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When Does a Book Become Bloated?

Having just read the enormous (and awesome) Pandora’s Star by Peter F. Hamilton, I’m amazed that the sheer size of the book did not suffer from any significant amount of writer bloat. You know what I mean – when authors pad an otherwise perfectly good story to beef up the page count while not adding anything to the reading experience.

While I did think the portions of the Pandora’s Star could have been omitted without harm to the core story, I’m quite pleased that they were left in. Those extra passages added much to the overall sense of wonder to the book via world building – and sense of wonder is the main reason I read science fiction, after all.

I got to thinking (as I am likely to do once in a while, but mostly by accident) that maybe one reader’s bloat is another reader’s padding. Another reader could read that book, or any other for that matter, and have a totally different take on the “extra” material.

So when does a book become bloated?

For myself, the material must do one or more of these things: world-building; character development; plot advancement. Anything else is just padding, methinks. For example (and not to pick on or compare a new author like Christopher Paolini with seasoned veteran Hamilton), I found many, many parts of Eldest to be simply unnecessary. So much of the verbiage described setting (how many ways can you describe a forest?) that I grew bored.

In the age of booksplitting, I find padding even more annoying than usual. Why unnecessarily bulk it up so the publisher can split it into multiple volumes anyway? Bah! As I mentioned in the review, Pandora’s Star could have easily been split into two books, just like Hamilton’s Night Dawn Trilogy (six mass-market paperbacks – though that happened mainly due to format restrictions). Thankfully, it wasn’t.

So when does a book become bloated for you? What’s the entertainment killer?

Discuss… And I want book titles , people!

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

6 Comments on When Does a Book Become Bloated?

  1. The Baroque Cycle could be accused of being bloated. I’ve only read Quicksilver so far and although it was very long, with lots of seemingly random stuff, the extra “padding” did add to the feeling of being thrown into the world and submerged by its details. Jonthan Strange felt much the same to me. But I loved them both.

    The Night’s Dawn trilogy on the other hand felt like it was non-stop plot all the way, with the extra detail on top. No padding. Quite awesome.

  2. I’m not sure which is worse–bloating a book to expand it out or an abrupt ending?

    I think of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently that is going along at a good clip until you get about 30 pages from the end and it abruptly wraps everything up. It feels if Adams had a page count and had to make it so he just wraps things up.

    As a Star Trek novel reader, I find Pocket’s current trend of multi-book arcs to be annoying. It was bad esp. with the last two Diane Duane books in the Romulan storyline. Part three ends with the words to be continued and IIRC part four starts with chapter five or six…which meant they did nothing more than split one book into two to make a quick buck. Now, Pocket does do some good multi-book stuff with the Trek line, but there are cases where a book that would be one good sized paperback is split across two to three smaller ones.

    Also, I wonder about the opposite end of the spectrum and revisiting a universe too often. I think specifically of the 2001 series, which is a great first book but becomes a quick law of diminishing returns with each subsequent sequel.

  3. A lot of bloat falls under the World Building catagory, and I’m fine with that. By the same standard, a lot of Dickens could be called bloated, if only for the lengthy discriptions of the seasons changing. Night’s Dawn was surprisingly lean. Sure, there were a few worlds we could have cared less about (the “rebels” on posessed Norfolk come to mind) but each chapter advanced the story well. The only thing I disliked was the seahorse alien/first contact stuff near the end. That brought the book to a screeching halt.

    Mieville’s Perdido Street Station had a few bits that could have been excised, like the Hand creatures flying around. Revelation Space had a whole lot of nothing running through it, but it managed to give us a payoff. The Chung Kao series by David Wingate was like James Michner.

    Pandora’s Star is next on my list. It’s been sitting atop my to-read pile for a week now, its sizable heft taunting me…

  4. I’d disagree that The Baroque Cycle was bloated, I finished all three last year and enjoyed them thoroughly.

    I feel this is going to be one of those highly subjective things. I find Stephen King’s works to be bloated–but I have a friend who loves his stuff.

    I generally don’t mind how long a work is as long as I’m enjoying the read.

    On the other hand, it is amazing what some authors can do with relatively short works. Take a look at many of Arthur C. Clarke’s stuff–several ideas per chapter that some would take a book to explore. Or, Clifford D. Simak–short novels, sparse writing, formal sentences (results of his being a newspaperman for most of his career, perhaps?), but enjoyable stuff.

  5. Bloat occurred for me when trying to read Robert Jordans “Wheel of Time” series and he hadn’t addressed ANY of the central characters plotlines for one whole friggin’ book! Needless to say, I will never finish that series which started out quite well.

    I like the opinion that one readers bloat is another readers padding. A lot of people perceive Tolkein writing as bloat, but I find it to be padding.

    Perception it is.

  6. I think a book becomes bloated when the writing style is the exact opposite of Brian Herbert’s in the Dune prequels.

    There should be some kind of ratio number of distinct ideas or actions / number of pages consumptions per book (including pages used to make links or transitions between pages or actions : they make the difference between a book and a synopsis).

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