Saturday, June 06, 2009

Life Too Short, Novels Too Long

Seemingly inspired by the fact that John Sayles was having a problem finding a publisher for his latest novel, Jean Hannah Edelstein used the news to frame a piece for The Guardian’s booksblog that suggests that contemporary readers no longer have the patience for books that are very long. At one point, Edelstein says that “we are living in an era where novels of epic length are unlikely to be of interest to most readers.” This because four short books are better than one long one? Yes, says Edelstein:
And when there are so many thousands of books to enjoy, it seems inefficient to read a single volume of 200,000 words if there’s any risk that it won’t be a work of staggering genius ... when the time could be equally spent enjoying a diversity of works from several different writers.
So Edelstein is telling us we must stick to the task at hand. It’s not about the journey, but the destination. And she who has read the most books before she dies wins? Never mind lingering over the perfect prose of a wonderful writer, there are stacks of books to be gotten through, people. We must stay on target, we must keep on track.
And that's a reading culture that has cultivated the short, snappy writing of our best contemporary prose stylists -- and, indeed, of the efforts of our best editors, the ones recognise the difference between brilliant lyrical prose and fatuous overwriting. Consider the Booker prize winners of the last few years .... Thanks to these models of modern literature, I now find it difficult to read a novel that is much longer without feeling impatient, without fighting the urge to whip out my red pen and start crossing out the extraneous bit because the editor didn't, because the author was too proud ... to accept that quantity is not the same as quality.
It seems to me that these are the words of someone who has read only childishly and without depth.

Reading for pleasure is not a race. The person who gets to the end of the book first does not win. You are not a more successful reader for having gotten through more books.

Further, the length of a book has nothing at all to do with its quality. I’ve read 1000 page books that weren’t long enough and books of barely 100 pages that were much, much too long. A story should take as long as it needs: not one page more or less. And, yes: publishing fashion will determine some of that. We’re in a shorter cycle now, a few years ago every other book I saw was a toe-breaker. Those cycles will come and go again. But to equate length with poor editing or slack author judgment is just... well, it’s silly. Should Melville have reduced his thoughts on the whiteness of whales to tweet length? Should Rand have had her Atlas merely grimace, not shrug? Should Tolstoy have edited out all the War and just kept the Peace?

If Edelstein is feeling impatient when reading books she feels are too long, she should either choose her reading material with greater care or cut down on her sugar intake. Perhaps both. But certainly anyone who can talk about “the difference between brilliant lyrical prose and fatuous overwriting” with a straight face, should not also be talking about her urge to whip out her own red pen.

10 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more. Thank you for saying it so well, dear Ms. Richards!

Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 9:58:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Richard Allen said...

Dear Ms. Richards,
The fact is War and Peace would be an unlikely selection for publication today. Who would take the chance on a Russian writer who can’t “grab” the reader by the end of the first sentence? The paperback weighs 1.6 pounds and the page count is 1472 pages. Canada Post would charge the distributor more then the book costs ($10.88). Furthermore, Random House specifies submissions shall not exceed 150,000 words.

My first novel was 230,000 words. It was entered into a writing contest that specified a word limit of 100,000 words. Being a man of strong principles, what did I do? I split the manuscript into two books. Why, you ask? There was a publishing contract and a $25M retainer on the line. So much for my principles. But it does demonstrate the conundrum authors face today. To cut or not to cut and to what end – to satisfy a world gone bananas on the concept of communicating in 140 characters or less. Are we sacrificing an entire generation of readers to a collection of short, choppy, and concise garbage?

Thankfully, Ms. Richards, and authors like her, will not quantify their work based simply on word count, but the quality of their prose, and the imagery and wonder that only a book can provide.

Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 11:12:00 AM PDT  
Blogger The Mysterious Traveler said...

I've solved this problem by focusing much of my reading on books published between 1940 and 1980. Some are quite short, and some are quite long, but most of them dance to their own story trajectories -- i.e., the length is appropriate to the story and the writer's style.

I'll defer to Linda's observation that novelists are being pushed to keep it short these days (Linda reads and publishes far more than I do!). But I'd also like to note that because of the shrinking short story market, there seem to be quite a few short story ideas being inflated into ho-hum (but short!) novels.

Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 12:30:00 PM PDT  
Anonymous Tom Whitmore said...

The statement that novels are getting shorter these days is moderately parochial in itself. In both children's books and fantasy, novels are getting significantly longer and have been for a while (think J. K Rowling for the former; George R. R. Martin and many others for the latter). Certainly the novels in science fiction and fantasy which crack the bestseller lists have been growing tremendously over the last 30 years, and there doesn't seem to be a tendency for this to stop.

A good book, in whatever field, finds a length. Compare, just for a primer on what editorial cutting can take away, the two versions of Steven King's The Stand. The first published version was longer than any of his previous books, and (to me) the ending felt rushed. The "restored" version added a lot in the beginning and middle -- and the end stopped feeling rushed.

As for breaking books up into multiple volumes: this has a great deal of precedent, from books like Frankenstein and Moby-Dick up to Tolkien and Dan Simmons. I tend to use examples from fantasy and science fiction because I've spent around 40 years as a bookseller in the field, 30 of them in a retail store.

There's still a market for long books, particularly among people who read for pleasure and (dare I say it) escape. If you're finding books too long, or in need of editing, that's an entirely different question than whether there are good long books out there.

Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 1:40:00 PM PDT  
Blogger HemlockMan said...

You're saying that readers are becoming more stupid. Oh, joy.

Or are you saying that writers should become more like Charles Bukowski?

Sunday, June 7, 2009 at 9:31:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Charles Gramlich said...

90 percent of my favorite novels are probably under 70,000 words so I agree wholeheartedly.

Monday, June 8, 2009 at 9:03:00 AM PDT  
Blogger Jemima said...

Unless I'm very much mistaken, I think, Ms Richards, that you've misread Edelstein's article. To be fair to her, she only states the observation that other people (i.e., publishers) don't like long novels. She never says that she herself doesn't like long novels. As one who feels a really great long page-turner would be refreshing find in the 'new fiction' section of stores, I think it's important to respect the letter and spirit of what Ms. Edelstein is saying.

Friday, June 19, 2009 at 7:07:00 PM PDT  
Blogger Jemima said...

Just re-read Edelstein's piece. I see what you're saying. My apologies.

Friday, June 19, 2009 at 7:58:00 PM PDT  
Blogger dhvibe said...

To be honest it is a matter of the reader and the writer. The editor is there and often does more harm than good in my opinion. The reader may always put it down. If you work a 40 plus hour a week job, and have other social obligations (e.g. family or friends) then the free time left often influences the reader. Do I have the time for a multi volume work? Maybe I do, maybe not. If an author feeling arrogant, (having read the opinion of one on this page) thinks he or she can get away with the attitude that they are right and readers are lazy I wish them luck with that. The truth is that readers will suffer through hundreds of pages of fluff if they care about the characters. If, however, they feel nothing for the protagonist or there is to much (as my nephew says rightly "sitting on their ass time") of nothing then dream as you may, edit as you will, but at nearly ten dollars a paperback the reader may decide to go to the movies.

What is the solution? There is no one solution. But at a draft stage an author can learn to be more practical. A manuscript can be as long as the author wants, but a published book needs to meet the needs of the reader too. And how many characters do you need to inhabit a story? Most people read for pleasure. Most people read to escape, and to pass the time. That is the truth.

You cannot get around it. Orwell wrote that the age that an author lives in will determine the author’s subject matter. It may be equally true for the reader, who will need a particular subject, a hero that will take on a journey that the reader cannot. It is really up to the writer. It is that simple. To suggest that people are lazy about reading is absurd. What is happening is that writers are not meeting the needs of the average reader. If the reader or editor says too long then swallow your pride and listen. We live in a digital age. Most people are over saturated with information and the effect is mind numbing. Try Googling your favorite author sometime and make note of all the crap, commercial and otherwise that you must scan thru. Let’s say I want an essay by Orwell (a favorite author of mine) but I don’t have it in any of the books I have by Orwell, then I will (this has happened to me-probably you too) have to dig through at least twenty to thirty hits before I find a download that I can read online. The competition for attention of audiences is keen. Television and videos require less cognitive effort. At the end of a hard day at work the last thing I want is to wait for the hero to move his or her ass. Sometimes, the hero doesn’t even have a chance. I just want to get in bed and turn on Animal Planet. LOL!

So if writers wish to ponder this problem try and remember that you are writing for many reasons, but if you are publishing then one of those reasons worked 9 to 5 today and has just come from the gym and had to get dinner on the table for the kids and has a whole thirty minutes to spare…and who is lazy?

Tuesday, September 1, 2009 at 3:09:00 PM PDT  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Books of the future will be no more than 50 pages. (That will be considered too long). Yes, Melville should have shortened his book, along with any other author over 100 pages. Long books = equal arrogance to me. If you can't say what you need to in 50-100 pages, forget it. It isn't worth saying. Get to the point. Drop the details and flowery language. In this culture, we super-size everything. Remember, people have dozens of entertainment options, not only reading, these days. Eventually, the novel will become outdated like the 8-track player. Right now, no one I know reads books anymore. Yes, they are all college educated and have the time. Our attention span has dropped to nothing. We are working two or three jobs not even to scrap by or pay the bills. I know this sounds depressing, yet I'm speaking only how I see it. Science fiction will be the only exception.

Saturday, July 17, 2010 at 6:36:00 PM PDT  

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