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Michael Cunningham prefers shorter books with lots of voice

Richard Phibbs

Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of “The Hours,” says as a child, like all children, he accepted the strange, illogical twists of fairy tales no questions asked. As an adult he was a little more suspect, and so he reimagined some of the stories to make more sense of a sort, that is if a fairy tale can ever make sense, in his recent collection “A Wild Swan: And Other Tales.”

BOOKS: What are some of your favorite books?

CUNNINGHAM: It’s a mixed bag. Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse” and “Mrs. Dalloway,” Flannery O’Connor’s stories, and a couple of books by Denis Johnson, “Jesus’ Son” and “Train Dreams.” I think “Train Dreams” is destined to be a classic of American literature. I was on the three-member jury for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction a few years ago when the standing committee of 18, to which we submitted our three recommendations, chose none. It was a bad year. One of our recommendations was “Train Dreams.” They not only did an injustice to a great American writer, but they reminded us that all writing prizes are nonsense.

BOOKS: What was the reading load like for that?


CUNNINGHAM: It was enormous, almost 400 books, which we had to narrow to three. I wasn’t quite aware of what I was signing on for. As part of that process, we talked about the aspect of fiction to which we were the most vulnerable too. If a writer speaks compellingly, originally, and beautifully I’m all there. I’m all right with other aspects that may not be as strong. I’m a voice queen, if you will.

BOOKS: Does the length of a book influence you?

CUNNINGHAM: No, because years ago I released myself from any obligation to finish a book, which was revelatory. I used to hesitate over an 800-page tome. If I didn’t like it then I would be sentenced to it for months and months. Now I fearlessly pick up a book of any length though I am a little more inclined to shorter ones. I’ve read some novels lately, popular ones, which should have been a third shorter. If a book needs to be 850 pages long, that’s how long it should be. Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” is not too long. But there are some novels out there that are weighing in at 700 to 800 pages that shouldn’t. I’m a bit surprised there is a vogue for these long books when we don’t have any time. It would seem to be the height of the 250-page book.


BOOKS: Do you read nonfiction?

CUNNINGHAM: I’m working with a student at Yale University on an independent study. We are reading “The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon.” She was a courtesan in 11th-century Japan. It’s like a diary but not strictly as autobiographical. There are observations, poems here and there, and descriptions of life at court. It’s a spectacularly beautiful book.

BOOKS: What have been some of your recent best reads?

CUNNINGHAM: I just finished the short-story collection “The Emerald Light in the Air” by Donald Antrim. I’m a huge fan of his. Far too many people haven’t read him. He is unafraid of looking into the dark heart of things. That is unusual for an American writer. He’s not sentimental, but neither is he wry or cynical. I could happily not read one more wry and cynical novel for the rest of my life. I went to grad school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the height of lean, clean prose. Ray Carver was our god. Any sentence that aspired to an aesthetic condition other than that of a Shaker table was suspect. Then that went away. I remember reading Marilynne Robinson’s “Housekeeping.” It was the first book I had read in a long time that was fabulous but was neither lean nor mean. She’s unafraid of beauty. I was just starved for that. We just keep shifting as critics and as readers as to what we consider a good book. Who knows what is coming next.



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