Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: An Editor's Take

I finally finished Susanna Clarke’s 2004 novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. When I started reading it last autumn, some of my friends raved over it and others said they couldn’t get through it, and I nearly fell into the latter category. It’s 782 pages long and at the end of volume 1 or volume 2 (my memory of reading it is so blurred that I’m honestly not sure which) I had to return the book to the library since I had run out of times to renew it. I borrowed it again several months later and finished it then.

Should I blog about this or not? I asked myself many times as I neared the final chapter. As an editor, I’m very serious about my author-supporting role. My job is to take a good hard look at manuscripts and help writers make them better. While I often have to deliver painful critiques, this is always done within a constructive context. I do not want to destroy authors’ confidence, but rather empower them to become the writers they dream of being. That philosophy extends to this blog, where the last impression I wish to give is that my editor’s talons drip blood from shredding manuscripts.

However (said the bloody-talons side of my editor persona) the flaws in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell would make such a good cautionary blog post. People need to know what not to do. So I decided to go for it, but gently. (Just to prove I'm not out to get Susanna Clarke, here's a complimentary blog post I wrote last fall when I first starting reading the novel.)

To illustrate the novel's main problem, I’ve randomly selected three paragraphs, from chapters 54, 26, and 37 respectively:

Miss Greysteel was a little disappointed to find that Strange was not to return with them. The two ladies and the magician took a somewhat prolonged leave of each other and reminded each other several times that they were all to meet again in a few hours, until Dr Greysteel began to lose patience with them all.
A moment was enough to reassure him that he was not at Lost-hope. It was a quite commonplace sort of room—the sort of room, in fact, that one might find in any well-to-do house in London. It was, however, remarkably untidy. The inhabitants, who were presumably new to the house, appeared to be in the middle of unpacking. All the articles usually belonging to a sitting-room and study were present: card-tables, work-tables, reading-tables, fire-irons, chairs of varying degrees of comfortableness and usefulness, mirrors, tea-cups, sealing-wax, candle-sticks, pictures, books (a great number of these), sanders, ink-stands, pens, papers, clocks, balls of string, footstools, fire-screens and writing-desks. But they were all jumbled together and standing upon one another in new and surprizing combinations. Packing-cases and boxes and bundles were scattered about, some unpacked, some half-unpacked and some scarcely begun. The straw from the packing-cases had been pulled out and now lay scattered about the room and over the furniture, which had the effect of making everything dusty and causing Stephen to sneeze twice more. Some of the straw had even got into the fireplace so that there was a very real danger of the whole room going up in a conflagration at any moment.
Arabella stared at him. “Jonathan!” she said at last.

If the 782-page length didn’t already give you a clue, this novel has too many words. Two out of the three paragraphs quoted above are padded with empty, unnecessary phrases that don’t just slow down the reader, they bog down the story itself. This ratio holds true for the entire book.

A rule of thumb: if you are not Victor Hugo, Dostoevsky, or any other famous, dead author, producing a manuscript of this length likely indicates an undisciplined writing style and the need for heavy revision.

Let me show you what I mean.

Marked-up excerpt from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Marked-up excerpt from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
Excerpt from Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

All I did was take a quick first pass at the paragraphs, eliminating the most obvious extra words, which cut down the verbiage by approximately 21%. (Do the math—the original three paragraphs totaled 269 words, and my edited version is 215 words.) Multiply 782 pages by the above ratio, and we get 625. Over 150 pages could have been painlessly eliminated from this novel, and that’s not even counting the additional revisions needed to make each word pull its own weight. (For example, in the paragraph that I didn’t cut, the exclamation mark after Jonathan implies that a more expressive verb than said is needed to describe Arabella’s tone.)

I could say a lot more, but I’ll take my own advice and stop here.