How long?
Should there be really thick SF novels?

One of our reviewers laments wondering whether we should
never mind the quality but feel the thickness? Pete Tyers shares the 'bloat' concern
common to many that some novels are simply too big.

 

I remember the time when most novels were about 180 to 200 pages long and that seemed to be perfectly adequate to tell a good story. Certainly there were the occasional longer novels but they were really something very special, with a long and involved story to tell; Dune comes to mind as an obvious example (at about 500 pages including the appendices). Then there were also stories with long story arcs that were spread over several volumes, often as a trilogy.

I was recently perusing my shelves and picked up such a standard page-count book more typical of novels years ago; it was a long time ago that I first read it and, as I could not remember the story, I settled onto the sofa for an evening or two and renewed my acquaintance with it. It was about 190 pages long, had an interesting story to tell, the events and characters seemed reasonably thought through, and the story seemed neither rushed nor to suffer from what is today such a low page count.

I also remember when thicker books, with many more pages, started to appear. We sat round discussing whether the authors were paid by the page with no thought for the content, or had Marketing decided that thicker books represented “better value” (i.e. more pages to the pound or dollar). At the time we thought we were being cynical; but were we?

Today books routinely stretch for over 400 or even 500 hundred pages yet offer no more story than their earlier counterparts did.   What do we, the readers, get for this extravagance?   Certainly many of the books I have read over recent years have ticked along nicely, and authors are clearly getting very good at using many, many more words to tell what is basically the same story.   Sometimes it is painfully obvious that little is happening, that I am reading padding for the sake of padding, and on other occasions I ask myself what the point was in this bit of the story, it has added nothing, has slowed it down, and has simply delayed my eventual arrival at the book's conclusion. This can be most frustrating: as, I suspect like most people, I read because I want to find out what happened and how things end.

My copy of The Lord Of The Rings (actually as a trilogy on my bookshelves) totals a little under a thousand pages (appendices excluded) and look how much Tolkien packed into it. Some modern authors seem to achieve little more than a couple of lunches and a short anecdote in that space. OK, I am being a bit excessive in my dismissal there, but many authors write something at least half the length of The Lord Of The Rings yet no more has happened than past authors could have told in a well crafted book of 180 pages.

Having recently received a pile of books to review, I was sitting in the pub with a friend and lamenting the amazing thickness of some of them. "Carrying them around is good for body building," I told him.   Rather than admonishing me, as I thought he would, he replied that he himself was getting fed up with the sheer weight of so many of the more recent books; he has got to the point of thinking, "nice cover, story looks interesting, but no, too heavy, I’m just not carrying that round with me or even sitting there holding it up to read."

So please authors, craft your stories more carefully, think whether all of that description is really necessary, whether that conversation has to be so long or even whether it adds anything, and whether that scene adds to the story or merely makes the whole thing longer. After all, if the book is so big that I just cannot face picking it up what have you achieved? There is no point in writing a story if the reader does not read it!

And publishers: surely you want to make money? How much money do you make when a potential customer picks up a book and says "too big, too heavy" and puts it back on the shelf?

These days when in the bookshop I will buy two shorter books rather than one thick one - twice as many stories! And the story is what I read it for! If all I wanted was lots of paper, I could get it from the recycling bin! Or toilet rolls - lots of paper for the money!!

Is this just me having a moan because a particular book struck me as too big?   Well, having checked the page count of the books I have read in the last couple of years, there is one thing that is very clear to me - the books I enjoyed the most were the shorter ones. They had more interesting stories, or at least the stories were more interestingly told. Sure, of these even the shortest one was 260 pages long and some of the others were bordering on as many as 400 pages, but what I particularly noted was that most that went over the 400 page length had little or no extra to offer, just more words to get through, and suffered as a consequence. My reading time is limited and you authors need to justify your place in it.

So there you are, both you authors and you publishers, keep the length down and the product will improve. And improved products, I am told by Marketing people, sell better!

Peter Tyers

 


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