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Are Books Just Too Darn Long?

Guardian Book Blog asks: Can the novella save literature?

And then I had an epiphany: could it be that we should look to classics like Ethan Frome to find the key to saving fiction from the worrisome tides of publishing sturm and drang, the statistics that indicate that people distracted by the trillions of choices provided by digital media are giving up on fiction? Might the way to stop our atrophied attention spans becoming terminally distracted be to simply publish more short books?

And best all, an upswing in the publication of novellas would not confirm the prejudices of those who rail against the dumbing-down of literature: novellas require an intelligent author and an intelligent reader to appreciate the power of brevity. Without exacting quite the level of austerity presented by the task of writing a good short story, novellas challenge writers to use words like wartime rations: with care and thought and the extra level of creative gusto required to ensure that they stretch to make a miniature read that is just as satisfying as something more substantial.

Robert Silverberg also echoes the virtues of the novella and I tend to agree with these sentiments. Short fiction can provide just a good a sci-fi jolt as a book can. But, geez, is literature really doomed if we continue book-length stories?

[via Likely Stories]

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.

23 Comments on Are Books Just Too Darn Long?

  1. I think the novella argument is something only for mainstream fiction. I’ve always found, from my bookselling days, people like a big ol’ SF or Fantasy novel to immerse themselves in. And secondly is the value for money factor – the more chunky a novel (to an extent) the more likely people were to buy something. The amount of times people came up to the counter weighing up two books and going for the heavy one. The top selling fantasy books are nearly always hudnreds of pages thick.

    This genre can easily support novellas because of the fandom involved. There’s room for everything. Mainstream fiction doesn’t have the fandom, so they need every help they can get…

  2. I don’t think it’s a question of novelettes as much as it’s a querstion of reversing the trend towards longer and longer books.  If you look at SF in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, you’ll find books that were maybe 200-300 pages long.  They picked up an idea, exploited it and moved on.

    Nowadays writers seem to find it impossible to tell a fantasy story in less than about 2500 words and SF is heading in the same direction.  A lot of books I never look into simply because while I wouldn’t mind spending a week or a few days in their company, I have no desire to spend months reading about the same bloody characters.

    It’s a development that suits writers (trilogies give job security) and publishers (you can sell a 500 page book for a lot more than you can a 200 page book and besides, most people only tend to read a few books a year) but as a reader I think it’s left the genre considerably less well off.

  3. 2500 words? if only PAGES!

  4. Will the novella cost pretty much the same as a regular novel?  $20 for a hardcover of a 140 page book will probably price some people out of the game who equate length with quality when they are buying a book.  It may even price me out of the game, too, because while I love me some novella (thank you Subterranean Press), I still might balk about buying a short work for more money. 

    That said, I was willing to take a chance on Nick Mamatas’ short novel Move Under Ground because he was holding a $5 sale, so I think dropping the price to $10 or less for a novella could open it up for more readers.

  5. I don’t mind long books. I’ve eaten through quite a few 1000+ pagers. I do, however, have a problem with books where 9 pages out of 10 nothing story-related happens.

  6. I am reluctant to pay $20 for a HC novella, or $9 for a paperback novella. In terms of price/quantity, more is more.

    On the other hand, Elver makes a point. A book turned ito a trilogy and padded for marketing reasons is a PITA. And I do despair of “first book in the <fill in the blank> series”.  I want more standalone novels, or at best, duologies.  I read widely, and don’t necessarily want to go deep into too many series.

  7. I’d love to see more short books (around 200 pages).  I think most novels are padded for length these days, and I miss the size of SciFi/Fantasy fiction from the 60s and 70s.

  8. Maybe we could just replace most of the troublesome words with pictures.

  9. Lucius Shepard has been putting out collections of novellas for years. He’s a master at the short form and deserves a wider readership.

  10. Both of those were fantastic to read, thanks for the links.  I not only want to go out and pick up that copy of Locus magazine, but I also want to pick up those two books Silverberg was talking about.  As if I don’t already have enough to read.  🙂

    I long for a return to shorter books.  It isn’t that I have difficulty reading longer ones, but I look at what, say, Orson Scott Card was able to accomplish is say Ender’s Game or Speaker for the Dead, both trades clocking in at less than 300 pages, and I wonder why someone needs 600 pages to tell a good story.  I recently read the Foundation trilogy for the first time.  What Asimov accomplished in those 3 novels (which altogether total up to about the average of one book today) is amazing and I cannot image a publisher putting out the same type of book today with as few pages per book.  I have certainly read some long books in which I hung on every word.  At the same time I think good editors can take a work that is 6 to 8 hundred pages long and help the author accomplish the same ends in a much more concise and probably more meaningful way.  Makes me wonder if the balance of power has shifted away from editors.

    All in all an interesting topic of conversation.

  11. Major publishers being willing to consider shorter work would certainly be good news for writers–both in terms of being able to sell more work to a wider audience but also to not have to feel like “if this isn’t over 75,000 words, i’m in trouble.”

    But, in general, we need to stand firm on novels and not give in to this kind of pandering to attention deficits. Attention deficits are not an evolution but a devolution. It is a kind of disease–it is not the future. Especially because you have to consider that it’s unlikely we’ll have the power/energy necessary in 50 years to keep all of these things like video games, etc., functional. We’ll be barely able to heat and light our houses. At that point, we will come back to novels and to the written word because we have to–and because it is the best and purest way to test and hone our imaginations, which is what we’ll need to survive in a new post-technology society. Distractions, fractured attention spans–all of this is the white noise crapola of a dysfunctional society.


  12. One thing that I think plays into this is the economics of the publishing industry. I make no claim to being an expert in this by any means, but there was some talk at ApolloCon last year about how writers are being asked to write stories of a certain length because a 300-page book is more cost-effective to produce and sell. Put another way: writers are faced with the choice of beefing up the stories or not making a sale.

    Which is not to say that all books are padded. Certainly some writers choose to tell a long story anyway.

    @Jeff: I personally don’t endorse unnecessary hacking away at a story to meet some artificial size. But the reverse is true, too, isn’t it? If authors are being asked (and again – I don’t know how prevalent this is) to pad short novels to 300 pages, doesn’t the story suffer for it?

  13. Oh, absolutely, John. We even have the utterly artificial idea of “trilogy” embedded in our consciousness because of marketing concerns. Many trilogies would benefit from…not being trilogies.

    My agent says a novel under 75,000 words has trouble selling to NY publishers. It’s just one of the many commercial concerns a writer has to banish from their heads in order to get quality work done. I don’t pad my novels, but it’s important at the beginning of a long novella/short novel project for me to meet that concern head-on in my mind and literally say, “This will be the length it needs to be, and that’s that.” I also think it’s not a question of padding in some authors as in not applying the scalpel as much as they should–in part because it’s not necessary in the current publishing environment.


  14. On the plus side, if in 50 years we don’t have the energy/resources to heat and light our homes, we’ll be glad for all of those bloated and oh-so-flammable fantasy trilogies.

  15. I’m in favor of less series and more stand alone novels. I don’t mind paying for a novella as long as the cost ratio is something I can live with price wise speaking.

  16. I certainly don’t think the desire for stories being less bulky has anything to do with one’s attention span. It is more about getting good stories rather than ones in which the reader feels bogged down by unnecessary padding of the story. I just wish we could get away from the idea that bigger is better. I probably feel this way about series more than individual novels. I would much rather have a larger novel if that novel is going to tell me the whole story rather than part one of god-knows-how-many books that will take years between each and every story. I know not all bulky novels are padded…in fact the opposite is probably true…it is just odd to pick up classic sci fi or fantasy novels that have stood the test of time and see how efficiently an author can tell a story and then wonder why that doesn’t seem to happen that way today. In the end I understand that an author is beholden to the publisher and the marketplace and so I applaud any author who has the creative skills to make whatever story they have in mind work with constraints put on them by someone, or some company, who is deciding how long a book has to be to sell.

  17. I generally avoid long books, and I *especially* avoid 10-volume series wherein the shortest volume is 700 pages. I like to read *lots* of things, and I think it’s a bit presumptuous of authors and publishers to assume I want to spend *that* much time reading one thing. I skipped Vinge’s “Fire Upon the Deep” because I didn’t feel like devoting that much energy to something I wasn’t 100% certain I was going to love. The worst part is that some of those authors probably think they’re giving their readers a great story bargain by writing things that are so darned long. Remember Ace Doubles? Two novels, usually under 180 pages each– now *that* was bang for your buck. A lot of authors seem to have forgotten how to tell a story in a clean and economical manner. Bring on the novellas!

  18. It depends. I usually don’t have a problem reading longer novels, but I’m more likely shorter ones for one very ordinary reason.

    One of my big reading times is commuting to and from work. Books that fit conveniently in the outer pocket of my bag get read, those that don’t only get read on vacation when I have more time at home.

    I do remember thinnish (sub 250) SF paperbacks being quite plentiful when I was young. I simply don’t see as many of them around.

    I wonder if we’ll could see the resurrection of the flipped two novel tpbs that some publisher used to do? Two short novels by two different authors.

  19. MWB: Those were the Ace Doubles (1952-1973) that Gabriel mentioned. There were also Tor Doubles that were published between 1988 and 1991, which paired two novellas together.

    Also note: The MobileRead community has their say on the size matter: The case for novellas versus long books.

  20. Thanks for point that out John.

    It was indeed the Ace Doubles was what I had been thinking about. Sorry I skimmed past your mention of them Gabriel!

  21. I don’t care how long or short a novel is as long as it’s good. Same goes for stand-alone novels or series.

    As for the whole efficient use of time argument that claims longer books or series take too much time and minimize the volume of, well, volumes that one can sample, I don’t buy it. We’ve all got limited time to devote to reading, but the great thing about books is that they wait for you. The contents of the in-box (including short, stand-alone novels) may pile higher while I’m plodding through some bulky series, but it isn’t going anywhere (short of a fire, roof leak, plumbing problem or natural disaster, that is). And who said that reading was like a hot-dog eating contest anyway? Are we suddenly awarding points for the most books read? I always thought it was about enjoying the experience and hopefully getting something intellectually rewarding out of it – neither of which depend on length. If you’re enjoying the book – regardless of its length – then savour the moment, otherwise you’re missing the point (and possibly some of the points the author is trying to make). And if you’re not enjoying it, why are you wasting your time? Put it down and pick up one of the others!

  22. I enjoy long books. I also enjoy short books. As long as the book is good, and the length has something to justify it, that’s great. Some long books are too long. Some very long books, on the other hand, are too short.

    Giving up on books just because they’re long… sounds like a great way to miss a lot of wonderful stories and rich worlds.

  23. And weren’t there, a while ago, some discussions about how short stories are going to disappear because they’re too short? So now we have long stories going to disappear because they’re too long? Blah. They each have their place and strengths, and aren’t going to die.

    At least, I very much hope they’re not.

    Heck, I think novellas are going to disappear. They’re either:

    1. Too short to properly build a plot. Too short to properly build the background universe. Too short to follow a rich story with multiple threads.

    2. Very good. In which case they just end too soon, leaving the reader wishing they were longer. Or have sequels, but then you have to wait until the sequel is out, and anyway in that case they’re a part of a series, and series are going to disappear anyway as well for all the reasons stated here for series and long novel.


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