable, I think, in my first novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. In my second, Sourdough, it’s faded—but it’s still there. The point is, I have always tended towards brevity. I have never barfed out 150,000 words, only to cut them back to 75K. I have never, ever written long.
Maybe that’s why I so admire the voluminousness of Nicola Griffith’s Hild, a 500-plus page novel set in seventh-century Britain. It is a big book, precisely blanket-like: warm and capacious, something within which to wrap yourself, a gift, in no way excessive or floppy. (Who would ever accuse a blanket of being floppy?)
In both scale and subject matter, it’s the perfect winter book.
I often tell people I like short books—and I do, especially trade paperbacks, especially in the hand: lean and whippy—but when I’m approximately a third of the way through a novel like Hild, there is no kind of book I like better. I want to call it “absorbing” and I want you to dwell on that word for a minute. ABSORBING. The human mind’s got a lot of juice in it, and if you really want to soak all that up, you need a big sponge.
Some big novels are in fact floppy, and you forgive them for it. Some big novels are endurance contests, and at the end, you’re exhausted but pleased with yourself. Some big novels needed a better editor.
Hild isn’t anything like those. It’s big like a hug, big like a feast, big like a heart.
Hild was edited by the same editor who I work with, and Sean McDonald’s authors feel a bit closer to one another, I think, than authors who work with other editors at other publishers. There’s more a sense of being labelmates. (It’s very possible this feeling is one-way: just me, proud to be on the same roster as Jeff VanderMeer, Warren Ellis, Ellen Ullman, Nicola Griffith…) That proximity plays into my affection for Hild, of course, and it also makes me feel like I should be able to do this, too.
I’d like to write longer. These days, I’m no longer palpably scared that a reader will drop one of my novels the way they might close a browser tab. But I’m still not generous. My second novel is a short one. I’d like, one day, to offer up the same capacious comfort a book like Hild delivers. There are many ways a novel can be good, but I think bigness is a special quality, especially when all the others are firmly in place.
I read Hild in the winter of 2013, and it was awesome. I read it again in the winter of 2015. Still awesome. After writing this, I’m pretty sure I’m going to read it again. Maybe I’ll learn something this time: about the art of bigness, and how to write a book precisely as warm and capacious as your favorite blanket.
Originally published September 2017 as part of our Writers on Writing series.
Robin Sloan is the author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, a novel published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux and Picador in the United States and many others around the world. His second novel, Sourdough, is published by MCD Books.