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?

36 comments on “The Long And The Short Of It”

  1. Ian Luck says:

    ‘The Diamond As Big As The Ritz’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
    ‘The Picture Of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde.
    ‘Cannery Row’ by John Steinbeck
    ‘The Epic Of Gilgamesh’ by Anon.
    Four of my favourite short books.

  2. Rachel Green says:

    Not a short novel but a link to help you in your isolation:

  3. Stuart Williams says:

    I’m currently making my way through the novels of John Blackburn – as and when I can find them. A blend of thriller, horror and science fiction that is hard to categorise, they usually run to less than 160 pages. My favourite so far is Ring of Roses. I gave up reading large books during my time as a commuter. I couldn’t strap hang with one hand and support the book with the other. As to turning the pages, that usually involved my chin!

  4. Jan says:

    I wonder what we all R reading? I’m reading (and as you are all no undoubtedly aware you are dealing with a bit of a numpty here.) I’m reading the 2nd in a trilogy of books “The AustraliaTrilogy” by a bloke called J.P. Smythe. It’s classed as young adult fiction and the 1st book “Way Down Dark” which I picked up in Crewkerne library I read in about three days which is v. rare for me. The story is very tightly written and he’s good this bloke he holds your attention and the writing itself is taut. The descriptions are very well done. He’s not just a good story teller to me – admittedly not much of an educated type expert- the writing itself is smashing.

    2nd volume which I am reading is “Long Dark Dusk” and The final volume I’d have to look up for you. But if you happen to be stuck indoors…..

  5. Mike says:

    I’ve got the B&M series to re- read and Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove quartet lined up.
    Got the Robert B Parker books in reserve
    When they’re done it’s a trawl through the bookshelves to see.

  6. Andrew Holme says:

    Obvious choice – any Maigret. Sticking with Shirley Jackson, ‘We Have Always Lived in the Castle’.

  7. Bob Low says:

    I’ve decided not to make any unnecessary purchases for the moment – no new books unfortunately- so have been going over my shelves looking for unread stuff.. Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’ is a remarkable short novel, although a bit too near the knuckle in its subject matter just now. Virtually all of the great Margaret Millar’s novels clock in at around 150 pages, and are consistently brilliant. Peter Ackroyd’s ‘Hawkesmoor’ is slim in size, but contains multitudes. As for the longer novels mentioned, I am always meaning to get round to ‘Vanity Fair’. ‘Middlemarch’ is actually very good, if you can deal with the rather prissy ‘Head Girl Lecturing the Proles’ tone of the prose.

  8. Bob Low says:

    ‘Hawksmoor’, even

  9. Martin Tolley says:

    Some PG Wodehouse for me, a different “normal” to get immersed in. The advice about staying in has worked in odd ways here – all three of the the local supermarkets have no tea bags (leaf left aplenty), and no butter.

  10. admin says:

    Perhaps we should send each other a few books if we live in nearby locales…

  11. Brian Evans says:

    I’m with the P. G Wodehouse theme. He wrote loads of short stories.

    I will re-listen to the “Just William” stories so wonderfully read by Martin Jarvis.

    I have saved the Bryant and May short stories for when I need cheering up. Which is now.

  12. David Ronaldson says:

    I confess to a rather mawkish love of Goodbye Mr Chips.

  13. Liz Thompson says:

    My daughter read Vanity Fair. She’s never stopped complaining of her wasted time since. I never read it, I was given it as a child and got to halfway through chapter one twice. I had the same problem with War and Peace. I refuse to persist if I don’t enjoy the book. I have never read Dickens, Wordsworth or Eliot since school compelled me, though I loved Canterbury Tales and Shakespeare. Currently reading about ten books. Emma Lathen, Michael Rosen, Heinlein (Moon is a harsh Mistress), Rebecca Solnit, Robert Bringhurst, Ursula le Guin, Neil Gaiman, Maria Popova’s Figuring, Gladys Mitchell, and George Bellairs. There may be some more I’ve overlooked, I invariably have several in different rooms, my handbag (along with the kitchen sink naturally), and come to think of it, I’m also partway through Arias and Marge Piercy’s collected poems. I would read a cereal packet or Hansard if nothing else was available. I’m gradually gearing up for a very long and probably complicated Douglas Hofstadter and the new biography of Eric Hobsbawm. They’re definitely isolation reads. Probably with my copy of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary to hand.
    And of course, I bought Mangle Street Murders, Rune and Soho Black when they cropped up on here. They are in the waiting pile.

  14. Brooke says:

    Brevity is the soul of good fiction; Try:
    Chinua Achebe: Things Fall Apart, No Longer At Ease, Man of the People, Arrow of God, etc.
    Tony Morrison: The Bluest Eye (short knock out; probably not to be read duing these times)
    Carys Davies: Redemption of Galen Pike; Some New Ambush (both small, packing heavy pushes)
    Ngugi wa Thiongo (even my Kenyan friends cannot pronounce the author’s name correctly; however, he is a hell of a good story teller) The Upright Revolution, 48 pages of good story telling.
    Anything by Bellairs.

    If you are US based, check if local library subscribes to Hoopla (free ebooks, audiobooks, TV) downloadable to most devices. Our library is a digital powerhouse–ebooks, music, movies, most news media and lots of literature in multiple languages. There’s a home bound service….ummm …I’m going to call and pester the reference desk.

  15. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    Libraries have ebooks in the UK as well.
    You’ll find them on

  16. Andrew Holme says:

    Ooh, just remembered, ‘The Colour of Blood’ by Brian Moore. Terrific book, it’s like mainlining Hitchcock.

  17. admin says:

    Oh God – I need to write a column on Moore! Morrison yes, Gaiman no – can’t get on with him at all, Mann yes, Wodehouse obvs, Waugh always…where to go next…

  18. Helen Martin says:

    Right and Laura Joh Rowland her feudal Japan series with the shogun’s investigator of things,persons and events Sano Ichiro. I’ve just finished The Pillow Book of Lady Wisteria and have The Red Chrysanthemum to come.
    A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is proving very … I’m not sure what but I want to get back to the Metropole Hotel and find out what is happening to the Count. It is Moscow in 1922, but somehow I think things would be tenser than Towles portrays it. The writing is beautiful.

  19. Debra Matheney says:

    I found Vanity Fair hilarious in its satire and Becky Sharp to be the quintessential social climber. The last version for TV with Michael Palin as Thackeray opening each episode was delightful. Watch it it you don’t want to read the novel.Tom Jones is my all time favorite novel, but I lack the patience and focus to reread it now. New Hilary Mantel will have to wait.
    I prefer 300-400 page works and am currently working through Jim Kelly police procedurals set in Norfolk. As a teen and young adult, I read big books, even Sir Walter Scott and lots of Dickens. Would not read them 30’s and haven’t looked back. Now I only red British ones.
    Recommend The Great Gatsby. Hate Hemingway for both style and content. Recommend I Capture the Castle for fun. The movie captures the whimsy and pathos of the novel.Mary Wesley and Barbara Pym developed unique female characters.
    There is always Jane Austen, but you lot disdain her. Happy reading as we all face this period of social isolation. Stay well.

  20. Debra Matheney says:

    PS LOVED A Gentleman from Moscow. How to make a whole world of experiences while confined in a hotel. Towles writes so beautifully, as Helen said.

  21. Glenn Tollenaar says:

    Is 214 pages short enough? If so, Ross Thomas’ first book, “the Cold War Swap”, is a good quick read. It introduces two sometimes-recurring characters, McCorkle and Mike Padillo. Thomas’ mix of characters is always interesting.

  22. Ian Luck says:

    I have never managed to get past chapter three of ‘Moby Dick’ – my god, it’s dull. I think it’s because the characters are so unknowable nowadays – you can’t just walk up to a whaler, and ask if the book is correct, nowadays.
    Melville’s very odd story ‘Bartleby The Scrivener’ is, however, a favourite of mine.
    At present, I’m reading some rather thick books:
    ‘Dracul’, by Dacre Stoker and J.D. Barker;
    ‘Mars By 1980: The Story Of Electronic Music’, by David Stubbs;
    ‘OMD: Pretending To See The Future’, by Richard Houghton;
    ‘Clothes, clothes, clothes, Music, music, music, Boys, boys, boys’, by Viv Albertine – a brilliant, but brutally honest autobiography of the guitarist of the (mostly) all-female punk band of the 1970’s, The Slits.
    ‘The Hog’s Back Mystery’, by Freeman Wills Crofts.
    I have a suspicion I’ll have time to finish all of these.

  23. Brian Evans says:

    I have just been wondering how many new novelists will be created after this enforced imprisonment. Now that those people who say they would love to write a novel ,if only there was time, have no excuse.

  24. Rh says:

    Magnus Mills springs to mind – compact but really vivid situations. Perennial shorties: slaughterhouse 5 and Treasure Island.

  25. Liz Thompson says:

    I enjoyed The Hog’s Back Mystery, Ian. Can recommend George Bellairs too, and Gladys Mitchell.

  26. Stephen Morris says:

    Hi Chris, could this virus disrupt publishing dates?I read books of various lengths;the more Bryant and May,the better.

  27. Eliz Amber says:

    450 pages of Bryant and May? Be still, my beating heart!

    Sadly, I’m finding less time to read because I normally read on the train or during my lunch breaks. Since I’m working from home (and very thankful that I can do that – I feel awful for those who are losing their jobs), I’m using my ‘lunch break’ to take a walk.

  28. Roger says:

    As I said, books I was going to read but never got round to:
    Lavinia Greacen’s biography of J.G,. Farrell – inspired by the mention above – it turned out that I was possessed by the Spirit of Professor Branestawm and had three copies – The London Lover by Clancy Sigal – A Yank in London in the 1950s and 60s. He was broke and wandered into the DHSS and they just gave him some money – not much, but some – to tide him over. Imagine Sir Ebenezer Scrooge’s response to that! Making Certain It Goes On – the collected poems of Richard Hugo. James Crumley used a line from Hugo as atitle for a book and I came across this soon after. I only read part of it. Vasili Grossman’s Stalingrad- several weeks in that alone.
    And the old reliables – The Golden Treasury, Quiller-Couch’s Oxford Book, Saki, Kipling, Orwell’s essays – a source for many books – in between.

  29. Peter Tromans says:

    A friend attempted the marathon process of reading ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ a few pages per night when he was a student. He re-started a few times as he forgot characters and facts. The only Dostoevsky that I’ve read was ‘Crime and Punishment’, chosen mainly because it’s shorter, or less long, than most of his other books. I didn’t enjoy it. Can I describe it as Graham Greene with all the humour squeezed out?

  30. Roger says:

    Les Mis has 365 chapters. David Bellos in his excellent book on it suggested reading a chapter a day for a year.
    I think about it, but I’m afraid I’m more likely to reread Bellos.

  31. Ian Luck says:

    I have read ‘Crime And Punishment’ too. ‘Fun’ it was most definitely not. The only thing I have enjoyed about it since, is a line from a song called ‘Philadelphia’ by the great Manchester band, Magazine:
    “I could have been Raskalnikov/But Mother Nature ripped me off.”
    If I want a humorous Russian book, then I am happy to return to ‘Dead Souls’ by Nikolai Gogol. Very blackly humorous. It was made into a very funny BBC Radio 4 serial starring Michael Palin, if I remember correctly.

  32. Wayne Mook says:

    I’ve been self isolated since last Friday, I was feeling quite ill so slept a lot the first 3 to 4 days so not read much, I’ve read some comics. I’m reading another history of Manchester, it’s criminal that the Wood Street mission from Victorian times is still running and greatly needed.

    Oddly enough I’ve a John Blackburn at the top of a pile, The Face of the Lion, it’s short so I’ll have a go, sadly my work got work out to me so I’ll actually be working tomorrow.

    To be honest there are novels I’ve not bought because they look too long, I’m reminded of a review of a later Foundation novel by Isaac Asimov, when David Langford stated it was, ‘so flatulent you dare not squeeze it in public.’


  33. Gert Loveday says:

    What about Patrick Modiano ? He hasn’t written a book over 165 pages. He is French so maybe that makes a difference.

  34. Bruce Rockwood says:

    Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut seems appropriate. The two Dirk Gently novels by Adams. Seems a shame libraries are closing. If this goes on, home gardens for veg and home brew ing instructions will be of use.
    Sending all kids home from college strikes me as a mistake.

  35. Wayne Mook says:

    I did read some Richard Brautigan, The Hawkline Monster and have Dreaming of Babylon to read, I’m not sure if I like him, too clever by half as my dear old dad would say. At least it didn’t drag and was 176 pages long, well the version I had was. Still not made my mind up about him, it could go either way.


  36. John Griffin says:

    “Consciousness: how matter becomes imagination”. Edelman & Tononi.
    Not a long book, but very pertinent to Admin’s output, that B&M originated somewhere in a couple of kilos of pulsating cells – some of them dedicated to B&M, but how?

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