Tuesday, December 14, 2004

The problem of length -- part 2

The aesthetic imperative

This section of The Problem of Length (which continues from yesterday) represents my attempt to answer the following question: What is the ideal length for a novel, ignoring all demands of the publishing marketplace? In other words, if we consider ‘aesthetics’ alone, what is the best length for a novel?

It will be immediately obvious, of course, that the answer, in any specific instance, will depend at least to some extent on the content and nature of the novel. But in general my answer to this question is that, in all probability, the ideal length for a novel, whatever its subject matter, is probably a good deal less than is usually thought.

Before we consider aesthetics in isolation, let us first empty our minds of literary reputation, because it will prove, on examination, to be irrelevant.

This whole issue of length is clouded by the influence of those well known enemies of clear thinking, the professors of English literature, and their concept (God help us all) of the Great Novel. We have all been brought up, for instance, to believe that War and Peace (all 745,ooo words of it) is a ‘great novel’. Whatever that means, and in my opinion it means damn all.

To enlarge on that point, let us suppose that we put a thousand liberal-arts graduates in a theatre. Hands up, we say, anyone who agrees with the statement that War and Peace is a great novel. Lots of hands will go up, perhaps even three quarters of those present, because they've all been good boys and girls and have listened to their teachers. Then we say, Keep your hand up if you have actually read War and Peace. How many hands will remain? Let us say ten, because I’m feeling generous. And no, dear, seeing the movie doesn’t count. And finally we say, Keep your hand up if you really and truly, cross your heart and swear to die, can say with a clear conscience that you actually enjoyed reading War and Peace more than any other novel you’ve read.

How many hands remain in the air?

I hope my point it clear. It is that the accepted wisdom in literary circles bears no relation whatever to people’s actual reaction to books. Books which are hailed by the literary establishment (choose your own example) remain very largely unread; we could easily make a list of fifty novels which are widely recognised as literary masterpieces but which are read by no one who doesn’t have to study them for a degree (and half of those who are supposed to read them for study purposes don't bother either). Meanwhile, novels which are despised and rejected by that same literary establishment continue to demonstrate their effectiveness and power, either by selling in vast numbers and becoming popular successes, or by becoming cult classics in various genres.

It follows, therefore, that we should ignore literary reputation when we consider the ideal length for a book. The fact that certain novels, mostly big fat long ones such as Moby Dick (220,000 words), have acquired significant literary status gives us no clue whatever as to the ideal length of a work of fiction.

When we come to consider the aesthetics of the novel, what we are talking about is the extent to which fiction communicates emotion to its natural audience. A novel which hits its readers hard, with the emotion which the author intended them to feel, is a successful novel, no matter how large or small its readership is, and no matter how long or short the novel is. And sheer length, as we shall now perceive, has got very little to do with success in that sense: short books have, historically, been at least as successful as long ones; and in my view they are often more so.

It's time for some examples.

Who are the most memorable characters in nineteenth-century fiction? Well, for my money two of the candidates are Ebenezer Scrooge and Sherlock Holmes, neither of whom show any sign of fading from public consciousness.

Scrooge was created in the space of about 43,000 words, by my calculation; somewhere between 40,000 and 45,000 anyway. As for Holmes, he does appear in some novels but he comes to us chiefly through the short stories.

Move to the twentieth century and choose the most memorable character from that era: James Bond, for example. Bond was created by Ian Fleming in 1953, in Casino Royale. The book runs to 159 pages in my paperback copy, which is barely 60,000 words, at a guess. I still have copies of the first Pan paperback editions of most of the Bond books, and few of them creep over 200 pages.

(Incidentally, in the examples which follow I shall give the length in thousands of words if I know it, and in the number of pages if I don’t. Printed pages will, of course, vary in the number of words they contain, but as a crude rule of thumb you might assume that three pages equals a thousand words.)

There are many, many other examples of short books which have embedded themselves in the folk memory of readers. The Time Machine (Wells) runs to about 80 pages in most editions; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Stevenson) is 70 pages.

Fahrenheit 451 (Bradbury) was written in nine days on a hired typewriter and the first edition contained 158 pages. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald) has 172 pages. Bonjour Tristesse (Sagan) was 30,000 words, and Georges Simenon built a whole career on novels of a similar length. The Bridges of Madison County (Waller) is shown as 180 pages on Amazon, but I believe that too is about 30,000 words. So is Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, if you want a literary example; the book received special recognition in his Nobel Prize citation.

Hemingway, by the way, offered the following advice: ‘Eschew the monumental. Shun the Epic.’

Enough. We have demonstrated that you do not have to grind on for 250,000 words to make a powerful impression on the average reader, or, for that matter, on those who decide on the next Nobel Prize winner.

Perhaps, before we leave the topic of aesthetics, this is the place to point out that the reader’s experience is in my view profoundly influenced, albeit largely subconsciously, by the size and weight of a book, and by the layout of the words on the page.

To begin with, a large, heavy book is an awkward object to carry around. It does not fit easily into a pocket. Your arms get tired holding the damn thing up. Some people find such books intimidating.

As for the typography: well, it seems to me that an art which was once taken seriously is now more or less ignored. In years past, for instance, no respectable printer or publisher would have allowed a right-hand page to end with a word divided by a hyphen. Neither would they have allowed a chapter to end on a page with less than perhaps five lines on it. To prevent these occurrences, minor alterations would be made in the spacing of the lines, or the words, higher up. Nowadays, I am sorry to say, nobody gives a shit. In all probability no one in-house reads the printed book anyway; and in many instances they don't read it in manuscript either. (Geller wants six figures for it so it must be OK.)

As for worrying about the readability of type -- one might as well forget it. No one seems to care (apart from the specialist large-print publishers) about the use of tiny type, lots of lines on the page, narrow margins, and so forth. But all of these things influence the reader’s experience, usually unfavourably; and it is obviously easier to give a text ‘air’, so to speak, if the wordage is short than if it is long.

This is probably also the place to point out that there is a deadly vice which affects writers, once they have reached a certain stage in their development. At first, the task of writing a full-length novel seems impossibly difficult. But then, gradually, writers get into the swing of things; their fluency improves, and after a while they realise that, hey, I can really do this! It isn’t so difficult to sit down and write a novel after all! And you know what, I’m really rather good at it!

This is, of course, drivel. And a writer who begins to enjoy the sound of his own writing voice is a writer who is more than likely to produce drivel.

A corollary of this vice is a reluctance to cut anything. The writer's attitude often boils down to: I wrote it, so it must be marvellous. This is the madness which afflicted Ross Lockridge, for example, in producing his 600,000 word ‘masterpiece’ Raintree County (eventually published at 380,000 words). In his case the disease proved fatal -- see my post of 4 October.

Tomorrow: some conclusions.