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« "Youthful Desires" | Main | Nate Likes Avenir »

May 01, 2007

Long Books

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Tyler Cowen asks, "What's Wrong with Long Books?" Fun thoughts from many visitors. I pitched in with this comment:

Well, many books are too long. It's commonly acknowledged in the bookbiz that many nonfiction books, for instance, are just blown-up magazine articles.

Also, when you think about it, isn't it incredibly ... audacious or arrogant or something for authors to ask us to read (for instance) 600 pages? Even if you read at a very good clip, this author is asking you for at least a 10 hour commitment. Tyler, who seems to have 60 hours in a day, might breeze through such a book in a weekend, but it'd take me a couple of weeks. And what individual -- and whose individual voice -- merits that kind of attention? Would you voluntarily say, OK, I'm going to listen to Person X yak on for 10 hours straight? I mean, would you do that often?

By contrast, a season of a TV series (about the equivalent in length) has all kinds of talents and personalities pitching in for your entertainment's sake: designers, performers, multiple scriptwriters, directors, photographers, costume and music people ... Downside: commercial anxiety, too many cooks, etc.

Still, the book-length thang (and our fetishization of it) strikes me as weird. Books are as long as they are in many cases not because that's the right length for them but because book-publishing requires that length. Books are book-length not because it suits us but because it suits the book-publishing business.

What if you've got a story that tells itself naturally in 80 pages? It seems to me that most stories run naturally as prose things around 20-80 pages. Beyond that is padding, writin', atmosphere, authorial ego ... All the more reason to value novels that do justify 400 or 800 pages, of course. But why not acknowledge that they're rarities?

Besides, I'm simply not 600 pages' worth of interested in many stories, or many subjects. I solve the problem for myself practically where nonfiction is concerned by buying abridged audiobooks. I'll listen to a four-tape version of a biography while commuting or exercising and be quite happy about it (and I'll be done with it in fairly short order too). But the 600 page full-length bio? I'm just not gonna get around to it.

One of the great things about the internet is that it's freed writing from the old length-predicament of "either it's an article or a book."

Why do we make such a big deal out of the book-length writing performance? Is it entirely because of history and school? Is there any reason to expect people in the future to have the same attachment to the book-length performance?

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at May 1, 2007




Comments

Japanese that I have known always complained about the size of English books.

That may not be entirely the fault of authors padding a text: you can fit a lot more on a page with an ideographic script like Japanese.

Posted by: Thrasymachus on May 1, 2007 2:31 PM



Michael, you are sooo right regarding books that are little more than grossly padded magazine pieces. I get seriously PO'd at (1) myself, (2) the writer and, especially, (3) the publisher when I buy such a book and discover its true content.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 1, 2007 3:56 PM



Michael, Dutch translations of books in English are even 20%-25% longer. And I totally agree with your comments.

Though one thing: is it a recent phenomenon? Were there complaints about books being too long when they were still set with lead? before the word processor?

Posted by: ijsbrand on May 1, 2007 4:01 PM



Ijsbrand seems to have a point. If you take a look at popular fiction from a few decades ago and compare it with today's bloated best-sellers, there are clear symptoms of page inflation. My uneducated guess is that this seems to be a markedly English-language phenomenon. Novels from Latin America and Spain (which are the ones I'm most familiar with) rarely exceed the 200-250 page mark whereas in the U.S. it's a fairly common occurrence. This also applies to translations of books from Spanish to English, where the translated work sometimes ends up looking like one of those "Large Print" editions.

I know that by making these generalizations I'm exposing myself to numerous persons pointing out exceptions to the rule, but I do think it's an observable trend.

Posted by: GB on May 1, 2007 4:47 PM



I wonder if it's just part of the American "Bigger is Better", buy-in-bulk, Wal-Mart and Wholesale Club mentality. A 250 page paperback is usually about the same price as a 600 page paperback, and there might be a psychological rush from feeling you got a better buy.

After all, books are published based on how many copies will sell, not how many copies are read.

Hey - has anyone done a study of book buyers, and what percentage of their purchases actually get read?

Posted by: Nate on May 1, 2007 5:03 PM



Read almost any classic book, or, forget classic, just a book that really knocked you for a loop, and you'll find that the book makes its case, delivers its message, hits you over the head, is white hot in the first 80 pages, 90 tops. After that it's variations on the theme, diminishing variations at that. I think of Tropic Of Capricorn and it's the lava flow of the first 80 odd pages that I remember, because they're on fire. The intense sadness of Journey toTo The End Of The Night is only truly intense in the first quarter of the book. The level of intensity that connects can't be sustained, either by the writer pitching or the reader catching, beyond the long sprint distance of slightly less than a hundred pages. D.H. Lawrence was right, though probably not in the way he intended, when he said that American literature is all post mortem effects. It's post mortem effects (though I don't agree with him on the all) because it's too l-o-o-o-n-g!

Posted by: ricpic on May 1, 2007 5:56 PM



Some genre fiction is particularly illustrative of this trend: Why is it that only a few decades ago it was perfectly good for someone to enjoy a slim, 150-page, Robert Bloch/Richard Matheson/(insert your favorite horror fiction author) novel whereas readers these days won't settle for less than a 500-page Stephen King/Dean Koontz/Peter Straub monstrosity? The same goes for Ian Fleming vs. Tom Clancy or any modern espionage writer, Block or Westlake vs. some of the new best-selling crime writers, etc.

I am presently writing an article for a Chilean paper about the curious case of a Chilean writer, MarĂ­a Luisa Bombal and how she tried to publish some of her books in the U.S. during the '40s. Bombal was mainly a writer of novellas and short stories (which earned her the praise of writers such as Borges) but when she shopped them around she was told that they were too short and that she had to pad them up if she wanted to get them published. She eventually did so and Farrar, Strauus and Giroux finally published a revised and substantially extended English-language version of one of her novels. The results weren't particularly impressive, in part because her English prose wasn't as good as that of her mother tongue (how many Conrads or Nabokovs are there around anyway?) but also because she was simply unable to write book-length stories or pad them up a bit. The novel in question, "House of Mist", garnered mild critical success and was subsequently reprinted as a paperback and marketed as a "Gothic romance" (which makes it even more ironic, as in Chile and Latin America she's considered a "serious" novelist).

Posted by: GB on May 1, 2007 5:57 PM



I've written about this issue before.

Generally, consumers have settled on a 250+ page novel as being a big enough package to spend money on. Recently, novels have become shorter (or skimpier) to respond to changes in reading habits. but for well-known brands, spending 30$ on a 1000 page novel or book does seem reasonable to many.

Another point worth mentioning is the time investment to produce these books. Long books require a lot of author preparation. to make a living as an author, you need to be able to come up with a new product every 3 or 4 years. You can't do that with a humungous book.

What we look at as long novels are often just serial stories added to over time.

Two observations: 1)time investment to play a video game is approximately 10-20 hours (the same as a book).

2)last week I spent almost 10 hours watching old Entourage episodes. The week before I spent almost the same amount of time watching Larry Sanders show. A few weeks before that I watched a ton of 3rd rock from the sun episodes. I'm a book person, but I find it easy to watch a tv series for the same amount of time I'd spend with a novel.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on May 1, 2007 8:49 PM



Some of those massive classic books are not meant to be read as one book. They were published in serial form, so were much closer to and were read like "a season of a TV series". Take The Count of Monte Christo, my copy is more than 900 pages. Yet, would work perfectly as a 22 episode TV series. Even the 6 and a half hour long French mini-series removed massive chunks of the material, some of which really needed to be in there.

Posted by: darkbhudda on May 1, 2007 11:31 PM



Amen brother.

The internet is just *killing* my reading. A good session with www.aldaily.com is better than 10 magazines and the corresponding 30 padded non-fiction book spin-offs of the articles.

I think the possibility Tyler missed is that what has changed is that our opportunity costs are higher now. War and Peace, a 30 hour task, is far more attractive in an era without tv, movies, and blogging. I do want to read it. But, for that same length of time I can see 15 movies. Or read two SF books and 5 movies.

Which will give me more pleasant life time memories? Which will give me more ideas to discuss with my peers?

So, hell yes, bring on those abridged versions. I'd rather read 10 abridged classics than 5 unabridged.

The Holzbachian

Posted by: Holzbachian on May 2, 2007 12:04 AM



I don't read much fiction, although ironically one of the few novels I've gotten through in the last year is Hugo's Les Miserables, which runs over 1000 pages. This didn't daunt me because I read it in chunks in the middle of the night when I couldn't sleep. For whatever reason, I didn't even try to read the chunks in order; I just read wherever the book fell open. Eventually I went back and filled in the gaps, and mentally reconstructed the story in linear order. I don't know if I'd recommend this procedure, but it worked fine for me. (I wonder if the fact that the story is constructed out of very distinct episodes, each of which is introduced by quasi-essays by Hugo, made this easier.)

This is also quite similar to how I read large books of history, that is, in chunks, and eventually spiralling around to assemble the pieces in my head.

Maybe the problem with long works is in the expectation that you have to deal with them from front to back.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 2, 2007 12:08 AM



How about as a solution to an bias against genre reading. Most longer books I've read are really a series of different shorter stories. The book could be reorganized as a series of stories set similar circumstances, but then people would feel they were reading genre lit and would turn their noses up. Just noodling late at night though ... so not really thought through.

Posted by: Herbert on May 2, 2007 4:19 AM



Michael, I recently learned--better yet, confirmed--that the reason there are so few short books, beyond economic considerations, is that writing with the necessary concision is difficult, especially if one is handling a very big subject.

It's harrowing to figure out how to describe, say, a particular religious movement in two pages or less, or how to take 1,500 pages of scholarly sources and distill them into eight pages of scene-setting prose. Of course, the up side is that once you learn how to do so, watching those bloated pages shrink into lean, sturdy sentences brings great satisfaction.

I needed two years to write what I hope is a judiciously brief book--but I probably could have written a sprawling, overwrought tome in half the time.

Posted by: Jeff Sypeck on May 2, 2007 7:53 PM






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