A bit late in the day but I feel I should sidle into the discussion initiated by Ian McEwan on lengthy novels. It is a topic close to my heart. I remember… cue nostalgic Hovis advert music… when a book was published on its merits, not on the distance between its covers. When I started out (more Hovis music) a 60,000 word novel was considered perfectly acceptable. Provided the writing wasn’t crap. Then things changed. No more Hovis music, I promise.
I don’t know who started it but about fifteen years ago publishers suddenly demanded 100,000 words at the very least. ‘More! And faster!’ they cried, cracking their whips like galley-slave masters. I have said this before but I think it bears repeating, that mainstream publishing is surprisingly herd-like in its mentality. You’d expect geysers of creativity but what you find are sheep. Some bellwether starts a trend – 800 page novels, jackets with blue skies, vampire stories, whatever, and before you know it they’ve all joined the bleating stampede.
So anyway, I’m with Ian (not that he needs my support). Very few long novels earn their length. Writing long comes naturally to some writers. Lucky them. They find themselves in fashion at the moment. But many novelists, especially those who also wear journalist hats and have learned to practice concision, struggle to deliver big books. There is also the important question of weight. Many of us only get to read in bed and personally I do not want to work on my pecs just before I go to sleep. I have a book on my desk right now that I have very much looked forward to reading but it’s too damned heavy for a reclining read. Heaven knows when I shall get to it. However it is proving very useful for raising the height of my laptop.
An artist friend of mine tells me she’s up against a similar problem. Her small paintings are exquisite, but people demand big pictures. Art by the yard.
One other thing, before I move on to a far more urgent topic: Will Self. Is he a joke? His evident disdain for readers is jaw-dropping. Nearly a century since James Joyce tried moving the literary furniture is there really still any question that readers prefer books that are punctuated?
But now… just as I had settled the important question of what to wear to The Lady Literary Lunch (a pretty little summer dress with a forgiving waistline, thank you for asking) I had an argument with a step-ladder. Result: Ladder, 1, Laurie, various shades of blood and bruise. This morning it was pretty evident that by next Tuesday my leg will be a stomach-churning shade of bile. So, back to the drawing board, or rather to the wardrobe. I’m not really a trouser person and I pray the Caledonian Club doesn’t have a Henley-standard dress code, but that leg has to be covered. Perhaps a floor-length paper bag.
I suppose you think a writer just has to sit at a desk all day and write? Ha!