Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Does Size Matter?

Big Van, Little Van
There are a couple of reasons I haven't read War and Peace:
1. It sounds like it might not have many laughs.
2. I have trouble pronouncing the author's name.
3. I'm not convinced I'm good with historical fiction (it IS fiction, right?)
4. I've heard it's HUGE.

And although, like Rod's last post, some of you may well have read it and LOVED it and can't see a good reason in ANY of mine why I shouldn't just grab it by the scruff and devour it in one sitting (can you see my tongue being all ironically in-cheek?) I'm sticking to my guns.
In fact if Jodi Picoult wasn't such a blimmin' brilliant writer, there's NO WAY I'd ever be buying another of her 600-page tomes; as it is, I could open my own JP Library, but I digress as usual.

I remember reading 'Through a Glass Darkly' before I'd even got out of bed one morning.  I think it had been raining, it was a weekend and... well, it was too good to stop.  And being only 161 pages long, it was an eminently achievable feat. And now that I've picked it up to check it's page-count, I've just noticed I've automatically disclaimed my Excuse No.2 above.  "Jostein Gaarder" doesn't exactly trip off the tongue does it?

I read the first Harry Potter book to my daughter at a rate of a chapter a night (she was a bit younger then) until we got half way through the second book and it still felt like I was holding a brick.  I remember her sighing one night and telling me to stop "let's just watch the film when it comes out" she smiled sleepily.  So we did. I don't know what made me more disappointed, the fact that we hadn't got to finish the book or that I wouldn't be throwing myself into any more of my amazing Hagrid impersonations of an evening.

We flew through 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe'.  And 'The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde' comes in at a trim 25,000 words.  Oh, don't worry, I didn't read that one to the young daughter, I'm just giving another example of brevity over unnecessary wordage.

I'm a slave to word-count when I'm writing adult fiction.  Simply because somewhere there is information that an adult book is 'usually' anything between 85 and 120 thousand words long.  I like to stick to the Norm if I can. But I find myself constantly clicking on the word-count icon to see how I'm getting on and I seriously think I should join Word-Counters Anonymous for the amount of metaphorical self-flagellation that goes on during this exercise of ocd proportions.

Likewise I worry when I'm writing teenage fiction, if my word-count starts to creep beyond the 55thou mark. I fret that I'm going to start losing (mine and any potential readers') interest if there are too many words.  After all, teenagers aren't renowned for their great spans of concentration either, are they?

So does it really matter how long a story is so long as the story is written?  If there's a beginning, a middle and an end, where does it say there should be superfluous guff padding out its girth for the benefit of Norm?


10 comments:

Caroline Green said...

I remember reading A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth [which I LOVED} and it was monstrously big but I zipped through it at such a pace, I barely noticed. Then there was Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallcace [shudders at memory]. There's a couple of weeks I'll never get back ;)

Sandra Davies said...

Speaking as someone who made the mistake of taking Anna Karenina into hospital when in labour with my first child (pessimistic - I didn't get beyond the second page) and having just embarked on Dorothy Dunnett's 'Lymond' series for the umpteenth time (6 books in the series, each at 600+ pages) I would say size definitely does not matter. And so I get really confused when someone tells me she is writing an 80K long book but is only on the second chapter - how does she KNOW?

Dream it, then do it said...

I have The Thirty Nine Steps on my shelf here and it's incredibly thin at 100 pages. By my calculation that can hardly be much more than 40k words. I think I read the whole thing in one afternoon once.
That's not bad considering there have been 3 films made and one TV adaptation.

Fionnuala said...

Word count OCD? I have no idea what you mean... (89590 and counting, should be just under 100k finished)

Seriously, HUGE books put me right off. Although maybe on kindle it won't be as noticeable????

The Time Sculptor's Secret said...

Good point about Kindle reading Fionnuala. Maybe reading a novel on Kindle is like going for walk without a map: you can't see exactly how far away the end is! Jane Gray

MorningAJ said...

As an ex-journalist I have trouble getting much past 250 words, (maybe that's why I do a lot of short stories and flash fiction) but I guess the answer to this is, what do publishers want? If you want to get published you have to fit the pattern, don't you?

Damyanti said...

I think the story decides a book's length.

I loved the Harry Potter series, but I do think some of them could have used a good pair of editing shears.

Gillian McDade said...

If you really really want to read War And Peace you could initiate yourself with Dostoyevsky's Crime And Punishment or The Brothers Karamazov ;)

Highly recommended! It'll break you in gently, Debs!

Great post!

Susie Nott-Bower said...

I'm quite wary of reading short books because of the disappointment I'll feel when I get to the all-too-early end of them.
Sad, or what?
Susiex

Jane Steen said...

I read War and Peace when I was in my twenties and determined to Read The Classics (a strategy which REALLY pays off when you get to fill in those "have you read these books?" memes-I usually win).

I tried to read it again a few years back but it truly is a hard book to get into.

Although I love a chunkster if it IS good, I'm just as happy with a well-written short novel. The story is what counts.

And yet of course with my own WIPs, I'm obsessive about hitting that magic 80,000-100,000, because I want to sell the blasted book. I wish we could go back to the days when authors could write as little or as much as the story demanded. I really don't think readers will pass on a well-recommended book because it's outside the norms.

The problem seems to be publishers - they want a certain thickness of book to display on the shelves. Will this problem go away as book sales continue to shift to e-readers and online bookstores? If readers are influenced by recommendations rather than the physical copy of the book lying on a bookstore table, will they even think about the length of the book?