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 So the book stayed unpublished until someone had the idea of adding other essays from later years, enlarging it into a kind of anthology.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?

  • Wise One

    I must defend (sort of) “The Wordl Is Flat.” The writer gives us many examples of the changes that the micro chip is making in the white collar world. Other writers mention these changes but “The World…” gives us specifics.

    I bought two copies and took four legal pages of notes. It is the “firebell in the night” for our people.

    I disagree with the globalization crowd and advocate economic patriotism.

  • I love Malcolm Gladwell’s writing, but I thought Blink was much longer then it had to be. It was a great idea, but the point was made (with great illustrations) early on in the book.

  • Jimmy

    Actually, I think books are longer because authors are exerting greater control over their “product” and refusing to allow editors to do their job. I love to read Stephen King and George R. R. Martin, both of whom write excessively large and expensive novels. Both could use with a good editor, but because of their celebrity they can control their work in ways they never could before. Stephen King is a prime example of this. Some his his greatest works were novels in the 200-300 page range: Carrie, The Shining, ‘Salem’s Lot. Since the Stand, however, (which was much edited) his books have become larger and larger and most of what he writes could be edited out. I will say King’s re-issued version of The Stand with material he was required to take out was much better. Is the internet going to help that? Hell, no! The cost-incentive for keep novels to a manageable page count will be gone.

  • Alex

    I second Blink.

  • I usually love the first half of travel writer Bill Bryson’s books, but by the second half, it seems like he is sick of the trip and I am sick of him.

  • Mike G

    Bobos in Paradise has a brilliant, insightful introduction. All of whose points are then beaten to death, more and more stridently and ultimately unconvincingly, for 10 or 15 chapters.

    The queen of authors whom none dare edit is J.K. Rowling. There’s nothing wrong with the last few Harry Potter books that throwing a third of each one away wouldn’t cure.

  • I would add Jeff’s typical Buzzmachine post to the list of things that are usually too long ;).

  • Greg:
    (SLAP). I asked for that.

    suebob: seconded.

    ditto blink

  • Glyn

    To quote the old joke: I can’t imagine how a busy man like Jeff has the time to read his own posts, let alone write them.

    Pepys Diary: 1660 to 1665, entries fairly succinct. 1665 to 1669, entries fairly verbose.

  • pb

    The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote on this topic:

    “It is a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books–setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes. The better way to go about it is to pretend that those books already exist, and offer a summary, a commentary on them.” From Forward to Fictions.

    And the Italian writer Italo Calvino also touched on the subject of shorter literary forms:

    “In this preference for short literary forms I am only following the true vocation of Italian literature, which is poor in novelists but rich in poets, who even when they write in prose give of their best in texts where the highest degree of invention and thought is contained in a few pages. This is the case with a book unparalleled in other literatures: Leopardi’s Operetta morali (essays and dialogues). American literature has a glorious and thriving tradition of short stories, and indeed I would say that its most precious gems are to be found there. But the rigid distinction made by publishers–either shrot story or novel–excludes other possible short forms (which still may be found in the prose works of the great American poets, from Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days to many pages of William Carlos Williams). The demands of the publishing business are a fetish that must not be allowed to keep us from trying out new forms. I should like at this point to break a lance on the field for the richness of short literary forms, with all they imply in terms of style and concentration of content…”

    With the advent of blogging, I think we have an opportunity to create a rich tradition of high quality short form non-fiction writing.