By Russel D McLean
Note: This column (which has been slightly edited) originally appeared at Repeat Offenders, a column written by Russel that was supposed to be published monthly on the site At Central Booking but sadly only lasted two entries.
Russel is exceedingly busy this week, so we have flashed back to this entry from 2008 on the length of novels (with some minor edits for pacing and taking into account price changes in books)
This week, I figured on talking about size. Yeah, its an issue all novelists have to deal with. After all, there’s often a great deal of comparison goes on when these writist types get together. It becomes a matter of pride, you know.
Oftentimes, a minimum length is written into a contract before an author signs it. Some people get lucky. My contract is based around a short novel, so I have a nice low minimum count. Others have started out writing an epic debut novel and are only expected to write novels of equal length or greater. I’ve heard some writers have minimums of 140,000 words. Sometimes greater.
That’s a big book.
I remember reading the introduction to Philip K Dick’s masterwork of SF, Dr Bloodmoney where it was claimed to be the longest book Dick ever wrote – a bloody epic by his standards – at a mere slip of 80,000 words. These days, I see a lot of guidelines claiming 80,000 to be a “minimum”.
It’s enough to make you cry. Now, I get it, the idea that paying £7.99 for a book that’s half the size of the one just beside it looks like a false economy, but as with many other goods, its not about how much you get but what you get. I find a large percentage of readers who buy only larger books are the same ones who grumble about “a decline in quality” from certain writers, how they're "straying from the story" or "waffling".
Its a strange double standard.
Let me tell you a story about Don Winslow. A genius of a writer. Seriously, one of the great modern noir masters. Had me hooked from California Fire and Life, one of the earliest crime novels I remember out and out loving.
So, a customer comes into the shop where I was working at the time and says he’s read about this book called, Power of the Dog. It’s a Don Winslow book. The longest, I believe, the man has written. It’s a bloody epic. Hundreds of pages. Tens of years described in staccato, Ellroy-esque prose style. Goddamn, it’s a wonderful book. Big, yes, but absolutely justified in that length. So my customer buys it both from my fawning and from the review that made him come into the store in the first place. And he comes back, weeks later, saying, “Gimme me more of that Winslow.”
I serve up, Fire and Life and Winter of Frankie Machine. The customer looks at them and says, “I won’t buy them.”
Automatic response: “They don’t appeal?”
“No. They’re too short.” He demonstrates with thumb and forefinger, says, “I won’t buy books thinner than this. I just don’t think it justifies the expense.”
Which, to me, is a ludicrous argument. I mean he is, of course, entitled to believe this, but wouldn’t he rather have a short book he loved he loved than a long book that became a slog?
Of course, maybe I’m every bit as bad. I have this thing where I tend to give long books less consideration. Anything over 300 pages better be pretty damn good to get my attention. Better have fireworks going on when I reach the point where my attention starts to slip, or else I just can’t keep going. I’ve not started some books for years because of their length, its true. And I've felt bad about that because, yeah, I have missed on some great reads.
Am I some kind of reverse lengthist?
I hope not.
Some of my favourite books are big. But justified, not written that way purely for market reasons. Like Stephen King's It, which I truly believe is his finest work and one that keeps me coming back time and again. Or the aforementioned Power of the Dog. Anything by James Ellroy. Even the first two books in Kim Stanely Robinson's Mars trilogy (Red Mars and Green Mars) kept me going, but number three (Blue Mars) began to lose the pacing.
And, dear God, I cannot stand Lord of the Rings. I figure it was the book that probably set me against superflous storytelling in the first place.
In the end I believe, wholeheartedly, that a book is as long as it needs to be. I believe that many books can be cut in half and still be equally – if not more – enthralling. I believe that a novel needs to be necessary in and of itself, meaning its only as long or as short as required without someone arbitrarily imposing those lengths. Writers should be writing the best damn book possible, not fighting to meet inflated word counts.
Its a tough call, of course. I know many people who claim that LoTR is justifable in its eye-numbing length and who would claim that Dick stopped writing just when his stories got interesting. But that's a discussion for another time, exactly how we figure a book is the right size.
I believe in short books and long books.
Just as long as they’re the best damn books they can be.