Sunday, 10 May 2009
Does size really matter?
We live in a world in which we are surrounded by an obsession with size. Size double zero is the new size zero, according to the Americans. And you only need to look on the cover of OK or Hello magazine, or indeed any of the glossies, to see a story about someone's weight. You can have two size ten dresses, bought from different shops, and both may vary widely. Not because the manufacturer has made a mistake, but because size simply varies. And then there's food - you can choose the 'super-size' meal option at many outlets - presumably then, you won't be a double size zero though! At the vast majority of these fast-food eateries, it's not about the quality of the food, but the sheer quantity which appears.
When it comes to books though, you have to ask yourself, does size really matter? When you're in the throes of plotting the storyline or getting down to the nitty gritty of your WIP, what consideration do you give to length? Do you have it all plotted out before you start? Or do you simply leave it in the hands of the literary gods?
In the end, a novel should be the right length for itself. A publisher would much prefer a novel of 70,000 words in which every word counts, instead of a tomb measuring 150,000 with unnecessary fluff for padding. And length varies with genre too. A sci-fi or historical fiction novel will understandably be longer than a book of the literary genre.
There are some novels (not novellas) which are rather short in comparison to others, and one in particular which springs to mind, Disgrace by JM Coetzee, also happens to be one of my favourite all-time books. Not for one minute while I was reading it, did I believe I was cheated out of my £6.99 or whatever it was I paid in Waterstones. This is a perfect example of a novel being the right length for itself. And I remember feeling truly satisfied when I'd closed the book.
Also in the slim volume category are The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan, The Catcher in The Rye by JD Salinger, Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote, The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve, and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. There are many more which fall into this category, all of which are not simply cut short by the author, but instead are allowed to breathe. By contrast, there are lengthy novels which hold this reader's interest too, including Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Ulysses by the legendary James Joyce.
My advice to writers is to go with the flow (although do make sure your word count is within the 70,000 to 150,000 or so guide word length, depending on genre), and simply allow the novel to finish itself. Then, there's War and Peace by the great Tolstoy....how many of you have read it? Come on, tell the truth.....