21 September 2008

Never mind the quality, feel the width

This is an old expression from the rag trade that was used in a British sit-com of the same title. I'm not totally sure of its meaning but it seems to fit what I want to talk about here.

It's topic I have touched on before, the length and size of books, current crime fiction in particular. Friends who read fantasy tell me I have nothing to worry about. The tomes they read are much bigger.

But I am not sure that I understand what is happening in the crime fiction genre. Should I be grateful that many books are that much longer? I am getting more pages for my $, but am I getting quality? Is the case, as one of my fellow bloggers said of THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (533 pages), There was an excellent 400 page novel in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and it is a pity that no one dissected it out from all the padding and extraneous detail. I myself referred to it as a "turducken", a novel with many parts, and many flavours and styles.

I think that, back in the good old days, of Christie, Marsh etc., books were not only smaller, easier to hold, but shorter. Was the shorter novel a sign of the times, an effect of economies where paper and printing were much more expensive?
Were they as good?
These days I almost breath a sigh of relief when I pick up one, like ROCK & ROLL HOMICIDE, that is less than 300 pages. I'm looking forward to Laurie King's TO PLAY THE FOOL which is only 260 pages!

Here are the lengths of some that I have read recently.
Can I point out too that they are mainly in trade paperback size?

THIS NIGHT'S FOUL WORK, Fred Vargas, 409 pp
A CURE FOR ALL DISEASES, Reginald Hill, 535 pp
CARELESS IN RED, Elizabeth George, 532 pp
THE CLEANER, Brett Battles, 353 pp
THE FORGOTTEN GARDEN, Kate Morton, 490 pp
VOODOO DOLL, Leah Giarratano, 303 pp
SHATTER, Michael Robotham, 466 pp
NEMESIS, Jo Nesbo, 474 pp
WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS?, Kate Atkinson, 348 pp

So you can see that TGWTDT is amongst the longest.
We've been discussing TGWTDT this week over on oz_mystery_readers and length is one of the topics.

I guess the point is whether these novels are not only long in length but also long-winded.
Could they have done with better editing?
Do some authors get away with murder, so to speak?

Given that a longer novel must cost a publishing house more to print, ship, store etc. I wonder how much pressure there is to cut long manuscripts back.
Perhaps if you are an author you might like to comment on whether there are guidelines etc.
Do you have to fight hard to keep extra length?

I suspect that what happened with TGWTDT is that the publishers were dealing with a deceased estate, a dead author, and the decision was made to go largely with the manuscript as they had it, apart from obvious typos etc.
The structure of the novel would also make it difficult to decide what and where to cut. About 100 pages before the end, I thought "that's it!" and then realised that not everything was tied off and I still really didn't know the final answers.

The other effect of longer novels might be that readers would read fewer books altogether.
But my recent records don't support that idea.
2000 - 72 books, 2001 - 73 books, 2002 - 79 books, 2003 - 86 books, 2004 - 110 books, 2005 - 132 books, 2006 - 114 books, 2007 - 124 books, and already in 2008 - 78 books, more than in 2000 and 2001.

I don't actually find the length of a book offputting if it is a good read. What happens though sometimes is that the extra material, that should have been trimmed, makes it harder for the reader to appreciate what the book is about, keep track of charcaters and threads. What do you think?

In the right hand margin of this page you will find a poll where you can tell me the size of the book you are currently reading. Do give it a go! It will be fun to see how many people respond.


Anonymous said...

I was discussing the size issue this morning with my 13-year old niece who is a keen reader and we agreed that the quality of the Harry Potter series is inversly proportional to the size of the books (which got progressively longer over the series). My niece suggested that as Rowling became more popular the publishers/editors were intimidated and less likely to critique her work with the result that the dross that was edited out in the earlier volumes was left in for the later works. I suspect there's some truth in that for all genres.

I am not the world's biggest Tim Winton fan but I will give him credit for telling his stories with a brevity that is rare these days. His latest novel, Breath, is 224 pages. There should be an award for that :)

Kerrie said...

Michael Robotham made an interesting point in one of the presentations he gave that for one of his novels, the publisher actually asked for more content.

However I suspect that the publishing firms like many other businesses have put the editors in charge of more authors, and they simply don't devote the time to actually editing that they used to.

I would imagine that Elizabeth george and Reginald Hill would be pretty intimidatory too.

I would be interested in responses from authors who are relatively new ot the game.

wisteria said...

Having finished an ARC of A Toss of a Lemon that has just now hit the bookstores at 600+ pages, I sympathize. I noted in my review in delicate fashion, how readers needed to prepare for a tome of epic size.
Honestly, the novel was too long and would have been enhanced by a shorter version. At times the writing was painfully detailed. I took your poll.
I'm curious too.

Uriah Robinson said...

Kerrie you made me look up the number of pages in my current read but I will forgive you as you quoted me. ;o)
406 pages and I just can't get interested in this one I am 60 pages in and would normally be about on page 200 by now.
I think it is all about the quality of the writing and getting the reader interested enough to face a long book. I baulk at the idea of reading 500 pages of some writers but Nesbo for instance can pile on the pages for me.

Anonymous said...

Very intriguing questions, Kerrie. I think looking back at the books I've read this year, including-- but maybe especially mysteries-- the bulk of the books I've read have been on the shorter side: under 300 pages. I think sometimes I have a bit of ADD and when a book is over 300 pages, I have to really focus, which is hard for me to do. Sometimes, though, I know the authors were paid by the word-- as with Dickens, who wrote serials-- and I think he could have used an editor. Anyway, just my rambling thoughts on the subject. Thanks for bringing it up.

Dani In NC said...

As you mentioned, sci-fi and fantasy readers have become accustomed to large books, mainly because a whole new world has to be explained within the pages. However, I found myself skipping long passages in either the 6th or 7th Harry Potter where Rowling kept talking about them traveling from place to place. I was a big fan of the series, but I draw the line at extensive descriptions of the landscape in any book.

I don't tend to think about the length of a book unless it is unexpected. For instance, I put "A Hopeless Romantic" on reserve at the library. When I picked it up, I was surprised to see that it was over 500 pages. From the description I had read, I thought it was one of those light chick-lit books so I didn't expect any more that 250 pages. I don't ever expect contemporary young adult novels to be long, either.


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