Thursday, 3 May 2012

Blockbusters or Little Gems

A friend asks, how many words is my new book? 

I reply that it's only 60,000.

By contemporary standards that is terribly short. Most of the crime novels I receive for  review are at least twice as long and many of them three or even four times that length. Yet when I started writing crime fiction 60 to 70,000 words was the standard length, and I still think that's about right for all but the most complicated and elaborate stories. Almost all  of the novels I read would benefit, in my view, from tightening up. I wonder why it became fashionable to write and publish sprawling blockbusters many of which are too heavy to hold comfortably. When it became habitual to write them is obvious: as soon as people started using computers. Compared with writing by hand or using a manual typewriter, word processing is extraordinarily easy and presents an almost irresistible temptation to go on and on. Except to me: I often sit down to lengthen a book I thought I'd finished, find myself crossing out superfluous words and rearranging inelegant sentences, only to discover when I reach the end that it's even shorter than it was before.

So, short, sweet and elegant or sprawling, generous and long-lasting? Which do you prefer?


  1. I don't mind how long a book is so long as it is well edited and not longer than it needs to be. I agree that several contemporary crime fiction novels are longer than they need to be, for example the Millennium Trilogy (Larsson) could have been better-edited and so could the last two Roslund-Hellstrom books (Cell 8 and some number I(forget how many) of Seconds). Some of Jo Nesbo's could also be a bit shorter though his plots are so convoluted, you can't miss a paragraph, so he would be a challenge for an inexperienced editor who does not have much time. In general, I've read quite a few debut novels recently that should have been 250 pages but were blown up to 350 which makes them tedious (especially crime fiction which tends to degenerate into cliche and forced plot resolutions by the end).

  2. The last Swedish blockbuster I read came in at 504 pages; but sitting on my shelves are an Agatha Christie [287 pages] Georges Simenon [154 pages] and Ross Macdonald [278 pages].
    There very few authors who can write 500 pages, and not have the story wallow in irrelevant padding at some stage.

  3. thanks for those comments - and since you agree with me about the problem I wonder whether you have any better idea than I do about the cause of it. Are publishers demanding length, because they think readers do? And am I idiotically pathetic in saying that one of the problems with these blockbusters is literally their weight? Too heavy to read comfortably in bath or bed!

  4. I agree with Uriah. I tend to think that very long books are driven by commercial rather than literary considerations. Though why a longer book should be seen as more commercial is a puzzle. Is it some sort of confused thinking about value?