Should Books Be Shorter?

Reading & Writing

A story is a journey you undertake to see what happens. The long Victorian novel was a box-set binge; episodes appeared in magazines like The Strand, and had built-in cliffhangers. Crime novels weren’t constructed around hooks; most old Penguin paperbacks didn’t even put a plot synopsis or description of any kind on their jackets. The author was the attraction.

Books got shorter because of the paper shortages of two world wars, and because of the fashion for writing new kinds of fiction; sparer, leaner, more Jazz Age. Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Steinbeck led the charge from the US, while Woolf, Wells, Waugh, Auden, Huxley and Forster produced work that was stripped back to single themes. By writing about feelings instead of complex plot developments a novel didn’t have to present a panoply of society but a single sliver of it.

In post WWII years books became slimmer still – and much more widely read. Lower-priced paperbacks of often very short fiction meant you could pick up and discard books easily, as you now can on Kindle (my burn-through rate is shocking – six books this weekend so far, four of which I simply abandoned because of length and repetition. Their online cost was negligible).

The Edward St Aubyn ‘Patrick Melrose’ five novel cycle is surprisingly easy to read because the books are unfashionably short. They are also highly honed, elegant pieces of prose. It made me wonder; if we wrote shorter, would we spend more time shining the prose? The answer is absolutely, yes.

We’re encouraged to writer lengthier books because publishers can charge more, and we’re used to seeing 13-part TV series which are filled with padding. So in go extra adverbs, adjectives, unnecessary explanations and details where none are needed. We watch TV shows where everyone is asked how they feel about everything all the time. ‘Love Island’ checks its forgetful contestants in micro-time in a doomed attempt to have them articulate their feelings (or anything) and now we expect this from novels too – a spelled-out linearity that removes all doubt and shadow from writing.

My love/hate relationship with the novels of Stephen King has always hinged on this issue. The man is an ideas fountain, but the prose is flattened out so that nothing is ever ambiguous or doubtful. It’s as if every sentence has been lit with halogens. Agatha Christie famously used a limited vocabulary and action verbs to drive plots. Her characters go and do, and behave how they look. They don’t prevaricate, they decide and are then either right or wrong.

But we live in a time when the veracity of everything is doubtful, which is why there are no really funny comic novels, TV shows or films anymore; it’s hard to be witty about something when you don’t know if you’re allowed to find it funny anymore. So instead we have action and drama – the ground shifts less there.

And it leaves us with books which are simply too long When Joan Lindsay wrote ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ she was encouraged to remove the final explanatory (and unsatisfying) chapter, and created a classic by doing so. Imagine the novel rewritten so that every emotion, motive and purpose is explained, so that not just the disappearance is spelled out but the feelings of all the girls are examined minutely. Imagine the same with ‘Walkabout’, ‘The Bridge at San Luis Rey’, ‘The Drowned World’, ‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?’ – all very short, dazzlingly constructed reads.

Sustaining a mood and a single-mindedness of purpose suddenly becomes much easier for both the reader and the writer Long novels dissipate, short ones concentrate.

Good examples of highly memorable short novels, please?

20 comments on “Should Books Be Shorter?”

  1. davem says:

    I was going to mention all three of the ‘Empire’ trilogy by JG Farrell but, having just checked, The Singapore Grip is longer than I recalled. All are wonderful books though.

    The HE Bates ‘Pop Larkin’ series of books are all fairly short, and enjoyable to read.

    Henry V by Shakespeare is wonderful.

    Apart from a couple, the Colin Dexter ‘Morse’ series are all fairly short, and very well written.

    Lots more, but that’s a start.

  2. Richard Burton says:

    Stephen King’ s short stories can be great. His tale of a woman whose short cuts in her sportscar bend space and time has stayed with me for years. I remember the prose as being ok too. He does benefit from shortness as I can’t read his longer stuff – it is very flat.

  3. Davem says:

    I enjoy the short stories by Christopher Fowler, at least the earlier ones, very much.

    Incidentally, I mentioned a Henry V above, despite it being a play. It was a ‘novel’ for it’s time 😉

  4. Brooke says:

    Not that the story need be long, but it will take a long while to make it short. HD Thoreau.
    Things Fall Apart ~200p–Chinua Achebe

  5. SteveB says:

    The Quincunx is a memorable -long- modern book and I dont think any of it is wasted or flabby.
    JG Ballard’s compressed novels are the ultimate.
    Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo is pretty short and to the point, if you like sf.
    Alan Furst’s books aren’t really short but they are always to the point.
    Donald Westlake’s Richard Stark thrillers were always very pared down

  6. Roger says:

    The Great Gatsby, obviously.
    The Unbearable Bassington
    Evelyn Waugh’s early works;
    ditto Anthony Powell;
    Ronald Firbank
    Henry Green
    Penelope Fitzgerald

    Quite enough there and nearly all less than two hundred pages.

  7. Jo W says:

    Can’t think of any good short novels at the moment, I’m about two thirds through London belongs to Me and thoroughly enjoying it. In fact,the other day I was so engrossed that I missed the bus I wanted and had to wait for the next. But,the time passed well- I had a good read.

  8. admin says:

    Jo W – Norman Collins is an ongoing obsession of mine – try ‘Three Friends’

    SteveB – hilarious to pick one of the longest books I’ve ever read – ‘The Quincunx’, deliriously thrilling, must read it again…

  9. Susanna Carroll says:

    Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels. Short punchy and a city that feels very real and isn’t quite New York. The later ones are slightly longer, but never reached housebrick size.

    The now probably largely forgotten SF novels of James Blish. And John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, Chocky and the The Kraken Awakes are far superior to a lot of contemporary door stopping trilogies.

  10. kevin says:

    Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

    The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

  11. Helen Martin says:

    The Rex Stout novels were an introduction to crime fiction for me. They became formulaic and Archie was still being the blase man about town when he would have been in his seventies but they were fun – and short.
    I have begun to wonder if publishers are encouraging authors to lengthen rather than cut their work. Wish I could name a series where the first novel is quite short but the later ones increase in length. I am reading something called “Antique Blues” with a New England antiques authenticator. The author describes everyone’s clothes and hair and comments that a neighbour’s outdoor lights are all pink when there is no particular need. If I’m noticing it then it is probably jarring.
    On the other hand, I just finished “Ready Player One”, 571 pages and very little excess. It was all action, a quest novel with three stages so you knew how it had to end, just not who would be the one to succeed. If the action makes sense and moves then it doesn’t matter how long it is. I found that book playing games with my thought processes and perception of reality.

  12. Mike says:

    Robert B Parker’s early Spencer novels were pared down to the bone

  13. Jo W says:

    Thanks for the suggestion Chris, I will try to track down a copy of Three Friends. Norman Collins seems to have the ability to not only tell a good story but add in little chuckles along the way, in the way that I find in Dickens books.

  14. Peter Lee says:

    I absolutely adore Dan Rhodes. He wrote a book of short stories called “Anthropology” which was 101 short stories, all of which were exactly 101 words long. Of his novels, his longest is my favourite (“This Is Life”) but I also love “Gold” and “Little Hands Clapping”.

    As others have said, Ballard was a genius, and his novels such as “Concrete Island” are classics.

  15. Christine Poulson says:

    A Month in the Country by J L Carr. Perfection.

  16. SimonB says:

    Helen – one obvious series that starts slim and gets increasingly fatter as you go along: Harry Potter…

  17. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Camus’s The Stranger. Melville ‘s Billy Budd is hard for younger readers but is read and taught more than Moby Dick. Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories.

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Simon: people think so badly of HP that I wasn’t going to bring it up. You’re right, though, and I don’t think lengthening was a bad thing in that case. She paid more attention to what she was doing after the first one and the characters became more real. She overdid it in the last two and it became sort of mush.

  19. Jan says:

    Yes deffo then it wouldn’t take u as long to write em – and you could save yourself loads of grief.

    See a good plan is always straightforward.

  20. Lauren says:

    Bad books are inherently too long, good ones too short. Who has not been engrossed in an excellent tale and been dismayed to see the remaining pages dwindle?

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