Monday, December 13, 2004

The problem of length -- part 1

'The history of the novel is a monument to self-indulged miscalculation in the use of words.' Thomas H. Uzzell

Please sir, how long should my novel actually be, sir, please sir? Actually, sir?

Well, Jones Minor, your novel should probably be a great deal shorter than you might imagine. Actually. For reasons which will now be explained.

This is a potentially lengthy subject (groan), so I will be as brief as possible; even so, the discussion may take a few days. The discussion is couched mainly in terms of the UK book trade, but the conclusions, I believe, hold good anywhere,

To begin with, it will be necessary to differentiate between the demands of the marketplace, on the one hand, and the aesthetic imperative, so to speak, on the other. Then we will try to draw some conclusions which will be of practical value to those of you whose delusions take the form of believing that you will one day be a great writer. (It is the least I can do to save you from your misguided yourselves.) And finally we need to examine at least one exception which will prove (i.e. test) the rule which has emerged from our deliberations.

The demands of the marketplace

(a) Long books

If you look at the history of the novel, it is clear that, at various times, the length of a typical novel has often been determined by what publishers are actively looking for. After all, there is no point in writing a book, whether short or long, if you are fairly certain from the outset that a ms which fails to fit the desired template will be rejected without hesitation. I myself once had a novel rejected in America for precisely that reason; excellent in every way, said the editor, but too short to fit the house rule. Early on, therefore, writers learnt to pay some attention to what publishers want.

In the nineteenth century, what publishers wanted was long books. And their demand was in turn conditioned by what the market was calling for. And the market, especially towards the end of the century, was for what are known as three-decker novels.

The introduction of compulsory schooling gradually meant that the pool of potential readers greatly increased in size; but these readers were for the most part not able to afford to buy novels. They could, however, afford to pay a fee to a lending library. The most famous and successful of these libraries was run by Charles Edward Mudie.

Mr Mudie very soon twigged that a novel published in three parts allowed him to divide the book between three separate subscribers, thus increasing his income. So that was what he bought from publishers: long novels, capable of being published in three parts. Publishers were quick to meet his demand, particularly as he would sometimes buy up the entire print run.

Incidentally, Mudie was also highly influential in determining the content and tone of nineteenth-century fiction. He was religious and prudish, which is one of the main reasons why the novels of his era do not feature any sex.

The influence of Mudie, and the other libraries, must always be borne in mind when we look back at the successful novels of the past – successful, that is, either in literary or commercial terms. It is undeniable that there were some very long novels published in the Victorian era which were enormously popular, and other long novels which are regarded as works of great literary importance. We must always remember, however, the effects of survivorship bias.

When we look back at the past, and see big thick books which became famous, we are seeing the survivors. A select band indeed. We do not see the big thick books which were bloody boring and of no real interest either to the literati or the hoi polloi. Neither do we see those novels which never achieved publication at all, because they were judged to be too short. Who knows what lost masterpieces were in that category? We must greatly beware, therefore, of falling into the trap of thinking that long novels are, by virtue of their length, somehow inherently superior to short ones. (Examples will be given shortly, in the section on aesthetics. Be patient.)

(b) Short books

By the middle of the twentieth century, economic circumstances had changed greatly. In the second world war, the shortage of paper meant that publishers were hard put to stay in business. Even in the 1950s, publishers were acutely conscious of the cost of typesetting and paper. So, when I began my writing career, in the early 1960s, a publisher such as Robert Hale was still making it very clear that the ‘correct’ length of a novel was no more than 55,000 words. That was a sufficient length to provide a novel which would sell to the public libraries, which were Hale’s principal market, and a novel of 100,000 words would have been rejected out of hand because it was too expensive, from Hale's point of view, to set the type and print.

(c) Back to long books again

Somewhere in the 1980s, perhaps, a theory began to gain ground among publishers that what the book-buying public wanted was value for money -- i.e. a book which looked as if it contained a lot of words. (This idea represents a serious misjudgement of what it is that readers actually do want from a novel, but that is what passes for clear thinking in the world of fiction publishing.) A fat book was therefore judged preferable to a thin one. A big book would keep a reader going for a week or two, it was argued, and such a book would be more readily bought than one which could obviously be read in an evening.

So, as recently as five years ago, Hodder Headline in the UK were issuing an information sheet which showed that they were interested in commercial fiction in the more popular genres which ran to at least 100,000 words.

Certainly it is not hard, these days, to find books which would be wonderfully useful for preventing a door slamming in a high wind. Michael Faber’s The Crimson Petal and the White has 835 pages. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections has 653. And Paul Anderson’s Hunger’s Brides has 1376. These books are, in fact, not so much novels as slabs of concrete, and, as far as I'm concerned, just about as enticing.

Recently, another motive for demanding long books has surfaced. The theory goes that bigger books make bigger margins (in profit terms). There are, of course, additional costs involved in publishing a long book; but (or so they say) you can charge a disproportionately higher price for it, thus boosting the bottom line! Wow! Aren’t we clever?

The answer, I’m sorry to say, is no.

(d) And next?

There may shortly be a move back to publishers favouring short books. One editor was quoted recently as saying ‘I think the status quo thinking right now is that short books work – people point to Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.’

Of course, if you check on Amazon it turns out that the Haddon book runs to 224 pages, and the Sebold to 336. Which shows you how rational the ‘status quo thinking right now’ is, if they regard those novels as short. As we shall see tomorrow, many successful books have been half that length.

Tomorrow: The aesthetic imperative.


Anonymous said...

"We do not see the big thick books which were bloody boring and of no real interest either to the literati or the hoi polloi."

I guess you have never been a member of a bookclub then, with its obligatory book-of-the-month that you had agreed to buying if you did not buy anything else within the time alotted. Brrr...

Keenable said...

Many times I've read references to the curious "mystery" of alleged Victorian era prudishness, and here all along it was this Mr. Mudie mucking it up for his fellows and leaving a false impression to history.

How delightful to find such a good read by chance, Googling "novel length"...

Anonymous said...

I think the success of certain very long books in the 1980's is no longer indicative of what people buy today. The long novel was a phenomenon that predated the advent of personal computing. In the mid-eighties, people were not chained, day and night, to high-speed laptops.

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