This past weekend, Kate and I were at Readercon, a SF convention outside Boston. This particular con is, as the name suggests, very literary in nature, and features a lot of panels of a more academic inclination. Unfortunately, my feelings about the humanities side of academia are in the “Oh, please,” phase of their oscillation, so I ended up skipping a lot of it in favor of working on edits for How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog. I did go to a couple of panels, though, one of them on “Book Inflation:”

Tom Easton, Leigh Grossman (leader), Walter H. Hunt, Rosemary Kirstein, Howard Waldrop. For decades, SF novels had an average length of about 200 pages, and to write an SF novel of 450 pages was exceptional and A Statement. Now, 450 pages seems average. What are the forces that caused this change? Why, in an era when attention spans are supposedly shorter than ever, are big books the norm? What are the effects of longer books (and longer sequences of books) on our experience as readers? Have writers lost the art of economy? Is there more immersive pleasure in long books than short?

I’m someone who reads a pretty fair number of long books, so it seemed like a reasonably interesting topic. It’s kind of an odd line-up for this, though, as none of these people is noted as a writer of great big long books. Waldrop in particular is primarily a short-story writer– he’s got one novel, Them Bones , which isn’t particularly long.

What’s particularly notable about the line-up, though, is that there isn’t anybody from the editorial side of things– Grossman works in book production, Easton has done some non-fiction editorial work, and the rest are writers. As a result, the discussion wandered through a bunch of things that sounded pretty implausible to me, and I think the panel would’ve benefitted enormously from having a respected editor (Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Ginjer Buchanan, David Hartwell, etc.) on the panel to step on some of the more egregious myths.

There were a few interesting historical notes about publishing technology and the like, but far too much of the panel consisted of snarky remarks about George R. R. Martin and other big long book writers, and complaints that publishers these days don’t really do any editing any more, so the long books that get published are really just first drafts that should be trimmed. There were also some insinuations that publishers were forcing authors to pad out stories beyond their natural length to fit some ideal profile. Hunt, for example, said that the franchise novel he’s currently writing for Eric Flint could be done in 90,000 words, but his contract calls for 150,000, so he’s making it longer, to the detriment of its artistic integrity.

There were some interesting aspects raised, but they never really gelled into anything coherent. And a lot of the arguments that were raised ended up being kind of incoherent– there was a suggestion that economics are behind the increase in book length, because if you boost the page count by 50% people think they’re getting more book, and will buy it even if you increase the price by 75%. This runs up against the much-discussed phenomenon from a few years ago, though, where book editors were suddenly splitting big long books into two, because the big-box chains couldn’t sell big books at the price they’d need to in order to break even.

Or there was the claim that prior to the publication of The Lord of the Rings as a trilogy, nobody had ever considered publishing a long story in multiple volumes. Which might be true if history started in 1930, but the phrase “Victorian three-volume novel” exists for a reason, you know. I suspect it’s more likely that the 50,000-word novel of “Golden Age” sf is the aberration, brought about by the constraints of pulp publishing and distribution.

There was also a bizarre tangent at one point about how YouTube has destroyed the attention span of today’s youth. I don’t have the slightest idea how that made any sense at all, given the panel topic.

This panel would’ve been immeasurably better with somebody on it who works in the editorial side of a major publisher, because I think a lot of things were said that were just flat wrong. Somebody with experience and knowledge of how the business works would’ve been able to correct that, and that would’ve made for a more productive discussion. As it was, it kind of rambled off into territory that I don’t think was all that useful.

It’s a shame, because there is something to the topic. The average novel is noticeably larger than it used to be, and even shorter books tend to be bound in a way that makes them look longer than short books used to look. There’s probably an interesting conversation to be had about how it got to be that way (though it’s possible that it’s a purely empirical “people buy more long books, so we produce long books to sell them” thing), but sadly, this wasn’t it.

Comments

  1. #1 muteKi
    July 18, 2011

    What does that mean, then, if I find I regularly lack the patience for youtube?

  2. #2 Kate from Iowa
    July 18, 2011

    Was there any discussion at all about metafiction, and the success of metastories like S.King’s Dark Tower (which series seems to be invading all of his work, to the point where he’s gone back and re-edited stuff to fit it in better, if I remember right,) and the effect that it’s having on genre fiction. I have no problem with long books, multi-part books and single books split into two parts, Tad Williams got me reading fantasy again in college with Memory, Sorrow and Thorn after having quit in disgust at the tripe that was all I could find, but it’s getting/gotten to the point where it’s just ridiculous (Jordan, Card) with some authors/series.

  3. #3 Moopheus
    July 18, 2011

    I haven’t been to Readercon in a long time, and I’d have to find my old programs to be sure, but I’d be willing to bet we had this discussion 15 years ago. I wouldn’t necessarily blame the editors entirely: have you ever tried to get a fantasy novelist to voluntarily cut 30,000 words from an overly long manuscript? I can tell you from experience it can be a hair-pulling exercise in futility. But the simple economics is this: big books get published because big books sell. Ever since Lester del Rey published Sword of Shannara, publishers have cultivated this audience and reaped the rewards.

  4. #4 Sherri
    July 18, 2011

    It also seems like movies have gotten longer, particularly the big action summer blockbusters. Those all seem to run around 2.5 hours, even though there’s often not enough story to fill 90 minutes. Maybe consumers want to feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth with the higher prices, and don’t like spending $10.50 for a 90 minute movie or $8.99 for a 200 page mass market paperback.

    Or at least, maybe marketers think consumers don’t want to pay that.

  5. #5 Skwid
    July 18, 2011

    tl;dr

    (heh)

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    July 18, 2011

    It also seems like movies have gotten longer, particularly the big action summer blockbusters. Those all seem to run around 2.5 hours, even though there’s often not enough story to fill 90 minutes. Maybe consumers want to feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth with the higher prices, and don’t like spending $10.50 for a 90 minute movie or $8.99 for a 200 page mass market paperback.

    Maybe.
    But there, too, it’s not clear to me that the recent historical length of a movie is really any kind of ideal. After all, back in the day, movies routinely had an intermission, and some old epics are long even by today’s standards.

  7. #7 Bill Gill
    July 18, 2011

    I had a discussion with one man who suggested that word processors are the culprit. After all when you are writing with a pencil or pen, or typing it there is a lot of work getting the words on the page. In a word processor you can keep on adding words, and editing them, a lot more easily than with pencil, pen or typewriter.

    Bill Gill

  8. #8 Kaleberg
    July 18, 2011

    For Isaac Asimov, the reason was obvious. He got a word processor back in the 70s, and his novels and other books bloated horribly. I think he bought a Wang. They were expensive, maybe $10,000 in 1970s money, but he was a very successful author. He also had the market power to more or less write any length he chose, so I doubt some publisher forced him to make his books longer.

    I can’t guess the why for other authors.

    I’m also tired of people claiming that our attention spans are shorter than ever. Sure, we watch Youtube shorts, but people used to watch shorts at the movies. Hell, they were the original movies. If anything, we are also following longer narratives as authors crank out book after book in successful franchises and television seasons are increasingly structured rather than a simple series of stateless episodes.

  9. #9 Ron
    July 18, 2011

    Why books are the length they are, section 5 of Charlie Stross on Common Misconceptions About Publishing speaks to this at length.

  10. #10 IW
    July 19, 2011

    Stephen King started this by insisting upon relating the entire life history of every character in every novel, and then adding histories for their grandparents, too. He took it to unprecedented heights when he began his “Gunslinger Trilogy” which last I paid any attention to it was in many more than three volumes and still going strong.

    Neal Stephenson became the leader in Sci fi when he attempted the History of the World Part 2 in his Bloat Cycle.

  11. #11 Kate Nepveu
    July 19, 2011

    IW: King’s Dark Tower series was complete at seven books (and one side novella), though he’s now apparently writing an interstitial book. Even if I had the first two in hardcover, they’d still take up less than half the shelf space of Wheel of Time.

  12. #12 KeithB
    July 19, 2011

    Could world building be the problem? I am working my way through the Revelation Space series, and it seems that the author spends a *lot* of time telling us about his wonderful universe, and that he just doesn’t seem to just get on with the *story*.

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