When big enough is too big

Musician and author Susan Tomes has a wonderful post over at Comment is Free about my complaint that too many books are too damned long just so that they are long enough to be books. I hope she and CiF won’t mind that I quote at length here but, well, her post was just the right length:

It’s true that many publishers seem to have a fixed idea of how long a book must be, and it doesn’t have much to do with the content. The appearance of my first book was delayed for quite a while because it was “not long enough to be a book”. In its original form it was, in fact, a diary kept during certain years. The diary stopped when the project it described came to an end. Some time later, when it occurred to me that people might like to read it, I was told by everyone I consulted that it would have to be “made longer” because it was not book-length.

But there was no more to write without inventing stuff, which I didn’t want to do. So the book stayed unpublished until someone had the idea of adding other essays from later years, enlarging it into a kind of anthology. It became book-length, but whether it was better as a result is debatable. And I know many other writers and academics who’ve been forced to go on writing long after their original thought has been expressed, simply to make “a book” of it.

Yet many people’s favourite books are short ones. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist is constantly mentioned, and that’s scarcely longer than a short story. Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince has been a cult favourite for years, and the astonishing Diving Bell and the Butterfly, dictated letter by letter by Jean-Domenique Bauby when paralysed, is cherished partly because of its brevity.

The internet will, as Jeff Jarvis pointed out, free us from conventional ideas of what is “the right length”. And hooray for that. Unlimited cyberspace will allow people to say as much as they need, or to publish a tiny poem which wings its way round the world in a moment without the need for 125 other poems to bulk up the volume.

The point is, surely, that the removal of “sizist” constraints should be liberating. In cyberspace, authors need not pad out, or cut down, what they want to say. It should be a welcome chance to use just the right number of words. Though whether we can find our readers without bookshops is another matter.

We can all think of books that were padded to be long enough to be books. For example, I enjoyed the first half of Tom Friedman’s World is Flat but two thirds of the way through I was starting mumble to myself, “ok, already, I get it, no need to beat me up over the head with it.” Other nominees for the too-long award?