Wednesday 12 January 2011

I Long For Short

There was a splendid article in The Independent the other day. Well, like most people who praise newspaper articles, I simply mean that I agree with it. The tenor of the article was...

Right, tenor meaning general sense, comes from the Latin tenorem meaning contents or direction. That comes from tenere meaning to hold (as in a tenacious tenant in an untenable tenement). Meanwhile a singer holds a note and that's the reason that the tenor of an article is not necessarily Pavarotti.

...where was I? Oh yes, modern novels. Too long.

I am the slowest reader I have ever met. Years ago I did some involuntary voluntary* work in a homeless shelter. There was a chap there who called himself Animal. He told me that he had left school aged ten or thereabouts. He needed glasses and didn't have any. He was drunk. He still read more quickly than I did.

To be fair, I make up for it by remembering everything I read, but it still means that I look at the printed breeze-blocks...

Right, breeze is an old word for ash, which is why breeze-blocks are called cinder-blocks in America. Basically, there's ash in the concrete.

...I look, as I say, at the cinder-blocks that pass for novels these days and I think to myself that life is too short, and if The Blind Assassin is really that good, then they ought to have a copy in Heaven. Freedom, Wolf Hall, Infinite Jest: that would be three years of my life. And are they really that much better than Macbeth, Death in Venice and the Great Gatsby? Does the author really have that much more to say?

When I go into a bookshop the first thing I look for is not the title, the cover or the blurb: it's the spine. I like my books like I like my women: slim, beautiful and inexpensive.

Am I alone in this? Does nobody else quail and quake at the sight of those obese tomes that win all the prizes? People like me are probably a forgotten and unexploited market. The publisher even saves on paper and ink: it's win-win.

What's depressing is that if Camus sent L'Etranger or The Fall to the a publishers today he would be told that books ought to be more than 70,000 words and that 60,000 is the absolute minimum. And his manuscript would be thrown into the bin of unpublishables, along with Notes From Underground and The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Inky Fool reads the next big thing

*Voluntary in the sense that my school had made voluntary work compulsory.


  1. Re tenor / tenere: that is why I, as a tenor, frequently get stuck holding the cantus firmus whilst the voice parts around me sing various flavours of athletic polyphony. It's all deeply unfair.

  2. Sir Bon: Why not become a counter-tenor?

    Would that I did not read so slowly AND remembered everything. It is beyond frustration to recall a passage but not the author, and have a colleague correct my recollection, identify the author, and, as a dagger, mention he read he book 50 years ago. It's worse than being a tenor.


  3. I suspect that some modern authors - a certain Ms Rowling's latter books leap to mind - are encouraged by greedy publishers to artificially extend their novels so a higher price can be charged for each volume, simply because it is BIGGER. Indeed, they sometimes charge a TENNER... which I think is where you came in...

  4. When I am dithering in the airport over which books to buy for my flight/beach reading, length is usually a deciding factor. Which is why I ended up taking Proust on holiday with me (that, and the pink and orange cover matched my new bikini). I am reluctant to buy short novels because you get so few words to the pound...

  5. Fergus Pickering12 January 2011 at 19:01

    What you do, like the great Patrick O'Brien and he greater P G Wodehouse, is to go on writing the same novel but cut it into bite-sized chunks of 250pp or so. The greatest novel of the 20th century is (perhaps) Heart of Darkness. Or maybe it's The Thirty Nine Steps. Neither of them is more tan 120pp long. THAT's what I call a novel. You can reread it in a day, however slow a reader you are.

  6. After a while, I imagine that the trend of massive books that go across seventeen generations of the character's family will die down, and we will once again celebrate the hard athletic prose of the good old days.

  7. Which is funny, as all of us writers who are in the midst of querying and seeking agents are constantly told that no one will take a chance on a big book and we'd better cut it down. The best recent big book I've read was the latest book in Diana Gabaldon's Outlander series.