Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Are books too damn long these days?

I don’t like long books. I don’t like to write them, and I don’t like to read them. Unless it’s a Robert Jordan (R.I.P.) book, I try to avoid reading books that are more than 150-200 pages long.

By long, I mean pretty much anything over 100k words. The shorter the better. I like the standard definition of novel sitting at 50k words. Seems like a reasonable length in which to tell an entertaining story.To me, anything far above that is just excessive.

Lately, I’ve developed such an aversion to long reads that I now browse the young adult section looking for science fiction books as often as I’m in the adult section. Young adult books are usually shorter, and the story moves faster. They’re just generally more entertaining and don’t require a large investment of time to read. And over the last few years, I’ve noticed an irritating trend: adult science fiction books being repackaged and marketed to young adults. The adult science fiction books are appearing in the young adult section. Irritates the heck out of me.

I’ve also begun turning more and more toward the “classic” science fiction and fantasy books, pre-mid-seventies. The average science fiction book was a lot shorter back then. And since, in most cases, they’re not too dated, they’re still good reads, and take a lot less of my time.

One of the reasons I decided to go the self-publishing route is that I don’t want to turn out the massive tomes that the big publishing houses seem to require, a requirement that appears to have been put in place in the mid-1970s (see below). I’d rather write two or three 50-60k-word books a year than one well-padded 100k+ book. I’ve got a very short attention span, and by the time I hit 50k words, I’m pretty much bored with the idea and ready to move on to my next project. I don’t think I can muster enough stamina to stay interested in an idea for 120k+ words. Maybe I have ADHD or something, but if I were forced to write a book that long, I’d probably never finish anything.

Here is my evidence in support of the upward trend in book length over the decades. These are actual word counts for books that I consider representative of the science fiction and fantasy genres over the last four or five decades.

I, Robot  (1950)   Isaac Asimov   69,000 words
Foundation  (1951)   Isaac Asimov   67,000 words
Foundation   Isaac Asimov   66,000 words
The Dying Earth (1951)   Jack Vance   53,00 words
Solaris  (1961)   Stanislaw Lem   67,000 words
Waystation  (1963)   Clifford D. Simak   70,000 words
The Eyes of the Overworld   (1965)   Jack Vance   65,000 words
The Book of Three  (1964)   Lloyd Alexander   47,000 words
Tarnsman of Gor  (1966)   John Norman   67,000 words
The Masks of Time  (1968)   Robert Silverberg   81,000 words
Across a Billion Years  (1969)   Robert Silverberg   64,000 words
Ringworld  (1970)   Larry Niven   104,000 words
Rendezvous With Rama  (1972)   Arthur C. Clarke   71,000 words
In the Ocean of Night  (1977)   Gregory Benford   102,000 words
Midnight at the Well of Souls  (1977)   Jack L. Chalker   124,000 words
The Sword of Shannara  (1977)   Terry Brooks   229,000 words
Lord Foul’s Bane   (1977)   Stephen Donaldson   161,000 words
Startide Rising    (1983)   David Brin   138,000 words
Cugel’s Saga   (1983)   Jack Vance   105,000 words
Star of Gypsies  (1986)   Robert Silverberg   151,000
Weaveworld  (1987)  Clive Barker   201,000          
Araminta Station  (1987)   Jack Vance   194,000 words
Hyperion  (1989)   Dan Simmons   169,000 words
The Eye of the World   (1990)   Robert Jordan   302,000 words
The Real Story  (1991)   Stephen Donaldson   51,000 words
Virtual Light  (1993)   William Gibson   85,000
The Engines of God  (1994)   Jack McDevitt   132,000 words
The Time Ships  (1995)   Stephen Baxter   161,000 words
Perdido Street Station (2000)  China Meiville   226,000

You can see the trend. The word count starts in the range of 60k average in the 1950s and rises above 100k in the mid-1970s and into an average of 150k and above in the mid-1980s onward. The word counts just march steadily upwards, with a rare back-step. Nowadays, the reader is hard-pressed to find a book below 150k words. For me as a reader, if a book is that long, that's one strike against it. The early writers of science fiction were so prolific not only because they probably wrote faster, but the books were about one third the length they are today.

I may be wrong, but I think attitudes toward short books have changed as well, so that shorter books are now regarded as somehow inferior to, or as having less literary validity than, longer books. But would anyone dare to claim that the likes of Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg are inferior to modern-day writers? Robert Silverberg is both a “classic” science fiction author and a modern-day author, and his novels have followed the upward trend in length.

I think one of the trends of this new age of digital publishing is going to be shorter books. They take less time for the author to write, and they’ll probably be more entertaining for the reader, since shorter length will probably equal faster pacing. I think those unwieldy multi-thousand-word counts were forced on both the writers and the reading public, and they’re quickly going to fade away.

1 comment:

  1. I agree that length is getting out of hand. Sometimes I feel it has become a penis showing game. One author boasts his penis is 600 pages long, then another whips out his 800 page penis, and of course, we should all bow down to the hardcover version of the 1000 page penis novel.. perhaps head to the gym for a few months to build up the arm strength to actually hold that penis.

    You end with Perdido Street Station (2000) China Meiville 226,000, which I actually did enjoy the length, but too often I find myself reading a book thinking it should be 40% shorter. My 2 favorite authors are Philip K Dick, whom I feel is perfect example of quality length in SciFi and William Gibson, who also does well keeping length within reason, and love cyperpunk... therefore, based on my tastes, I should be reading Neil Stephenson, but I'm put off by the amazing length of his novels and continually delay reading him, although one would suggest he is a perfect author for me to be reading