Anyone who has tried to be a fiction writer, or anyone who has leafed through the annually released Writer’s Market books, has noticed that most major publishing houses are looking specifically for manuscripts ranging from 30,000-50,000 words. In published form, that adds up to about 350-550 pages, depending largely on font size and how much dialogue the writer invests their book with (dialogue leaves so much blankness on the page, especially when that dialogue revolves around short statements, quips, or terse arguments).
Apart from not hiring new talent, it’s the length requirement of novels that I feel is the publishing industry’s biggest, and outright dumbest mistake. Without restrictions or set goals or criterias to meet, a writer can free their mind and create stories organically, that play out right as they should, and end when they are necessitated by the storyline to end. When a writer is told how long to make a book though, the organic process is destroyed and turned into something all too mechanical. Instead of allowing their mind to operate on a free-flow of ideas, it becomes mathematical, as the writer is left to weigh each sentence, worrying that a descriptive paragraph might put them over the tipping point, or that, by excising stale portions of dialogue, they will come up short.
Now throw into the mix the idea of working as a writer under contract. A lot of the big publishing companies expect from a newly hired writer a book completed every 8-12 months. It’s only when a writer becomes famous that they can be given however long they need to write their next manuscripts.* Imagine being conscripted to write 30,000 to 50,000 words in that time. Take into consideration that inspiration can be a fickle thing.
What I’m certain happens frequently in these situations is that a writer begins writing, comes up with a premise fit for maybe a novella or short story (knowingly or unknowingly), then has to stretch out whatever they’ve come up with to 30,000 to 50,000 words. There’s different ways of doing this. 1) Include horrendous amounts of inconsequential dialogue. Instead of having detectives show up at a crime scene, have the characters discuss leaving while at police headquarters for a chapter or two. 2) Have chapters written from the perspectives of characters who are at best ancillary. I don’t know how many Star Wars books I’ve read when I was younger where the Empire’s generals yammered on and on about chasing Han Solo before ever firing up the hyperdrive. 3) Include a long description of how the props in the novel work, even if they don’t play a large role. Don’t just write about how the submarine in the espionage story avoids radar detection, but write about how the captain’s mini-fridge keeps his sandwiches fresh. By following these three steps, any writer can ruin their story’s suspense and narrative cohesion while reaching a deadline on-time.
If this doesn’t seem fair to the writer, it’s decidedly less fair to the genre-writer. Compare the two pictures below. The first is a lineup of mainstream fiction novels, and the second is a selection of genre novels.
The criteria for genre novels’ lengths was never so strict as they are in the present day. For instance, if you look at the golden age of sci-fi, so many books from that period were 100-200 pages. Typically, they were published in installments through pulp magazines. Later, in the New-Wave era of SF, writers still could publish books that were 100-200 pages. Almost all of Philip K. Dick’s books are right around 200 pages. His longest book is 304 pages. Ursula K. LeGuin’s best book The Lathe of Heaven is only around 192 pages. All of her Earthsea novels are relatively short too. P. K. Dick’s and U. K. LeGuin’s books simply would not have been good had they been stretched and doubled. Oppositely, George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books (well over 50,000 words each) wouldn’t be very good if they were compacted into 400 pages or split into two books (especially since the biggest action scenes come towards the end).
The same can be said of mysteries and thrillers. James M. Cain during the 1930s published two of his best books through pulps first, Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, and both weighed in at around 100 pages. His style revolves so much around clipped sentences and fast pacing that they’d be completely boring if expanded. In their brevity though, they are perfect. Another perfect mystery-thriller is Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. This one is about 28o pages. Similar to Cain, Highsmith writes about the character’s psychology, but she goes into greater detail while not sacrificing the suspense. If she’d been told to make her book be around 100 pages like Cain’s, or to make it 400 pages like today’s books, either the psychological depth would be gone, or the suspense. Why then should today’s genre writers be told to write at 30,000 to 50,000 words just because Crichton, King, Grisham, Clancy and the rest achieved financial success at that length?
My answer is this: because readers have been led to believe that the most fulfilling books are around 400 pages, despite how there’s no real empirical proof to back this up that can’t be easily contradicted. Somehow, the casual reader’s had the notion put in their head that length=story, and that with a short book you’re given only a smidgen of a story, while at a long length the story becomes too diffuse. What they don’t realize is how much fluff, filler, padding, twaddle, jibber-jabber, and cliches the 400 page books are so often filled with. If only these readers would pick up The Great Gatsby, where a fully realized story is told in 180 pages, or, obversely, read Anna Karenina, where over the course of nearly a thousand pages, the book contains more story than any other book I can think of.
With the mainstream or literary novel, the length can be more flexible (see the first photo above) but this is by no means the promised land. Generally, it’s harder for a writer to break into the mainstream/literary scene; it simply has more pretensions. Usually, a writer will have to slog through a few years of writing short stories and average length novels that don’t get much notice or bring in much money until critical reception allows them a foot in the proverbial door.
Also, it’s the misfortune of mainstream/literary novels that they become fetish objects for the middle-classes and the rich. Note the price differences on your average genre books–usually a paperback costs you 7-9 dollars now. You can pick up one of the best genre books The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for roughly the same prices as one of the worst genre books, Star Wars: Vector Prime. Quality doesn’t matter so much as the quantity of pages with genre books. With mainstream novels, it’s different. On Amazon, you can buy a 360 page Amy Tan book for approximately the same price as the 1078 page novel Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. If these were placed together on a genre novel scale, wouldn’t Amy Tan’s book cost about 1/3 of D. F. Wallace’s? Or would Infinite Jest be split into three books, as The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was after Tolkien handed in a giant manuscript? For the middle-aged book-club demographic, an Amy Tan book has a certain prestige, and so the publisher can charge a higher rate knowing, to certain mindsets, that a higher price means it’s good (these are the types of people who call genre books kid stuff or waste’s of time). D. F. Wallace though has had the erroneous title stuck to his work: “slacker” fiction (which makes absolutely no sense by the way. What kind of slacker writes a 1078 page book?) It attracts a younger demographic (college students especially) and so has a smaller price. I would sooner have books be cheaper than more expensive.
So if you’ve read this far and feel that I’m being unkind to writers or trying to attack writers who conform to the industry’s standards, you’re wrong. I highly empathize with these writers. When you’re starting out as a writer, you’re so desperate to be published that it’s very likely you will meet whatever demands the publisher places on you, knowing you can’t actualize your dream in any way if your book isn’t available to the public. It’s the publishers who have framed the problem in this way; they’re not eager for you to realize that they need you more than you need them. In a perfect world, the publisher would conform to your standards, knowing that a book is best when it’s allowed to naturally develop, not when it’s steroided or stricken with elephantiasis for the sake of size, or told to fast or binge-and-purge to get its weight down. I’d like to point out also that if you have written a book that’s around 30,000 to 50,000 words and you think it’s good and aesthetically whole, don’t change it. Likewise, if you’ve written a book that’s significantly less or more than 30,000 to 50,000 words, don’t change it. If you fall into the latter category, you can either go at publishing through unusual avenues (such as colleges or independent publishers) and run the risk of getting nowhere, or you can self-publish (for a fee you can publish in paper form, or for free you can self-publish ebooks so long as you allow the companies to skim 25-30% of your profits) and run an equal risk of getting nowhere,** but at least you will have the satisfaction of knowing you’re not wasting paper.
*Often as much as fourteen years. After writing his magnum opus Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon took 14 years to bring out his next novel Vineland. After writing Ulysses, James Joyce spent somewhere around 14 years crafting Finnegan’s Wake. After conceiving of the idea for Catch-22, Joseph Heller didn’t get around to completing it for about fourteen or fifteen years.
** I self-published a book of short stories online and have gotten nowhere with it, but at least have the satisfaction of not having to ad or detract a word based on market research. If you would like to read it, click here to find it amazon, or here for Barnes and Noble.
If you would like to read more invective toward the publishing industry, click here.
If you’d like to help me choose what giant book to read next, click here.