The Long And The Short Of It
Stuck indoors? Feeling cooped up? Day 4 of my self-incarceration found me asking what exactly it is I did when I went out so much. It couldn’t just have been shopping and meeting friends, could it? Admittedly I’m in an unusual situation; my home is half-inside, half-outside because everything inside faces out, so I am permanently looking at sky and the skyline. Being inside for me feels the opposite of claustrophobic – it’s the canyons of streets that feel dark and enclosed.
I’m geared to working from home, and as I hardly ever put the TV on, it’s the perfect place to read in natural light. Right now there are plenty of vapid feature articles about long books and immersive reading, but I’m going short. I suppose I properly read 2/3 books a week, maybe more, and skim some for research. But I’ll be leaving aside ‘The Mirror and the Light’ for now and singling out slimmer volumes for a while, because they’ll offer me greater variety.
The length of a book is decided by several factors. Just as you can’t produce a 70 minute film and expect distribution, you can’t write a 120-page novel (at least, not anymore) and sell it easily. Publishers need to be able to charge somewhere between £15 and £20 for a hardback and around £9 for a paperback – still a very favourable price compared to any other long-lasting form of entertainment, but the public demand value for money (although I’ve never seen a document stating that they judge value by the number of words they read).
The length of books has risen and fallen cyclicly from Victorian (fat) to 1920s (medium) to 1930s (slim) to post-war (very slim due to paper shortages) to 1970s (fat again). Most recent books, I feel, could benefit from trimming.
Above are the first six books I grabbed from a shelf that were all under 140 pps. A couple clock in around the 90 page mark. I recall that Thornton Wilder’s ‘The Bridge of San Luis Rey’ is even shorter than these, yet I remember it more vividly than 90% of the fat novels I’ve ploughed through lately. What I immediately notice about the above is that three of them are satires and three are about women is desperate situations. With the exception of the peculiar and not-very-funny ‘The Magic Christian’ all are memorable reads.
So why is the next Bryant & May novel coming your way this summer tipping out at a whopping 450 pages? The length has been dictated by the size of the story, and it’s a big story to tell. My plan for twenty Bryant & May volumes – eighteen novels and two collections of missing cases – is running according to plan and the last two have a lot to get through. Although I usually write fifty chapters, the length of those chapters has steadily been getting longer. Equally I’m editing ruthlessly to keep the books to a readable length. After the twentieth there’s a change coming (not too much of a change, though) that will allow me to write more tightly.
Some of my favourite novels have been monsters that require wrestling to the ground and sitting on. When Charles Palliser wrote ‘The Quincunx’ he knew that writing a pastiche of a Victorian sensation novel would require similar length. Yet there are far fewer really lengthy books that have stayed with me (I write this having successfully avoided ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘Middlemarch’ until now). So a period of staying home with a great many short novels should be an invigorating experience. Favourite short novels, anyone?