Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The problem of length -- part 3


Today we try to draw some conclusions from the discussion of the ideal length for a novel which has occupied us for the last couple of days.

We began (in part 1) by considering the various demands for books of a certain length which have emanated from publishers in the past, and which continue to have some influence today. And I hope we can agree that what publishers expect of novelists, in terms of length, at any given time, has really had very little to do with any understanding of what makes a novel effective. After all, if publishers really knew how to write an effective novel they would do it themselves, because the rewards can be substantial. Effect is, in any case, not closely linked with length, except perhaps inversely.

No, what has determined publishers’ attitudes to length has been economic considerations (as perceived at any point in time). And there is good reason, in my view, to suppose that publishers’ demands for books of a given length (particularly when they have wanted long ones) have in fact hindered rather than helped the creation of effective fiction.

In part 2, yesterday, I pointed out that there are many examples from the history of this medium (or art form, if you will) to show that a short novel can be every bit as powerful in the emotions that it arouses, and hence in the reputation that it creates, as a long one.

It follows therefore that those who propose to write novels should clear their minds of any idea that they must write a book of a certain length if it is to make any impact. This is true whether the writer’s aims are commercial or literary.

Sol Stein, who is a highly experienced editor and publisher (as well as a writer himself) says in his book Solutions for Novelists that most of the unpublished mss that he sees are too long for what they do – i.e. too long for their stories.

There are two versions of the over-long novel. In the first place, the story may simply include scenes and incidents which are not necessary to the story's ultimate effect on the reader; and in the second place the scenes which are included may simply be over-written, with the writer getting carried away by the sound of his own wonderful voice, and the amazing insights which he is able to generate (the result, of course, of his undeniable genius).

Some of the 'great' novels of the past clearly contain material which is more or less irrelevant to any story they may have to tell. Moby Dick, for example, begins with lengthy portraits of the main characters, a defence of whaling, bits of history, and a zoological taxonomy of all known forms of whales. At this point, Melville realises that he has been rambling on for too long (a good 50,000 words) and writes: 'God keep me from ever completing anything. Oh Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!' Only then does he get on with the real story.

Similarly, Stendhal begins La Chartreuse de Parme with a description of the battle of Waterloo which has no necessary connection with the rest of the story. Balzac declared that it should have been left out.

The implications of all this, for the practising writer of today, are simple. Plan to write a relatively short novel; you are producing one book, not a library. When writing a first draft, by all means let the story rip, so to speak. But at the revision stage, tighten everything up. Go for speed. And if you want an example of speed, taken from another medium, watch the first five minutes of Carol Reed's masterpiece The Third Man; the economy and pace of the scene-setting are breathtaking.

I should perhaps mention, from my own experience, that even an experienced novelist can seriously misjudge the length of a novel. In 1994 I set out to write a new novel, not having written one for some years; I soon realised that what I had thought could be told in 75,000 words or so would require three times that length. A major rethink was involved.

So. If you are looking for a neat conclusion to this series of three posts on the problem of length in the novel, here it is: Most novels today are altogether too damn long.

They are too long in the sense that they include excessive and unnecessary material in order to achieve the effect that the author intends; and this redundant length is to no one's advantage, least of all the writer's.

If you are proposing to write a novel, then for heaven's sake plan it to be of reasonable length. There are innumerable examples from the past to prove that 60,000 or 70,000 words are quite sufficient for you to make your mark.

And, at the risk of stating the obvious, let me add that a writer who restricts himself to, say, 75,000 words as the upper limit, only has to do half the work of a writer who hammers out 150,000. And the two shorter books give twice the chance of royalties, and twice the chance of reputation-building reviews. This is scarcely rocket science, is it?