When Bigger Really Isn’t Better

Media, Reading & Writing

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Following our recent discussion about book formats, I took a quick trawl through my bookshelves to confirm my suspicions; that over the past few decades books have become ever longer and ever more bloated.

I’m afraid to say this at the risk of upsetting fans, but it would seem the rot set in with Stephen King’s lengthy doorstops. Never one to use a word when twenty would do, his mass market paperback edition of ‘The Shining’ certainly split a few pockets and soon became the norm. If we go back to past classics we find this:

Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ – 189 pages

Ira Levin’s ‘The Stepford Wives’ – 116 pages

Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’ – 218 pages

Evelyn Waugh’s ‘The Loved One’ – 127 pages

JG Ballard – ‘The Drowned World’ – 170 pages

Thornton Wilder – ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’ – 124 pages

James Vance Marshall – ‘Walkabout’ – 125 pages

EM Forster’s ‘Where Angels Fear To Tread’ – 138 pages

These page numbers make the Jackson appear positively overblown. Now compare those to:

Stephen King’s ‘11.22.63’ – 752 pages

Dean Koontz’s ‘Watchers’ – 512 pages

Well, I don’t need to go on – the point is made. Virtually every big popular novel tips the 500 page mark now. Publishers often push writers to go beyond the natural page limit for their pitched novels – I’ve been asked to do this many times (although never by Transworld, who don’t dictate the length of my books).

‘The readers expect value for money’ is the usual reason given – but since when was lazy over-explanatory scene-setting and random verbosity commensurate with good storytelling?

King, for whom I have the greatest respect as an ideas man, once said; ‘Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but it should finish in the reader’s,’ doesn’t follow his own advice, but neither does anyone else now – perhaps because the publishers simply don’t trust their audience to accept that, in a good writer’s hands, less is usually more.

11 comments on “When Bigger Really Isn’t Better”

  1. pheeny says:

    You see the same thing with films that are padded out to the umpteenth degree with extended sequences that labour a point that was made five (if not ten) minutes earlier to the general exhaustion of the viewer

    Yes, “The Hobbit” I am looking at you.

  2. Paul Graham says:

    ‘The readers expect value for money’ – Don’t they realise that we want quality not quantity?

  3. Bob Low says:

    I had to clear my old books- paperbacks, mainly- out of my late mother’s house over the last year or so, and have been re-reading some of the books I loved as a teenager. What you notice, comparing thrillers particularly, that were published in the sixties and seventies, with those being published now is how concise the older books were. I don’t think that any of the James Bond novels are longer than about 250 pages, at the most. Len Deighton, Adam Hall and Gavin Lyall’s books also tended to come in at about this length. Whatever other faults these books might have had, there was no padding. Things, particularly about how the characters were feeling, tended to be implied rather than stated explicitly.It’s almost as though, some time in the eighties, books became rated by their sheer physical weight, rather than by their contents.

  4. John says:

    Woo-hoo! I inspired a post. Thanks, Chris for pointing out the evolution of the bloated doorstop tome. This has been a pet peeve of mine since the late 1990s. Most popular fiction is crammed with unnecessary back story that impedes the flow of action, has paragraphs of wardrobe updates (I hate this trend in pop fiction!) and loads of tangential subplots, and sometimes consists of two books in one. I once reviewed a Preston/Lincoln thriller that was indeed two books compacted into one, or was an attempt to do so. One story told in the even numbered chapters, the other told in the odd chapters. They never really met. This is the solution to giving readers their money’s worth? I completely disagree.

  5. Dan Terrell says:

    Forgetting “Gone With the Wind – a big one way back nearly 100 years, I think the novel began to bloat up with James Michener’s third or forth book and continued for nearly every book he wrote after. “Caravans” came is shorter, but he was only in Kabul and Afghanistan for two/three weeks early in the sixties. If you have read that book, you’ll know it begins with an embassy cocktail party during which everyone talks about their “digestive problems” – so true even today – and Michener was so amazed by this public discussion of cramps and home remedies, he had to begin his “adventure” novel with a replication.
    I told pre-departure: “For heaven’s sake don’t ever sing in the shower!”
    Hum Only, And Carry On. We now the your original and variations – like mine – all over the States.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    I’d forgotten Mitchener and his begin with the creation of the world writing philosophy. I think there is something else going on in those great tomes (and we mustn’t forget Gormenghast)and that is the involvement with a group of fictional people. Ask people how they feel at the end on one of these books and they’ll say that they wish it had kept going. It’s probably what is happening with series when readers demand a continuation. Could that be why we cry for more B&M? I don’t know but look at how many series there are and how few single novels. I have read a number of books that really would be better with some not so discrete pruning. Look at Dickens and shudder. Wonderful writing but far too much of it.

  7. Dan Terrell says:

    Editor and publishers, if at all interested, will quickly e-mail to ask you if your book is a stand-alone or will be part of a series. (Or the editor will state he/she is accepting series books Only). Work hard for the first and then hope to coast on the rest. I don’t find series books last for many installments about 5 or 6 for me and then it’ll pretty much be all a repeat. As Helen so wisely recognizes and says: except for B&M, each one a different facet.

  8. TracyK says:

    So now I see that you have done the post that I was interested in… In the last year, I have found that I enjoy shorter books, 200 – 300 pages. I had no idea that The Stepford Wives was only 112 pages. I should read that. I had not realized how short Rex Stout’s books are (after having read them multiple times), until I looked at a trilogy that was under 500 pages combined. Len Deighton’s books are a nice length as mentioned. I will read longer books by authors I have had good experiences with, like Charles McCarry. Most of his books are a nice length but a couple are longer and I loved every one of them.

  9. Ken Murray says:

    Ah but the bloated Hobbit is surely more to do with smart marketing. Why sell one movie when you can sell it as two or three?

  10. pheeny says:

    On the other hand if people lose the will to live through the first one are they likely to sit through another 6 hours of the same?

    What am I saying? Tolkein fans would doubtless crawl all the way to Mordor on their hands and knees to buy a re-edit of scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor the first time round 😀

  11. Helen Martin says:

    No, Pheeny. I haven’t seen the Hobbit movie and from what I’ve heard I shant. I enjoy the book, which is a series of episodes, but have no desire to have the episodes lengthened out of all recognition. I have been crying out for better book editing for some time. Perhaps what I should have been requesting was some common sense from publishers.

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