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Are Books Too Long?

This rant echoes what I’ve said before – many books are just way too long. I’ve always maintained that Battelfield Earth was a passable book up until the midway point when the main bad guy died and shark bankers took over. Ack! Another title I remember as being longwinded: Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. There are lots of others. Writers (and the editors) should just tell the story and cut the fluff. Yeah, yeah…we know you are a great “literary master”, but get on with the story already!

I look at a 200-pager by Theodore Sturgeon and wish more books were the “right” length for the story they tell. Other short (and excellent) works: The Genocides by Thomas M. Disch, Invasion of the Body Snatchers by Jack Finney and The Man Who Fell To Earth by Walter Tevis. Notice anything? They are all older books. Its as if the publishers want an excuse to charge $26 bucks for a hardback that should rightfully clock in under 300 pages. Books, and the pricetag, should be lighter.

And while I’m ranting, no more of this splitting up nonsense. Scott Westerfeld’s short (and excellent) novel The Risen Empire was originally the first part of a single, longer book that could easily be a single manageable book. Instead we get two smaller books with larger type. Nice way to squeeze more money out of the public. Not.

About John DeNardo (13012 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 Are Books Too Long?

  1. Older books…pre word processor. I think that’s the big link. Also, older books…pre big contracts (think Stephen King, or in the case of SF, the model “big contracts” that were pioneered by Niven/Pournelle for “Mote” and authors such as Asimov for “Foundation’s Edge” and Heinlein for a couple of later works).

    All this lead to bloat, as you’ve seen.

    The trend does have some “buckers”. Look at Ken MacLeod’s “Newton’s Wake”, a pretty short space opera. Ditto Charles Stross, although I’ve yet to get through “Singularity Sky”. Gene Wolfe has a pair of tightly written fantasies in “The Knight” and “The Wizard”. Fred Pohl could have given us a 900 page Heechee tome, but “The Boy Who Would Live Forever” is a fairly short book.

    All is not lost!

  2. That’s an interesting observation Fred. And, anecdotally, I’d say it holds up. If I remember correctly, all the older books I used to have were usually around 300 – 350 pages, with some shorter than that.

    Nowdays, it seems like that is the shortest number of pages, with books usually in the 400+ range. John has the library to actually do a comparison. There are exceptions of course. Dhalgren is a massive tome written pre-PC days, while Stephenson wrote his Baroque Cycle by hand! Ack!

  3. Sure, and Tolkien wrote LotR mostly by hand. But these earlier books are the exceptions, not the rule. The rule was short stories, novellas, novelettes to the “pulp” (magazine) market. Plus serials/novels (take a look at how many novels were first published in Galaxy or Astounding/Analog). Then book publication, from various houses, but especially through the SF Book Club.

    Dhalgren was an exception, but that was around the time of “Mote”, no? Maybe that was the breaking point (larger contracts, followed by word processers).

    As for Stephenson, well he wrote the first draft by hand. How much was in the first draft, and how much eventually became the book would be an interesting thing to discover.

    As for “Risen Empire” and “Killing of Worlds”, one interview I read suggested that the book was actually significantly longer and would have been a trilogy or a quad. Westerfeld took it upon himself to tighten it up. So instead of bloatware, we have a tighter duo. I didn’t mind paying for two well-written books instead of four bloated books.

  4. O.K., I made a comment and it vanished. Also my personal information keeps vanishing and I have to enter it by hand again. Argh…

  5. Good points, Fred.

    Make sure you have cookies enabled (for sfsignal.com and moveabletype.org) to keep your name/email settings. If you use cleaner software, make sure those cookies are added to the exceptions list.

  6. I too have many problems with it remembering my info, but no matter…

    The word processor has hurt lots of books – it’s just too easy to cut/paste, even if it’s from the authors other novels. One of my favorite writers Dan Simmons managed to accidentally cut/paste the same passage into 2 different books. Admittedly I wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t read them back-to-back but still – it seems lazy on the part of the author.

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