When a book is too long (don’t blame the writer)

A columnist with The Guardian wonders why today’s books are so darn long:

“Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap is almost 500 pages and Ken Follett’s doorstopper Fall of Giants, if anyone’s counting, is about 850 pages, probably to appeal to his American readers. Is anyone editing these books? The truth is that they all bear the imprint of marketing, not editorial, values.

Literary elephantiasis starts across the Atlantic. North America has a lot to answer for. In the “pile ’em high” tradition, US bookshops love to display big fat books in the window. The cut-and-paste technology of word processors must bear some of the blame, but overwriting is part of the zeitgeist. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom is highly enjoyable but who’s finishing it? The novel is at least 100 pages too long.”

Danny Finkelman, of the Finkelman’s 45s, wondered about long books, and what happened to those 250 page novels of his youth? I read recently “A Choice of Enemies”, by Mordecai Richler, a novel from 1957, set in Europe, and portraying Canadian and American artists exiled by McCarthy and his criminal disciples. The protagonist is a thriller writer:

“His agent in New York had sent him a copy of the letter from the publisher. They liked his latest thriller, but they wanted it expanded to a minimum of sixty thousand words.”

60,000 words is about half of what one is expected to deliver these days. Let me rephrase it: a writer might not even be considered by a publisher unless her novel is looong enough. A book’s length doubled in just 50 years even though the days of Charles Dickens and being paid by the word are over. When a book drags on and makes a reader yawn it may be, just may be, that a perfectly good story was made indigestible in order to fulfill the publisher’s word count requirement.


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