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.