Standing up for the short novel

A lot of my favourite books are short. Very short.

  • Slaughterhouse five, Kurt Vonnegut
  • We have always lived in the castle, Shirley Jackson
  • Muminpappan och havet (Muminpapa at sea), Tove Jansson
  • The Powerbook, Jeanette Winterson

To name just a few. A lot of the books that I read for literature history were short. (A short novel is somewhere around 65,000 w0rds. That used to be the length of a novel but now, it’s the length of a short novel or a romance novel. most other genre and literary novels are a lot longer.)

The first ever book I read in English was Animal Farm. I’d read articles, bits of plays, chapters and comics but I hadn’t read a full book. So, I picked up Animal Farm. It’s a classic and I was 16. One the first page I underlined and looked up 12 words. Then I got bored with detailed understanding and went for the gist. A year later I we read The Great Gatsby for English. That was followed by The Human Factor by Graham Greene, Winnie the Pooh and several others. All short.

When I left Sweden to go to Scotland, the guys at work gave me a gift. My manager picked out two (short) books in English for me: Tidings by William Wharton and And the Ass Saw the Angel by Nick Cave. At the time, I knew Cave as a song and lyrics writer and I adored him. The book blew me away. It was rich, it was partially phonetic, it was Gothic, it was weird, it was endlessly strange and invigorating. I loved it. It took me a while to get around to reading Tidings but really enjoyed it when I did.

I have a new love story with the short novel. It’s not just because the longest novel I can write at the moment is a short one. It’s also because the longest novel I can read when I’m writing is a short one. I work. I write. I read before I fall asleep. I don’t get through that many pages anymore. It’s a depressing fact, but since I started taking my writing seriously, I read less. There are only so many hours in a day. Sigh.

The short novel, when it’s good, shows mastery of the form and focus of thought. In a long novel – the genre I write in produces novels of between 120,000 and 175,000 words – there’s room for long speeches, long descriptions, long battles, many characters and many asides. You can pad a little bit – not too much or your readers will notice, but you can. There’s no room for padding in flash fiction. There’s no room for padding in a short story. There’s little room for padding in a short novel. There is, no matter how much action, troupe movement and character development, a lot of room for padding in a long novel.

My goal is to write long novels. It has to be: the genre I write in is one of big tomes, it is not one of slim volumes, easy to carry in a back pocket or handbag. I’m working on how to find a balance. Writing what I want to write and at a length I can manage.

Yeah, that’s the wrong way around, isn’t it? Either I write something that fits a shorter form, or I get comfortable with longer stories. I’m working my way up to a longer story and I’m trying to write long without padding. It’s not a small challenge.

4 comments on “Standing up for the short novel

  1. I wonder if this will remain true.

    If the self-fulfilling prophecy of the e-book revolution comes to pass then will the big thick book still be in vogue?

    I think not and not because I think that the short(er) form is any more desirable or fashionable on an electronic reading device – but because of shelf space.

    It is obvious when you are on a book shop that you need to get your wares in front of the browsing public. As you and I are genre writers then we are both used to seeing brightly coloured book covers on display for all to see. Big wide books are just easier to see and psychologically people think they are getting something extra for their money. I know I am not the only person to have noticed.

    But is this true in an era of search engines?

    I have a book in front of me right now (The Magician King by Lev Grossman). It’s a big thick book. But when I open it I note that it is presented in big thick print. If we take this typeface down to a more normal size I have a feeling that it would come in around average novel size… or maybe even your short form (65-90k words) and it would be more like the novels you and I grew up with. This is a good thing!

    So I ask myself, if this book is produced electronically how relevant is the big thick book? Do we need to wait for the marketing groups to catch up and realise that big thick books do not automatically equate to more sales.

    I like my books punchy, I have grown rather tired of long rambling weighty tomes*.

    This is a very long way of saying that I think you’re a great writer and that you shouldn’t worry. You will write the form that suits your style, your preference and your prose. There will be a market for it.

    *I’ve always called them this but now I might change to big thick book or BTBs.

    • Thank you for the compliment! I really hope there is a market for my style out there. One day, I will write the write story and find the right market and it will, magically, be the right time. Until then, I practice.

      You and Hamish both point out is that the thing I should worry about at this point is the story. Find it. Write it. Worry about other stuff later. (Or, indeed, not at all.)

      Wise words.

  2. Unless you’re writing to a very specific market or contract, I think the only way you find out the size of a particular story is to write it.

    Size does matter, absolutely. Perhaps ebooks can release us from the bookstore expectation of the length of a book but quality will trump all; I have just the same Kindle moment, checking the % of where I am in a story, as I did checking the proportion of pages read in a conventional book, when I’m loving or yawning my way through a story. I want good books to last longer 🙂

    • Good point. Since I do write in a genre – maybe I should try not to, and just write stories instead – I feel I need to write at the right length. But then, I find that my stories get longer, the more I write. They get more detail, more texture, more characters (and more complex characters). The trick is probably to continue writing until I have a story that turns out to be long enough.

      I didn’t know that Kindles gave you a % of your progress through a book. That’s really cool. (And a feature that I should have been able to extrapolate.)

      You’re right. Ultimately, what we want are good books. Ideally bloody good books. Length is immaterial to the reading experience when you’re enjoying yourself.

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