Here's the first sentence of a novel I just started reading. (The name of the character has been changed.)
The play—for which Jane had designed the posters, programs and tickets,
constructed the sales booth out of a folding screen tipped on its side, and
lined the collection box in red crepe paper—was written by her in a two-day
tempest of composition, causing her to miss a breakfast and a lunch.
Now, if this landed on my desk as the first sentence in a feature article, I would rip it to shreds. A 32-word insertion between the subject and the verb? That whole insertion teetering on the past perfect verb "had designed"? A list separated by commas ("posters, programs and tickets") WITHIN a list separated by commas within that insertion? Then, after working through the insertion, finally getting to the main verb of the main clause to find it's passive ("was written by her")? Then, just for measure, a participial phrase tacked on the end ("causing her to miss ...")?
But see, here's the thing. This is not the work of some hack writer schelepping $200 feature articles for an advertorial section of the Polukaville Post. It's the first sentence of a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice novel, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and a Booker Prize finalist.
Swap out "Jane" for "Briony" and you have the first sentence of Ian McEwan's "Atonement."
I haven't read enough yet to assess whether McEwan's mastery of the language in general and the sentence in particular is, overall, good or bad. But I have a feeling he didn't get all those prizes for nuthin'.
So, what does this tell us about the adage "short sentences are best"? I haven't decided yet. I still greatly prefer short sentences. But I can see a clear difference between the long sentences constructed by novice feature writers and long sentences like the ones I see in the New Yorker and ones written by Cormac McCarthy, Truman Capote, and Ian McEwan.
Some hacky stuff I come across might read like: "After realizing that the walking of the dog had already been done by her mother, on this particular Sunday after getting out of school, Beulah happily informed her family of the impending visit of her beau." There's a real difference between crap like this (which I just made up as example) and those masterful long sentences. But I'll be damned if I can sum it up in a neat little package—yet.