Friday, May 11, 2007

A Question of Length

When I received Ian McEwan's new book the other day, I was surprised by what a slim volume it is - just 166 pages which I could (had I so desired) have read in a single sitting.

On Chesil Beach is no less satisfying for its brevity, and I will (as I promised before) tell you all about it later.

But it struck me as I read it that I do really appreciate short novels ... particularly in this age of frequently overstuffed fiction, where editors seem unwilling to take scissors to texts and authors seem to feel that they should tie up our undivided attention for weeks at a time.

Author Dan Rhodes commented in the Guardian some time back that:
... it seems obvious (doesn't it?) that writing overlong books is at the very least plain bad manners. I can't understand why writers are so often pilloried for writing short books. Brevity is mistaken for laziness when more often than not it's the opposite that is true. My new book, Gold, clocks in at 198 pages, and I'm convinced that, apart from in truly exceptional cases, this is about as long as a book ought to be. Of course I fully expect to eat my words next time I read a run of 400 page marvels ...
He includes a top ten list of works of fiction he loves, which:
... don't run a page over the 200 mark. All killer, no filler.
I can think of several more that I've greatly enjoyed myself including One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Steinbeck's Burning Bright, and of course Of Mice and Men. And then of course there's another short book I greatly enjoyed recently; Beasts of No Nation.

I'm sure you have your favourite short books too.

McEwan has been a regular contender for the Booker prize, and On Chesil Beach is one of his best works, I'd say ... but will it be eligible? Will it even be submitted? According to Galleycat, UK bookmakers William Hill, famous for placing odds on those eligible to win the Booker Prize, are turning away those who want to bet early on the book because there is some doubt about whether is is a novel (eligible to enter) or a novella (not eligible to enter). And apparently even McEwan's publishers are unsure whether they will submit the book for the prize or not.

A simple word count should clarify the matter, one would have thought. But how long exactly does a work have to be before it can be considered a novel? Galleycat quotes author Elizabeth Hand:
A novel is usually considered to be a work over 40,000 words in length.
Those of us rash enough to enter the Nanowrimo (where competitors write a whole novel in thee month of November) know that the target is 50,000 words.

Australian writing coach Lee Masterson some useful guidelines about the length of different kinds of story on Author Network. (Have you ever heard of a novelette?) And here again the novel weighs in at 50, 000 words.

I checked a whole lost of websites asking for submissions or giving advice to writers. Some said 40,000. Some said 50,000. There is no rule written on tablets on stone.

Let the last word then go to Julian Gough (winner of the National Short Story Prize):
The short story doesn't exist. But don't worry, neither does the novel, or the novella. (Or the thriller, science fiction or chick-lit.)

All these terms are used after the fact. They are all mostly industrial terms, pretending to be art terms. The best writers write, and only find a name for what they've written later, when they have to describe it to an agent or a publisher.

Look at the recent fuss over Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach: is it a novel, thus qualifying for the Man Booker Prize? Or a novella, thus not qualifying? The bookies have stopped taking bets till the mess is sorted out. But On Chesil Beach continues to exist, just being what it is, a piece of writing that is not the same as any other piece of writing. Good writers invent something new every time they write.

Is Hemingway's The Old Man And The Sea a short novel? A novella? Or a long short story? It could be any of the three, depending on which of the many definitions of each term you use. The way we describe art has nothing to do with the art. Theory is a separate game, that is only about itself.

Art exists, at all kinds of lengths. And industrial product exists, at all kinds of lengths. There are less things we call 'short stories' these days, because there are less outlets for short stories. But I doubt there is less art. That tends to be a constant. There's never very much of it, but there's always enough.
It would be very sad though if McEwan were disqualified for running for the Booker ... so I'd like to request that, if necessary, and entirely in the interests of good fiction, the prize committee shift the goal posts just a little!


Tunku Halim said...


I don't think Cormack McCarthy's The Road is very long either. Maybe more than 180 pages but lots of white space.

On the local scene, The Banana Leaf Man is another short novel: blank space inserted between each paragraph.

So it's not just no. of pages: font size, font used, margins all play a part in making a novel seem longer or shorter than it really is.

bibliobibuli said...

adibah amin's latest novel is just 125 pages too, halim!!

i have no problems with length as a reader. but i feel very sorry for some local writers (well, two cases i know)who have been told that they must extend their manuscript before it can be accepted, even though the story itself works really well as a novella ...

bibliobibuli said...

my copy of "the road" (oprah's choice) has 287 pages - fairly generously spaced but this is certainly not a novella

Anonymous said...

i read The Road a bit. wah damn boring! kekekekekeke!

The Old Man And The Viz

Janet said...

Actually I've always wondered why people talk about length at all. When a book is good, I don't even notice how long or short it is. I think it's how you pace the book so you can't really compare like with like; say a long book that's well-paced so you don't start swatting flies, and a short book that's more emotionally charged or plot-driven so that you're just as taxed at the end as if you'd read a big book.

Other examples of good short books: Old Man and the Sea, Animal Farm, Things Fall Apart, The Stranger, The Catcher in the Rye. Most Coetzee books are pretty short too. No wastage of words.

Chet said...

Well said, Janet. And well read, too.

animah said...

TH, Just bought 44 Cemetry Road. Will begin when I've finished the very long American Gods.

Nuri said...

I think that almost all of Agatha Christie's books are brief. =P

Seriously speaking, I have nothing against books that are 'short' though I'll plead guilty that most of my fantasy novels are quite thick. I don't remember reading many short fantasy novels (or any at all IIRC).

On another note, I don't think it's *easy* to write a good short novel. I mean, I'd find it pretty difficult to write a significant and emotional story without using a ton of pages in the process! So two thumbs up to those authors who get it right.

Jane Sunshine said...

Sometimes I think short novels/novellas/etc are more difficult to write. The writer has to capture the reader and doesn't have the time to languidly build characters. My fav short novel: Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto. The writer captures everything a longer novel would in pithy, succinct and heart rending emotion.

I am currently reading Of Mice and Men (part of self imposed regiment of throwing in classic novels in my reading ritual).

bibliobibuli said...

well said janet and nice examples. i had to find out how long "things fall apart" is - 208 pages, so yes, still pretty short although i remember it being longer which is a tribute to how much acebe has packed into it

nuri - fantasy novels tend to be long because of all the world building that has to happen and usually come in trilogies!

jane sunshine - you're probably right about short novels probably being more difficult to write. "kitchen" is v. good indeed - i'd forgotten about it. hope you enjoy "of mice and men" - surprised you managed to avoid it for so long.

msiagirl said...

I just read A Month in the Country by JL Carr and it was very short - oh but so beautifully written, each character so rounded and I read it very very slowly because it was so good. Made me think of it cos you said you read Chesil Beach very very slowly too.

Tunku Halim said...


Yes, you're right! "This end of the Rainbow" is shortish and could be considered a novella. I don't really have a definition of a novella. Do you have one?

Jordan said...

My book's going to be pretty short. I hope people will still want to read it!

Anonymous said...

Well Jordan, if I had any money I'd buy tons and give them out :D as it is I hope to find one in a library :D

bibliobibuli said...

jordan - your book should be short ... and it will work very well that way.