Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Short Rant In Favor of Short Books

"I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."
Source: Mark Twain, Voltaire, George Bernard Shaw, Cicero, Benjamin Franklin, Blaise Pascal, or basically anyone who ever wrote a long letter. It's a universally approved sentiment. 
I think it's strange I have to defend writing short books. "That's just not done." "It's not a real novel." "Put some more stuff in there."

The doorstop thriller and the fantasy novel that comes in at 900 pages are fairly recent 'innovations.' I don't believe this change has improved the writer's or the reader's experience, but it certainly makes a publisher's printed hardcover look more substantial. "There's got to be a good story in there somewhere, look at how many pages there are."

In the age of the eBook, there is no reason to continue repeating the old mistakes. A 100,000-word thriller won't make your smartphone look plumper or add some extra pounds to your Kindle Paperwhite. Such a baggy monster probably won't make you any happier, after finishing the book, than if a judicious editor had excised one or two hundred superfluous pages.

So, why does it continue? I think we've gotten into the trap, in books as in many other places, that size and quality run together along the same line. More pages, more quality? Sometimes that's true, but not always. Not even often.

Quality is independent of the book's length. If a book has a good story, it doesn't need the filler or the fluff to get it up over some arbitary word count target. If a book doesn't have a good story, not even an embossed, gold foiled cover with five hundred pages between hard covers is going to hide the problem.

Not that many people seem to believe me. "Longer is always better." "I don't read novellas." "I prefer full-length fiction."

Really? If this modern publishing diktat had had its way in the past, we'd have some very different books now.

"The Little Prince? No, he must be The Doorstop Prince. No, The 400 Page Prince. Rewrite. And get rid of all those drawings."

"The Great Gatsby, what's so great about him? Replot it so The Great Gatsby Goes to Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Alice Springs. Now we're cooking with gas."

"Mr. Dickens, I don't think we need A Christmas Carol. Let's have A Christmas Opera. No, A Christmas Ring Cycle."

"Who is this Voltaire and what is this Candide? It's about a third the length we need. That dim boy makes it to South America. Can't he also travel to the moon or something?"

"Charlie and The Chocolate Factory needs to be Charlie and the The Chocolate Factory, the Lollipop Palace, and the Chewing Gum Pavilion. See, much lengthened and much improved."

"The Old Man and Sea, oh boy, maybe we can have it moved to an ocean? That's bigger, right? He definitely needs to struggle with more than one shark, too."

"Fine, fine, call this Kafka guy back. Tell him we'll take his Metamorphosis if he has his weirdo main character change into a massive dog, then a bug, next a sneezing jackalope, and last a one-armed serial killer who hunts prostitutes. And we'll need more of a plot."

"Who is this Stephen King and where are the missing two hundred pages for 'Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption?' Get him to hurry up. His deadline is today because we're going to press in a year and three months."

"The Third Man needs a Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Man, too, if we're going to get to the right length."

"Okay, I've got it. Animal Farm can also have the Animal Zoo, maybe a talking zebra or something? Maybe we tie in an Animal Aquarium. Kids love whales. Hmm, talking whales."

I could keep going, but my rant would cease to be short.

The older books had it right when it came to solving the length and plot development equation. Take classic spy novels like Casino Royale or The 39 Steps. They pulse with energy. They have so much packed into a little space, you can't help but turn the pages and admire the journey.

As a reader, I love the punch of a fable, a fairy tale, or a novella. Give me Heart of Darkness over Lord Jim, Billy Budd over Moby Dick.

As a writer, I consider tautness a vital limitation I set for myself, one that helps me create the very best book that I can. When I put words on paper, and puzzle over my plot, I want to layer in as much as I can in as few words as I can. That's part of the challenge for me and a lot of the fun.

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