It’s The Length That Counts

Observatory, Reading & Writing

Ian McEwan seems to function better in novella form, and told an audience at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival that he believes “the novella is the supreme literary form”. “Many of the writers we love the most, we love for their novellas: Death in Venice, The Turn of the Screw, The Metamorphosis”.

The novella can be defined as a work of 25,000 words, and allows authors to concentrate on the quality of the prose. But in the past, surely many books would have qualified as novellas – the works of Evelyn Waugh are virtually all short, for example, with the exception of the Sword Of Honour trilogy. Paper shortages after WWII also led to shorter books, and more intense, concentrated bursts of writing. Graham Greene and JG Ballard, HG Wells and Margery Allingham all wrote short, and how about Ed McBain, whose books now look positively tiny? And Stephen King’s novellas are far, far better than his immense longform tomes.

I would argue that it’s a harder form to master because every word must count – the increased length that publishers often demand makes stories baggier and less well-defined. Certainly my weakest books have been my longest, usually because past publishers have specified a certain page minimum. ‘Red Bride’, probably my longest, barely found a readership.

But, as McEwan points out, novellas are frowned upon by publishers who see the form as inferior, probably second-guessing the reading public, who may feel cheated at not having 500 pages to wade through.

But if the so-called novella gets a bad rap, why doesn’t the blockbuster novel? JK Rowling’s first arguably adult book (500+ pps) would have benefitted by some serious cutting, and it’s generally true that most modern popular novels that hit the 500-700 page mark are defined more by their length and scope than their quality.

I’d certainly prefer to deliver short highly polished books, but publishers and more importantly the public have come to consider size as a prerequisite to ‘getting your money’s worth’ from a novel. But it’s the shorter, more condensed reads that I return to again and again.

12 comments on “It’s The Length That Counts”

  1. agatha hamilton says:

    Yes, far too many books are far too long. Isn’t it because it’s so much easier to write on a computer and people don’t bother to cut ruthlessly? You couldn’t pad out ‘Heart of Darkness’, though I’d make an exception for Tom Wolfe.
    Going back a couple of days to A.P. Herbert’s Mr. Gay’s London: The Newgate Calendar is still in print, though in modern English (I think), and talking of Newgate, belated congratulations to Crippen. Are there any names for her kittens yet? Macheath? Spring-heeled Jack? Mrs. Lovett?

  2. Jennifer says:

    My book group has a 300 page limit. (We’re all busy professionals; many of us read for a living. We can’t manage more than that in a month.) Publishers are fools.

  3. glasgow1975 says:

    300 pages a month? Sometimes I manage that a night!

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    It’s the well-constructed (and well cut) story that’s most important for me. Or the publisher’s requirement: not to send in a war-and-peace-length novella. I found Tai Pan (a big book) to be a terrific read, but then so was The Red Badge of Courage (an intense and shorter book by far.)
    PS: I had no idea the spam mails I get weekly regarding length were actually interesting literary discussions. I’ve been immediately banging them into the trash for years.

  5. Helen Martin says:

    Glasgow – read Jennifer’s post again. The 300 pages has to be fitted in with all of the reading they do professionally, much of which would be done at night.
    North American Hammer films fans. Check your tv listings this week (and next?)because I saw an ad for Hammer’s The Mummy to be shown on TCM. We’d just watched The Mouse that Roared and I then watched Jason and the Argonauts paying particular attention, as the host suggested, to the monsters which were all hand created and animated cel by cel. There were ads for movies later in this week(?)and The Mummy was one.

  6. Sam Tomaino says:

    I believe that Horror is a dish best served short. Until Stephen King came along most of the horror classics were short stories. When they were novels they were usually short ones, like “The Haunting of Hill House.”

    And what may be Charles Dickens’s most favorite work is “A Christmas Carol”, which is only a bit over 26,000 words long.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Those Evelyn Waugh covers are stunning. The artwork would be worth collecting. Or doing as cross stitch. Sorry.
    I’m ignoring your comment, Dan.

  8. John Howard says:

    Looking at my books it’s really quite amazing the difference in thickness between books from the sixties and seventies with only the occasional thicky, and its not until the eighties that the size begins to increase and then quantity gradually become the norm. Books from the likes of P.G and Noel are positively emaciated in comparison.

    Helen, cover your ears. Dan, maybe the publishers thought thickness was as important as length. I know; it must be book publishers that are sending all your spam email.

  9. Dan Terrell says:

    Oh Wow. This gets better and better. So much literary conversation being sent out. Now, as to length…. of time in the ground. The news here is that they believe they have found Richard the Third’s grave with the body somewhat preserved. It was where the Greyfriars Church stood. Fantastic.

  10. glasgow1975 says:

    Yea I got that Helen, but just seems silly having a group for reading books when you can’t actually manage much more than a pamphlet a month. Just skip the ‘book group’ & have a curry night or something. . .

  11. Dan Terrell says:

    Another length-related item off the wire: Hilary Mantel, who is writing a trilogy, just won the Booker Prize – again – for her mid-point book “Bringing Up The Bodies.” On a scale of So What to Wow! This is a wow, indeed. What will happen with book three? Is the pressure on Ms. Mantel? I’d say so and on the Booker Panel, too. Congrats!
    Now to finish Wolf Hall.

  12. Helen Martin says:

    I have some doubts about Richard III’s body, although there seems to be little doubt that they’ve located it. I look forward to the DNA tests. I thought it too bad he couldn’t be buried next to his queen in Westminster, but she is next to her first husband. Funny there’s no problem about calling him that even though it was never consummated but the whole of Europe goes crazy 2 reigns later over a similar situation.
    I watched the first 15 min. of the Mummy, until they were in the tomb. That finished me because it was so terribly wrong and where did all that green light come from? Nope, just turned it off.
    I don’t think the Booker people would give it to her three times, no matter how good the last one is.

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