The Long & The Short Of It

Reading & Writing

In the last few years bigger has come to mean better; longer films, larger food portions, BOGOFs, fatter books. But with the credit crunch as a wake-up call, this thinking has developed its opponents.

It has made economic sense to consume larger amounts because we are simply being sold more, no matter that the price seems better in quantity. Standing in the supermarket, you think, well, one costs two pounds but two cost three pounds – you buy two and end up using the one you wanted and one you didn’t really want.

But the trend isn’t reversible unless people are comfortable with less. This is where quality comes in. We know that market vegetables are graded from 1 to 4 in terms of quality, 1 going to hotels, 2 to restaurants, 4 ending up in supermarkets. But if we could buy a 1 in a store instead of buying three 4s, many of us would take that option.

When rationing was introduced during the war, the nation’s nutrition level actually rose. Less for some meant more for all (a third of UK children had been malnourished).

After the war, paper imports to the UK took a while to return, and transportation costs were still prohibitive, so books got much shorter. The result was that their quality rose dramatically, and the postwar period proved a golden age of literature and popular fiction.

We have been through three decades of bloated excess. I’ve almost finished judging duty on the Gold Dagger award, and the number of books hitting five to six hundred pages has now started to decline (although the largely pointless novelisation of ‘The Killing’ is as long as ‘War and Peace’.)

Publishers need to be seen to be offering value for money, so the doorstop hardback can be charged at £20. But a common complaint from readers is that the jumbo airport book badly needs editing. Indiscriminate word-counts are not the main reason for book purchase. Nobody looks at a novel and goes ‘I’ll buy this – it’s really thick.’

The Kindle appears to be partly behind the new thinking. Kindle Singles are catching on, and there has been a spike of sales around books with shorter, tighter construction because they are less interminable on the Kindle.

From a reviewer’s point of view, I’m often asked to drop in a fast review at very short notice. Will I pick a 500 page-plus novel, or Simon Lewis’s terrific suspenser ‘Border Run’, tipping in at a little over 200 pages? I can do justice to the latter but not the former – and besides, why shouldn’t I when I know that the impact of the 500 pager will not exceed that of the Lewis novel?

When Clive Barker delivered his ‘Books of Blood’ to editor Barbara Boote, she looked at the vast manuscript and realised no-one would plough through such an immense volume of short stories from a new writer. So she came up with the brilliant suggestion of dividing it into six volumes, with a contract covering all. The books were a huge success. I suspect that if he’d delivered them now, he would have been told to knit them into a single framework and publish the whole thing in one go.

And crime writers like Ryan David Jahn are winning awards with short novels. Obviously length should have no correlation to quality, but the concept of ‘good value’ needs to be taken out of writing; books aren’t tins of beans. If we look back to the 20th century we find it the norm for novels to be short, so that they can be digested and properly appreciated. Everyone from Bradbury, Bester and Ballard to Woolf, Waugh and Wodehouse kept it tight, and concentrated on beautiful urns of phrase rather than pushing up a word count.

Perhaps in our time-stretched world, it’s time for this thinking to return. We no longer need to buy a huge book for holiday. A rethink of the recent business model would increase choice and turnover.

3 comments on “The Long & The Short Of It”

  1. Kevin says:

    I couldn’t agree more. On a related point, I am buying an increasing number of books second-hand (on Abebooks or in the few remaining real shops) simply because I hate the size of the current editions. When you compare a modern book and the same one from 30 or 40 years ago, you wonder how they have managed to expand a sensible sized A format paperback into the massive doorsteps that they force on us today. I love reading, but the size of modern books puts me off starting, and a lot of the time, there is no reason for them to be so big, as the old editions prove. The publishers are losing money because of it, as far as I am concerned.

  2. Helen Martin says:

    If I’m taking a book for the train I take the shortest of what I’m currently reading so it won’t add too much weight to my bag. (No, I’m not getting a Kindle any time soon.)Value for money needs to come *back* into books. I have read tomes with pleasure, but wished the author had had a good editor to remove the padding. Chick mysteries seem to stick to shorter lengths & I don’t think it’s because women can’t concentrate. You know the books – “A Stitch in Time: number 12 in the Substantial Fabric Store series”. It’s to provide back and forth to work for a week. Well edited means ending at an appropriate length for that book, regardless of printing patterns and so on and that is true value for money. Now if only the printers would read for typos – but don’t get me started, although typos means low quality product.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Oops! Shouldn’t have said printers. They’re not responsible. The author and editor are responsible for correct copy.

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