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November 20, 2005

Book-Length Fiction?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Where on-the-page-fiction is concerned, why are we so addicted to the novel-writing/novel-reading experience? O, the assumptions many of us make … : On-the-page-fiction isn't really real unless it's a novel. A fiction-writer isn't really a fiction-writer unless he's churning out novels. Many readers even seem to feel that they haven't had an honest-to-god fiction experience unless they have immersed themselves for a couple of weeks in a novel.

It seems such an odd fixation -- a fetish, really.

As a practical matter, I have a pretty good idea how this state of affairs came about. It's a matter of publishing requirements, traditions, educations, and convenience. (How odd that novels are just about as long as … well, as books are! Coincidence? I think not!!) But on a dumber yet more basic and emotional level, I'm quite puzzled.

From a consumer's point of view: How often are you really in the mood for an on-the-page fiction experience of novel expanse -- ie., one that demands numerous nights to complete? I'm someone with a reasonable if not overwhelming appetite for on-the-page fiction experiences, yet my desire for fullblown, multi-week-long novel-reading adventures is very limited. After all, in terms of time, reading a 400 page long novel isn't like watching a sitcom, a play, or a movie -- perfectly satisfying fiction experiences in their own rights. Reading a 400 page long novel is more like committing yourself to making your way through a whole miniseries. And how many miniseries do you have room in your life for?

Which brings up another point: how sensually impoverished on-the-page fiction is. A miniseries (or a movie, a play, or even a sitcom) offers not just words and storytelling, but also direction, color, design, photography, music, and especially acting and personalities. In sensory terms, even bad movies are rich and intense experiences that offer a lot of variety. Watching a film, you know that the camera will cut away to someone else soon. You're certain that the location will change. There'll always be something or somebody new to look at and listen to.

By contrast, on-the-page fiction offers nothing but the author's words -- nothing but the author and his/her skill and talent, really. Just that one person ... Yet, despite this fact, a novel-author also wants to stake a claim on the reader's full attention for, say, 15 hours. Whoa, Nelly. In real life, I don't know a soul who can hold my attention for such a long time. Yet that's what a typical novel is: a 15 hour long performance by one person -- snoozola, man. I'm also struck by how arrogant it seems for any artist to say, "Here's the deal. I'm going to tell you a tale, and it's going to last for 15 hours. And for those 15 hours you are going to have nothing but my imagination, my craft, and my voice to enjoy." I'm not sure I want to be in the same room with such a person, let alone pay close attention to him.

So much for the fiction consumer. From a fiction creator's point of view, what kind of sense do novels make? Novels are huge projects -- too big to be done strictly from love, let alone on the wings of inspiration. Imagine writing as carpentry, and the fiction-writer as a carpenter. What kinds of projects is a talented carpenter most likely to create with attention and love? I suggest it's stuff along the lines of bookcases, chairs, picture frames, chests, and tables. The on-the-page fiction equivalent of these projects would be short stories, graphic novels, comic books, and novellas -- projects that are manageable, that can be kept in the head all at one time, and that can be addressed with pleasure and care.

But writing a novel isn't like crafting a stool or a table. It's like building a whole damn house. It's a big chore, and one that unavoidably involves many headaches and mucho heavy labor, if also something in the way of pleasure. Few writers can approach projects of such scale with a light and warm heart. I'd suggest that one reason why the work of P.G. Wodehouse, Elmore Leonard, George MacDonald Fraser, and Donald Westlake is often so delightful and surprising is that these writers have managed to write full-length novels with the kind of high spirits we associate with more casual written forms: with stories, jokes, scripts, lyrics, and humor pieces.

But Wodehouse, Westlake, Fraser, and Leonard were/are giant talents, as well as freakishly gifted storytellers. For many writers, novel-writing is mostly a slog. The writer's inner monologue too often goes along these lines: "I'm only midway through chapter six, and I've got at least fourteen more to go, which means that I've got another year and a half of work just on the first draft. Will I be able to keep my focus? I have the suspicion that my story is already running away from me ... Well, I know I'm going to have to re-draft the entire thing anyway. Good Lord, but I'm lonely. Who knows if anyone will ever read the results, into which I'll have poured at least three years' labor? My agent is going to hate me anyway. Alone with my stupid thoughts for three years … Does my storyline really merit this kind of elaborate treatment, or am I making too much of what little I've got? Christ, my wife's looking at me like I'm ruining her life …" I have a hunch that the subtext of many novels is the author's attempt to overcome the depression he feels on sitting down to work at his keyboard.

Writers: Don't you want to create fiction that doesn't weigh itself down? Readers: Don't you want to enjoy art that's informed by joy and pleasure? Then why demand that nearly every on-the-page fiction-thing be a novel?

But for some reason, audiences and the publishing industry do insist that nearly every single on-the-page-fiction fill up a book-length book. Me, I love a book that's a jumbled-up collection of this-'n'-that at least as much as I love a book that's one-thing-complete-and-unto-itself. To me, a book isn't an artistic form -- although that's certainly one thing a book can be. For me, a book is simply pages in a binding, a bin for content. What those pages are devoted to -- images? Graphics? Stories? Poems? Interviews? -- and how they're treated and presented is up in the air. A novel is simply one thing among many a book-creator might make of a book. Besides, give me multidimensional over monotonous any day.

But many people seem to want to interact with books that each have a single identity. Is this because marketing and shelving are easier? As a practical matter, book publishers these days are publishing less and less short fiction. They're either publishing novels or they're skipping fiction entirely. Which means that, if a writer of on-the-page fiction wants a paycheck, he'd better be writing a novel. On the other hand, many of the novels that are in fact being published are smaller and shallower than novels have traditionally been. Many chicklit novels are examples; a chicklit yarn fills up a novel-length number of pages, but it's also a yakky, lite read.

So there's a funny tension in the air these days. On the one hand, the demand that a story be treated at novel length has grown stronger. Yet the novels themselves are often more slight than they've traditionally been. Perhaps sometime soon what we used to think of as "stories" will each be published as separate books. I don't disapprove of this, btw. As far as I'm concerned, very few stories need elaboration at traditional-novel-length.

Wikipedia's entry on Wodehouse is a good, short intro with tons of links. Here's a Chip McGrath visit with George MacDonald Fraser. Here's Donald Westlake's website. Here's Elmore Leonard's. November is National Novel Writing Month. Nate Davis reports on his progress -- here, here, and here -- and swears he's having loads of fun. So much for the thesis of this posting.

What's your hunch about why so many people expect and demand that on-the-page fiction be novel-length? And how's your own appetite for book-length on-the-page fiction these days?



posted by Michael at November 20, 2005


I'm also doing NaNoWriMo, but haven't had time to dedicate much to it yet (I'm taking it more as NaNoWriMo - December, rather than November, since I'm too busy this month).

As for book length, I suspect people feel cheated if they like a book and don't have enough time to spend with the characters in it. I know ending a book I've really enjoyed is frequently a very painful experience. Also, I tend to read 400+ page books in one day (usually).

I think it's good to lament the decline of the short story, because a lot of what people are writing would be better served as short stories, or even collections of short stories (chapters) towards a greater whole (novel).

At the same time, Michael, the serious investment that a novel takes is part of the appeal. I don't mind pop music now and then, but I don't want my operas moving towards 3:00 bubblegum tracks just because they require more of the audience than pop music does.

While I like your drawing attention to graphic novels, I dispute that it's something a carpenter would do. A graphic novel is something that probably requires far more work and definitely much more collaboration than a novel alone.

I do think that we could deal with some more imagery and otherwise in our novels, but I don't think that's something most publishers are really equipped to handle as far as post-children fiction goes. I can't imagine a publishing house indulging a prospective author by giving him an artist to do 10-20 illustrations and a cover unless he were already a superstar. Heck, most of the cover illustrations on books contradict what's written in the book itself. A close collaboration between an author and an artist in depicting the work would have to exist before even approaching the publishers, and even then I suspect they'd be skeptical ("You want to publish pictures alongside the text of your novel. And this is geared towards... adults?").

Posted by: . on November 20, 2005 5:52 AM

400 page novel = 15 hours?

And do you still remember what happened 12 hours before? I mean, talking about my reading speed will sound right bragging now. I aim to read a book a day, though most of those are non-fiction.

But really, a 400 page novel in Dutch, Frisian, or German = 2 hours reading time at the most for me. As English is the denser language, a 400 page novel equals a 500 page one in the other languages mentioned. And because I read it slower that one will take me more than 2 hours. Maybe an hour extra, at the most?

Posted by: ijsbrand on November 20, 2005 9:23 AM

I never stop to calculate how much time it will take me to complete a book, so length is not a consideration. I don't care if I spend 2 hours or 20 hours. My reading is a serious (but nice) addiction, so a book will always be nearby.

If the story has that special magic to suffuse me with euphoria, dolor, and all manners of emotional geography, then 20 hours is too quick a read. The problem with such delectable books is I become so absorbed in the alchemy, attempting to pace myself is like trying to eat a chocolate bar one grain of sweetness per hour.

As a rule, I don't want pictures with my fiction. If the author is a craftsman, my mind supplies all the colors of the tapestry. The exception might be a mystery such as "The Da Vinci Code" where a diagram or a map is helpful.

My one reading vice, if one considers such behavoir sinful, is putting down a book only partly finished, likely never to be opened again. I do consider it an unwise investment of time to read something with the appeal of cold stale coffee. This habit can be detrimental, as occasionally, the author knows when to make a fresh pot about midway through the book.

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on November 20, 2005 10:40 AM

"As a rule, I don't want pictures with my fiction. If the author is a craftsman, my mind supplies all the colors of the tapestry. The exception might be a mystery such as "The Da Vinci Code" where a diagram or a map is helpful."

I think it's an issue of how imagery is incorporated into the work. A full color spread that attempts to exactly represent something in the novel is an unwelcome excursion from the land of the imagination into the land of the concrete.

That said, take a look at old hymnals and bibles and so on. Even though these books are primarily text (unlike a graphic novel), I don't think it's possible to say that their presentation doesn't add to the experience of reading them. Representing something lovingly crafted and decorated by monks in an abbey somewhere as Times New Roman on white paper fails to capture the emotional-spiritual-tactile-visual qualities of the original.

One of the things I really love to see in books is attention to decorative elements that can really set the mood and help you visualize, rather than intrude upon your visualization. Take a look at pre-movie covers for the LOTR books. Chances are pretty good that you're seeing J.R.R. Tolkein's rune on the cover, and inside you'll probably see runes on the chapter pages and elsewhere. It's not the sort of thing that shows you anything, but it tells you by being evocative of what Tolkein wants you to see.

Then again, we can take a look at the numerous artists representations of Paradise Lost and see how pictures worked with that, rather than against it. Straight representation is not what I necessarily encourage, but there's definitely a segment of people who crave it.


Also, re: Da Vinci Code

I suspect Dan Brown's choice to omit any sort of pictures was because seeing reality destroys the credibility of much of the occultist logic that the book is steeped in. You have to be pretty willful to see what he wants you to see. It's much easier to believe what he tells you.

Posted by: . on November 20, 2005 12:11 PM

A **400**-page novel? In what alternative universe? It seems nowadays as if all novelists are compelled to write at least 1,000 pages.

Posted by: Peter on November 20, 2005 12:49 PM

I must be very thick. 400 pages in 15, let alone, 2 hours? Not only I'm physically incapable of it, I don't understand the purpose. Of course, my goal when reading includes comprehending, and everyone has his/her own goals.
Whe I was in middle school, we spent entire semester reading and talking about War and peace, and rereading it 4 years ago I realise how much we skipped then.
I guess I'd rather read a good [engaging/circularly referenced] novel in 3 weeks than 3 novels in one.

I noticed how my blog-reading started to influence my novel-reading, though. I'm too spoiled by immediate linking to read extended footnotes, f.ex. Book world catches up, apparently: I am in the middle of a book that is a reprint of a Live Journal of 3 years of a Russian immigrant to SF, complete with marginal notes, little doodles, "linked" photographs of the places/art/plants she's talking about in the "postings".Feels perverted, somehow,to see it in print.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 20, 2005 1:13 PM

I must be very thick. 400 pages in 15, let alone, 2 hours? Not only I'm physically incapable of it, I don't understand the purpose. Of course, my goal when reading includes comprehending, and everyone has his/her own goals.
Whe I was in middle school, we spent entire semester reading and talking about War and peace, and rereading it 4 years ago I realise how much we skipped then.
I guess I'd rather read a good [engaging/circularly referenced] novel in 3 weeks than 3 novels in one.

I noticed how my blog-reading started to influence my novel-reading, though. I'm too spoiled by immediate linking to read extended footnotes, f.ex. Book world catches up, apparently: I am in the middle of a book that is a reprint of a Live Journal of 3 years by a Russian immigrant to SF, complete with marginal notes, little doodles, "linked" photographs of the places/art/plants she's talking about in the "postings". Feels perverted, somehow,to see it in print.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 20, 2005 1:16 PM

I suspect that the serious novel is going the way of the dinosaur for many readers. Although some genre fiction (romance, SF, mysteries) continues to be strong, the general public is more interested in what may be the next Great American movie than the Great American novel. I remember a couple of years ago being somewhat dismayed when a woman in her late 20s told me that her boyfriend had never read a novel in his life. Not even in high school or college (thank God, I suppose, for Cliff Notes). As an aside, I think that some of the best fiction these days is long-form television, not novels or drama.

But people like novels because they are immersive experiences. At best, when they fully engage the imagination, they can exceed the sensory experience of film by, for example not only showing you a bakery, but giving you an idea of how every character in the bakery responds to the sights and smells of the freshly baked pies, cookies and donuts.

And novels have not been always been based on what is “book-length.” Epistolary novels were as long as a lengthy exchange of letters. And have we so soon forgotten that the novels of many authors such as Dickens or Conan Doyle were originally serialized in magazines and newspapers, making them more like ongoing soap operas (but with definitive endings)? Also, have we so soon forgotten that these novels often were accompanied by memorable illustrations, and may even be seen as loose precursors to graphic novels?

I agree that writers like George MacDonald Fraser and Donald Westlake are fun because their novels “have managed to write full-length novels with the kind of high spirits we associate with more casual written forms: with stories, jokes, scripts, lyrics, and humor pieces.” But part of this is because mainstream or “art” novelists think that they have to be excessive high toned and serious. But Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” is filled with jokes and shaggy dog stories, Joyce’s “Ulysses” is extremely funny, especially if certain sections are read out loud, and even a serious modern novelist like Pynchon sneaks a great deal of humor and pop culture into his work.

Through college and much of my adult life, I believed that most movies and TV were inferior to even second rate novels. But today I find much serious fiction to be so effete, mannered and pointlessly self-referential that much of my reading consists of history, general science, classical literature and some short fiction. I still have a soft spot for some mysteries and have read and enjoyed the Harry Potter novels, using the excuse that I want to be able to talk about them with my nieces and nephews. Having been greatly impressed by the film “Master and Commander,” I found myself swept up by the novel series, which I had not known about previously.

Posted by: Alec on November 20, 2005 1:59 PM

My impression is that serious short stories tend to be depressing, while serious novels are not.

For example, a common short story epiphany is along the lines of "I'm going to die." But with many novels, their sheer length inculcates the message, "But I've still got a lot of living to do first."

Posted by: Steve Sailer on November 20, 2005 2:02 PM

1) Novel-length fiction is now and has always been a minority interest. It happens to be a minority with a substantial correlation with the minority that writes, whether long fiction, short fiction, non-fiction, and criticism, which inflates its apparent importance to all readers. That there are readers who have "never read a novel" is no sign of the apocalypse; rather it's a sign that you've widened your horizons.

Similarly, that the sales of any particular novel, or even the median novel, has fallen must be considered in the light of the change in the total number of novels being published. I believe that number to be much higher than a few decades ago. It certainly is in the genre fiction that I primarily read.

2) As alluded to by another commenter, novels have been getting rapidly longer. 40 years ago, novels shorter than 200 pages were common; now they are nearly never bought by publishing houses.

I think this may be the result of a series of understandable decisions. At every point, the majority of novel readers wants books to be just a bit longer. (Most people don't want to leave the world of a good novel.) Publishers satisfy this desire by buying longer novels and encouraging their existing stable of writers to write longer. But a few people decide that they no longer have time to read the now-longer novels.

With the departure of these people who find current novels to be too long, the median desired length of novels goes up a bit, and the cycle repeats.

3) Short-form fiction is very difficult to sell. A novel has a single audience that can be marketed to. A short-story collection has many audiences (one per story), with some overlap. Each piece will be outside the interest of some part of the audience. You might claim, with some justice, that a single story is worth the cost of the anthology, but that is not persuasive to most of the potential audience.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 20, 2005 3:18 PM

Doug -- I cannot imagine a person being culturally literate without having ever read a novel in their lives. Granted, being culturally literate means being part of a minority, but even so I just cannot see this as evidence of widened horizons. I also think that in some ways we are creating a technological society in which it may be possible for large numbers of people to be fully functional while also being functionally illiterate. On the other hand, it is just sad, for example, to visit a film and TV forum about the movie “Troy” and read posters whose “literary” references are limited to what they’ve learned from “Xena: Warrior Princess.”

I think that another reason that novels are getting longer is that “superstar” writers can shrug off efforts of editors to rein them in. I recall noting how James Clavell’s first novel, “King Rat,” was a relatively brisk 480 pages (paperback), but his post-“Shogun” fame novel, “Noble House,” was a turgid, meandering 1376 pages. I suspect that publishing companies also wrongly believe that a big novel is a marketing event and so will make a bigger splash than a more modest sized work.

By the way, I think that it is not just a matter that it is difficult to market a short story. In an August 24, 2004 New York Times piece (“The Short Story Shakes Itself Out of Academe”), Charles McGrath noted that “Almost no one makes a living from writing short stories anymore. The story has to a large extent been severed from its traditional roots - from popular, large-circulation magazines, that is - and it has been transplanted into the greenhouses of the academy. Collections of stories occasionally sell more than modestly, especially if they're by new authors …” but generally short story collections by authors who are already best-selling popular novelists, like Stephen King, are the order of the day. And I suppose in some ways the 30 minute TV sitcom and the non-arc driven hour-long TV drama has supplanted the short story for most people.

Strangely enough, Internet fanfiction appears to satisfy a certain need for short stories, but this material is all genre-driven and derivative even at its most creative. But as Michael has noted, the graphic novel also satisfies a demand for shorter works.

Posted by: Alec on November 20, 2005 4:36 PM

Speed reading: "I took a speed reading course and read War And Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia." - Woody Allen

Michael: "Besides, give me multidimensional over monotonous any day."

Me too, and it's why I don't read novels much. I've been wondering about this lack of multidimensionality in fiction, and I think the cause is simple: Viewpoint.

Recently I noticed that all my favorite authors (Poe, RL Stevenson, Conan-Doyle, Wodehouse, Henry Fielding, Melville, Trollope, John Mortimer, Tom Wolfe) all write in either first person or omniscient third.

(In case you've forgotten English 101, first person means the character is narrating his own adventures, and omniscient means there's an all-knowing narrator who knows the past and future and everything that's being thought.)

These two viewpoints, first and omniscient, are highly digression-prone, and digressions are half the fun. For another thing, they are also the two tenses which make dramatic irony not only possible but likely - in first person because the narrator knows so little, in omniscient because he knows so much.

In first person, for instance, Jeeves can be off saving the day while Bertie, the first person narrator, condemns him for slacking off. Dramatic irony. In omniscient third, the narrator can tell us that what just happened will have dire consequences for the characters if only they knew. Dramatic irony again. These two tenses produce irony almost automatically.

But genre novelists today, on the other hand, almost always write in what's called limited third person. This means we follow along beside one character and know pretty much what he knows, when he knows it. We exist in his little world. This increases our identification with the character - which is why it's done, after all - but it also makes for an intolerably dull read, in my opinion. Being on the same plane of knowledge as the character rules out most dramatic irony, and the insistance on bare bones storytelling rules out most digressions.

You seem a bit of an irony connoisseur, Michael. Maybe this is what's been bugging you?

Posted by: Brian on November 20, 2005 5:39 PM

Let me clarify, what I should have said is, "That you discover that there are readers who have "never read a novel" is no sign of the apocalypse; rather it's a sign that you've widened your horizons."

I make no claim that people who have never read a novel have especially wide horizons or that they are culturally literate. Rather I claim that discovery of them indicates that the discoverer has horizons that now include a noticeable part of the population, a part that said horizons previously didn't include.

Your point about compensation for short stories, novellas, and novelettes is one that I should have mentioned as well. Rates for short fiction are notably low on first publication, short fiction has minimal residuals, and short stories are nearly as difficult to write as novels (the writing must be much tighter).

Also, traditionally the primary markets for first publication of short fiction have been periodicals. There are now very few significant periodical slots for short fiction.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on November 20, 2005 9:41 PM

Doug – thanks very much for the clarification. One of the things that most surprised me about the fellow in question was that he had attended a supposedly “good” California high school and college, and yet had managed to avoid novel reading – and was proud of his accomplishment. The closest thing that I had seen to this previously was a woman I knew in college, a pre-med major, who disdained novel reading because she didn’t have time for “frivolity,” but at least compensated for her disdain for literature by her devotion to her science oriented studies – and even she was still known to read a novel now and again, and had read loads of novels in her pre-college days. By the way, the non-reading fellow’s relationship with my woman friend didn’t last very long. He apparently just wasn’t very interesting.

Great point about the art and craft of the short story, and the necessary tightness of a good short story.

Posted by: Alec on November 20, 2005 10:36 PM

I recall reading a comment by Isaac Asimov that at a certain point in his career, he stopped writing short stories because the mass of work -- thinking up a convincing society, characters to fill it, and a plot that would captivate the attention -- was just as large for a good short story as it was for a novel. Science Fiction might be an extreme example of this, since there's so much sheer invention that's required, but I imagine the economics works similarly for other genres.

I confess I'm a little worried by the death of the short story as a paying medium. Genres lose a lot of vitality when they lose the need for solid, reliable commercial appeal to a broad audience.

Posted by: Zach on November 21, 2005 12:48 AM

"." -- I guess what mystifies me isn't that many people enjoy novels -- I do too occasionally. It's more that the whole reading-on-the-page-fiction thing means, for most people, reading a novel. On-the-page-fiction can come in so many forms, and at so many lengths. Why fixate on novel-length? I think you're right, that a major part of the answer is that 1) we've trained ourselves into it, and 2) the publishing business is set up to peddle novels.

Ijsbrand -- That's impressive reading speed! You're making me think that maybe the time has come for me to give up moving my lips as I read, it must slow me down. I don't actually know how fast I read, though I suspect the answer is "not very fast." I do have an expectation that, if I'm settling in with a 400 page novel, it'll probably take me a couple of weeks to get through it.

Pattie-- There is that special something of really living with a story and a set of characters, isn't there? When your life and the fictional life start to blend, etc. I wonder if that's special to novels ... Do you find that it sometimes happens with, say, TV shows too? I know some people who seem to have embraced the characters of, say, "Friends" or "E.R." in what seems like a similar way.

Peter -- There's a joke in the publishing industry to the effect that Americans are so bargain-fixated that they even buy books by the pound. They want value for their money, and, being Americans, they take that literally: the more pages the better. Publishers often even make the print and the margins of a novel a bit bigger than normal, just to increase the number of pages and the poundage of a book. It's an interesting cultural thing. The French, for instance, are as addicted to slim, chic, spare fiction as we are to big fat fiction.

Tatyana -- You read more slowly than I do? Phew -- I thought I was the world's slowest adult reader. But, as you say, why not enjoy lingering with a book? I notice that blog-reading has affected my other-reading tastes too, but more so with magazine-writing than with fiction. These days I get very impatient with much magazine writing. They seem to take so long to get to the point. The New Yorker especially has become hard for me to read. Most of the writing in it seems so ceremonial, so slow, so elaborate. Too damn much writin'. We could make a joke about short attention spans, but maybe this isn't all for the bad -- maybe most magazine articles could be a little snappier ...

Alec -- I'm with you on all that. Publishing in other eras has been much more freewheeling than book publishing is today. It's another reason to celebrate the web, which has set loose a lot of adventurous writing and publishing. I keep meaning to whip up a posting comparing the blogosphere to the coffee shops of 18th century London, one of the great eras of writing, publishing, and talking. It seems to me that one of the awful things that happened after that time was that "books" got elevated above other kinds of writing and publishing (and, in fiction, that "novels" got elevated above other kinds of fiction). People turned it into something like applying to an Ivy League college, or getting admitted into an exclusive club. Baloney to that. It's all writing, reading, and publishing. Why not have some fun and take some chances with it?

Steve -- I couldn't agree more. I think the serious "short story" has been the worst enemy of short fiction that can be imagined. People associate short fiction with the contempo literary short story -- often wimpy, downbeat, for specialists only. And they forget that short fiction can be kickass, dynamic, and exciting. Let's liberate short fiction from the tyranny of the literary short story!

Doug - All excellent points, though I think the reason for the swelling-in-length of novels may have more to do with word-processing (it's so easy to write!) and with the American taste for supersizing. I think one thing you're suggesting is especially provocative: the idea that people turn to one fiction form (movies, say) for one set of pleasures, and to another (novels, say) for another. Maybe movies and TV take care of people's short-fiction appetites -- which may mean that they turn to on-the-page-fiction only to satisfy long-fiction appetites ... Which in turn reinforces people's impression that on-the-page-fiction is about novels. Hmm.

Alec -- Yeah, about the only collections of short stories that get published in book form these days are from the Stephen Kings, etc. The big conventional publishers used to commit some resources to publishing sensitive collections by young literary writers, mostly workshop-academic types. But they never had much of an audience. And the people at these publishers are no longer able to publish books that don't have a projected audience of, say 15-20,000 sales at a minimum. Hard to believe, but few literary short-story collections come close to those sales. Given my dislike of most of this work, that isn't a great tragedy as far as I'm concerned. I wonder too if stuff like blogs don't also supplant traditional short-on-the-page-fiction in a way. If you follow blogs, you're checking in on "characters" -- Terry Teachout, Neil Kramer, Alice in Texas. (Each of whom is, to some extent, a kind of performance artist.) And stories semi-sorta evolve out of this. If you've got a circle of blogs (and bloggers) you follow, it can almost be like being a fan of a soap opera -- all these familiar characters, going on and on ... Hey, reality-TV has supplanted a certain amount of traditional fiction-TV, why shouldn't blogs be supplanting a certain amount of traditional printed fiction?

Brian -- Viewpoint in fiction is endlessly fascinating, isn't it? As is the topic of how and when to parcel out story information. It's why so many film buffs are fascinated by Hitchcock, and by thrillers. I wonder if there's someone analogous to Hitchcock -- textbook/virtuosic -- in the on-the-page-fiction world. God knows I get more fascinated by by the techniques of the James M. Cains and Patricia Highsmiths than I do by the literary set. I think they're both masters. Hey, a terrific collection of short fiction that's popular and super-sophisticated both (as well as full of imagination and malice) is Highsmith's "Eleven." Brilliant stuff. I wonder if you're entirely right about the close-in-third-person p-o-v, though. I've certainly read some wickedly ironic fiction in the close-in-third-person -- with the voice and attitude kind of mocking and pushing needles in even as it partners the main character. I wonder if it isn't more a matter of how the voice is used. A lot of American popular fiction, as you note, is written in close-in-third-person, but in a very straight-ahead way, with the only goal being to increase the reader's identification with the character. (Not that this is always a bad thing.) It's another small American curse, our desire to find the protagonist likable, and to want to identify completely. Sigh. Kinda sweet. But what a bunch of meatballs we can be, no?

Doug -- It basically makes zero economic sense for a writer to write short fiction. There are virtually no mainstream outlets, and it's almost impossible to get paid for the work. It's too bad, because just as a lot of nonfiction books these days are basically magazine articles treated at much-too-great-length, so many novels are basically short-fiction ideas that have been padded 'way too far out. This is just an impression, but I'm often thinking, when I'm reading recent novels, that the idea and the story would have played themselves out quite naturally at 60 or 100 pages, but seem incredibly tedious at 300 or 500 pages. But on-the-page fiction writers, at least those who hope to make a buck or two, are pretty much locked into writing novels no matter what length their stories and ideas would naturally take.

Alec -- I'm not as sure as you are about the "tightness" thing where short fiction is concerned. I know that it gets talked about a lot, especially in lit circles, and I can sometimes see the point. But I also often run into lit short stories that are hyperdense and totally dead. And I've loved some short fiction that's quite loose: Charles Bukowski's stories, for instance. It seems to me that what really matters is how thoroughly the world of the story (or novel) has been imagined. Some really tight short stories have worlds that barely seem to have been imagined at all, where some looser short fiction has been as thoroughly imagined as a terrific movie or opera. But maybe that's just the way that I react to fiction ...

Zach -- Asimov's point is a good one, that the amount of imagining that has to be done for a good short story is often the same as needs to be done for an entire novel, so why not publish your work in novel form instead? (Ie., and get a real paycheck for all that hard imaginative work?) Still, I'm not sure that's best for readers. In my ideal world, story ideas would take the form and length they naturally want, publishing would serve this instead of dictating lengths, and readers would get more on-the-page-fiction that wasn't overwhelmed by the need to be a novel. I'm with you in your worries about the demise of short fiction as a viable commercial thing. But maybe working on TV and movie projects -- soap operas, sitcoms, and dramatic series -- isn't bad training for many writers, should they want to write on-the-page fiction. Learn how to construct characters and arcs, what makes for drama and comedy, etc. We no longer have the great pulp-fiction world of the '30s-'60s, alas. But maybe TV isn't such a bad replacement for it? I'm not sure, just wondering.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 21, 2005 3:29 AM

Michael, I think one's take on the relative merits of reading a long novel versus watching movies depends on the type of imagination you have.

People with a visual imagination tend to take to prose. An interior movie plays in their heads throughout the reading of a piece of fiction. Longer fiction lends itself to more elaborate and involving mental landscapes.

Some people lack the ability to summon up clear mental images, images which rival in detail and interest those that enter the mind through the eyes. This isn't a value judgement; there are different mentation styles and each has its advantages.

Such people will probably prefer theater, TV, and movies.

That being said, I concur with those who deplore the lack of editing these days. Once an author gains a following veritable brain-dumps often follow. If nothing else, this state of affairs gives me practice in skimming through blocks of self-indulgent unedited prose! Sometimes it seems that about three-fourths of the thousand-page behemoths published would benefit by being edited down to three hundred or so pages.

Posted by: Larry Ayers on November 21, 2005 5:39 AM

As someone who has taken a month to read Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude, I cannot understand the speed-reading techniques applied to GOOD fiction. Each scene often offers something to think about that takes the few hours added to a close reading. And as for the publishing business and consumer want, I believe it is only the known published authors who are allowed to write 400 page books, or the occasional gem found among the new writers. The rest of us struggling writers are still being told to "cut it down by half." We're writing to word count, regardless of story.

Posted by: susan on November 21, 2005 10:04 AM

MvB: I'd like some attention paid to the artistic crisis that film and TV are currently facing. The number of quality films and TV shows with narrative interest are dwindling in supply and have been for years.

Meanwhile, we are living in a golden age of fiction.

Posted by: jult52 on November 21, 2005 12:47 PM

Here's the thing for me, we talk about film and TV here as alternatives to books. I definitely love my long-form TV series, something that develops a long story arc and then comes to a definite ending when the issues of the characters are resolved. The reality is, though, that in order for a TV show to deliver that, it needs around 20 episodes minimum, and often far more, 40-100. The development that a TV show does in, say, 20-100 hours of watching is far less than the development that a good novel can have and bring to a resolution in 10.

Posted by: . on November 21, 2005 4:32 PM

I just skimmed this post (with the intention to read more closely later). I was finishing off an essay on just about the same subject, and would have finished it last week had some things not come up. Damn you, Michael! Can't you take a vacation once in a while! (Just kidding of course).

(I'll try to post it tonight/tomorrow morning and provide the link here).

Posted by: Robert Nagle on November 21, 2005 6:33 PM

You may just not be a novel "person" Michael. For people who really enjoy novels, the sense of "lostness" in a novel's world over an extended period of time is very much part of the fun. I give up on novels after an hour or two if the author hasn't engaged me in his/her "world" and the experience becomes a slog. But when I do get engaged novels can do really freaky things with time -- four or five or six hours can feel like no time at all.

I agree with the person above who said some of the best "novelistic" entertainment now (including the depth of character development you get from a novel, which generally cannot be replicated in two hour movies) is coming from long-form TV series. The Sopranos, the first season of "The Wire", and perhaps "Deadwood" are three series that particularly stood out for me as approaching the quality and depth of great novels. Not always the acuity of observation though.

I think it's natural that the novel is losing ground in a society that has so many other entertainments available. For a long time, there were only three forms of artistic entertainment available to people: make your own music, go to a play/theatre, or read a novel. Now there are dozens.

Posted by: MQ on November 21, 2005 10:46 PM

On the long form TV thing again, two points:

"The Shield" is a good example of a long-form series that works great as entertaining television but is crap artistically, lacking most of the elements that make novels great.

Michael, if you haven't already you really ought to invest in a season or two of the Sopranos on DVD (perhaps the first two) and just watch them straight through. I think you'd greatly enjoy them and it would provide a lot of grist for your thinking.

Posted by: MQ on November 21, 2005 10:50 PM


Which brings up another point: how sensually impoverished on-the-page fiction is. A miniseries (or a movie, a play, or even a sitcom) offers not just words and storytelling, but also direction, color, design, photography, music, and especially acting and personalities. In sensory terms, even bad movies are rich and intense experiences that offer a lot of variety. Watching a film, you know that the camera will cut away to someone else soon. You're certain that the location will change. There'll always be something or somebody new to look at and listen to.

Which is why I like novels. Your bug is my feature.

(How many mini-series do I want in my life? Lots, apparently.)

Posted by: Will Duquette on November 23, 2005 1:12 AM

And, oddly, I can hardly bear to sit through an entire movie these days...but I'll gladly spend hours on end with a good book. It's an immersion thing--I can lose myself in books, but not in movies. The very crispness and precision of the scene on the screen separates me from the action.

Posted by: Will Duquette on November 23, 2005 1:15 AM

What must it be like never to have read a book - not just a novel - in your life? What if you couldn't even read a magazine or a street sign? How can illiterates even function in everyday life? And we let them vote! Boggles the mind.

Posted by: Robert Speirs on November 23, 2005 10:07 AM

Larry -- Not enough has been written or thought about how the new media world has affected not just reading patterns (as in "how many books are bought") but how we actually read, don't you think? Like you, I do a lot more skimming-and-scanning these days. I'd imagine that for many youngsters skimming-and-scanning (which I guess means "browsing") has become the norm, with traditional "reading" being something to be turned to only on rare occasions. I'm not sure what I think of this, but there it is...

Susan -- I love Marquez too, or at least a lot of Marquez. Interesting fact that I ran across in some interview with him: He started off wanting to be a filmmaker, disliked (or couldn't succeed at) actual filmmaking, and only then turned to on-the-page fiction-writing. He was quite explicit about how part of his goal in his fiction is to give readers a sense of imaginative transport akin to what movies sometimes deliver. Movies and literature don't have to be at war, I guess.

JT -- Do you think it's a great time for on-the-page fiction? I have my faves, or at least did when I was following new litfiction. I certainly never thought it was a great time for on-the-page fiction, though. An awful lot of writing talent was going into TV and movies -- where there was actual money to be made and actual lives to be led. (Although, as you point out, there's also a lot of frustration to be encountered.) But I haven't followed the scene in about five years. Kinda felt like I'd done it and was done with it, like I did vis a vis pop music when I turned 30 or so. Have things gotten crackling? Do you have some recommendations?

"." -- Do you think? I'm not so sure. Movies can accomplish an awful lot in a couple of hours: major character arcs and trajectories, vivid portrayals of people and places and times ... One tracking shot can show so much info (in terms of mood, time, place, decor, character interaction, physical details, etc) that a writer would have to write a few pages to match it. (Not that movies often accomplish this, of course.) Part of the reason movies can accomplish this is that they're so much more visually rich than TV is. TV can be great for writing and for acting. But TV images don't seem to be able to get across more than a point or two at a time. I wonder if that'll change some as we move into the HDTV era ... Anyway, I've thought that some of the limited-run TV series ("Elizabeth R," first season of "The Sopranos," "Tanner '88") managed to have a kind of novelistic weight and body at anywhere from 6-12 hours. You think it takes longer than that for the weight to pile up?

Robert -- Looking forward to it!

MQ -- Thanks for the recs. I watched season one of "The Sopranos," enjoyed it, and agree that it was a lot like reading a good novel. Interesting that, while it didn't have the kind of filmmaking or density of sensory details and visuals that good movies can have, the storylines, the acting, and the piling-up of incidents pretty much made up for it. Did season two match it? I skipped because I couldn't see where the material could go without being stretched and padded. It looked to me like all the juicy potential had been used up by the end of season one. But maybe I was blind. I think you're right too that I may not be a real "novel person." Having read lots of 'em, I tend to think of myself as being fond of novels. But I'm often surprised how much more fond of novels than I am many readers turn out to be. The real suprise for me, though, continues to be the way that, for many people, reading-fiction-on-the-page turns out to mean "reading novels," and to mean it as though it's necessarily the case.

Will -- Those are really good points, tks. I know some people prefer the way that books allow them to envision the scene and the characters and action for themselves, and find that movies tie their imaginations down. I certainly experience some of that myself, though I find that good movies trigger off my imagination in other ways ...

Robert -- Seems weird even to imagine going through life without literacy, doesn't it? Yet people manage it ... I wonder how written-word-style literacy affects a brain's development on a nerve-cell level ... On the other hand, I've also known many people who seemed to me to be so far into books and reading that they'd lost their realworld moorings entirely. Balance in everything, I guess ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 23, 2005 12:54 PM

Michael: The Sopranos has in my opinion grown richer and deeper over the years. The first season may have exhausted the novelty of the basic setup (hey, a mafia guy going to a psychologist!), but it was the just the beginning in terms of exploring some of the deeper themes and developing the characters. I recommend going further sometime.

If you want a self-contained single season series, as I said you might want to check out the first season of "The Wire", also perhaps "Deadwood".

Posted by: MQ on November 23, 2005 3:39 PM

Recognizing the difficulty of writing a book should not preclude one's ability to love a good novel. There are so many great ones, no matter how long--Tolstoy's War and Peace is compelling reading for all of its 1000 plus pages. Yes, there's Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Michael Chabon, Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, George Elliot, Laura Ingalls Wilder, C.S. Lewis, Tom Wolfe, Grahame Greene, Robert Graves, T.H. White, Larry McMurtry or even Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. These books are far from difficult slogs, they are all delicious escapes. Thank God Harry Potter is keeping the next generation reading. Yes, there are many stupid bloated books that fail to inspire, and many challenging books that require attention. But it's easy to fall into hours of pleasure. The problem is that we're all so fucking busy that we don't have time to give ourselves that luxury. It's easier to turn into passive zombies in front of the TV. I don't read enough. That's why I've belonged to a book group for more than a decade, for which we all read at least one novel a month. Thank God. The point is to read really good books. We miss every so often, usually by reading something new that nobody had read before (Snow Falling on Cedars, for example). We're reading a lot of the great books we might otherwise have missed. Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. Faulkner's Light in August. Balzac's Cousin Bette. Graham Greene's The End of the Affair. Elliot's Middlemarch. Wharton's The Custom of the Country. Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway and Cunningham's The Hours. Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. McMurtry's All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers. Enough already.

Posted by: anne thompson on November 24, 2005 4:01 AM

Here's my essay which I promised in an earlier comment:
The Networked Novel: Gestation Periods, Birth Weights and the Literary Heartbeat

I actually address a lot of Michael's points.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on November 28, 2005 12:45 PM

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