Novel Decompression?

Someday, I will have a room in my house just like this. With the little rolly ladder.

Take a look at a standard modern fantasy or science fiction novel sitting in a bookstore. In my experience, most will have some heft to them. It’s a delight to take up a book and know that there are hundreds of pages in which to immerse yourself. A vast tapestry of characters and exotic locations in exciting situations await!

And then I read some Edgar Rice Burroughs. And some Ursula K. LeGuin. And some Lord Dunsany.

In less than two hundred pages, they create vivid worlds. They imbue characters with breath and life. They set up plots with depth. They wind up and release tension.

What changed?

Granted, there are some difference in years between those three writers and most modern writers. Styles are very different. And there is something pleasurable about reading a book you know you could use as a brick if you needed to add an extra room to the house.

I’ve just finished reading A Wizard of Earthsea. The edition I read came to about 180 pages, yet in that span we journeyed across several corners of a globe. The main plot might be summarized as, “Young wizard must face the consequences of his own pride.” Yet, within that plot, LeGuin found the opportunity to explore other facets of her world. We get to learn how magic works. We meet other wizards and several other approaches to magic. We got to encounter some religions and several cultures. How did she fit all that into the space of 180 pages, when modern writers easily take four hundred pages to tell the first leg of such a tale?

Think about modern “big” stories. Forward in my mind are Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time and George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire (sometimes better known by the title of the first volume, A Game of Thrones). If you prefer science fiction, you might consider Frank Herbert’s Dune or David Brin’s Uplift Saga. The latter two aren’t nearly as lengthy per volume as the first pair, but they certainly fill up more paper than earlier works.

Some differences to note:

Unlike many modern fantasy or science fiction novels, Earthsea boasted one main character. Many early genre works focus on a single main character, making it require less ink. Modern stories often enough focus on an ensemble cast, even if one character takes the spotlight. Compare the number of characters in Earthsea or your standard Burroughs novel with Game of Thrones or (gasp!) Wheel of Time. It’s almost like comparing a Superman story of the 40’s with an X-Men story of the 90’s. In one, you’ll have the necessary characters to tell a single plot. In the other, you have the full cast of a Cecile B. DeMille epic, including extras.

Editors probably preferred shorter stories earlier on. I doubt there were very many seven hundred page books selling from the bookstores in the fifties – at least, not many that would have the disgrace to be labeled science fiction or fantasy! The audience simply wasn’t there for the longer sagas (at least in the publisher’s views). The market today supports longer, more nuanced works.

Complexity and the need to differentiate also require longer stories. When few people had explored “genre space,” you could get away with a short plot. It was new! Now, if someone writes epic fantasy, if you’re going to be different and set yourself apart from the pack of generic random fantasy, you’ve got to put together something both unique and complex. That often requires more ink.

All that being said… it was refreshing reading a full fantasy and meeting an entire world in less than two hundred pages. I’m already a good chunk into book two and hope to finish it within a week. (A pastor finishing any novel within a week while he’s gearing up for Christmas is something of a miracle!)

It takes incredible craft to “boil down” a story and not only tell what is strictly necessary, but to do it with panache. LeGuin did that in Earthsea. Is it possible for a modern author to do the same? I will admit the print market probably won’t support such an endeavor; again, how many novels do you see that are less than two hundred pages on the bookshelves?

Let’s take the book market out of the equation. eBooks have incredible potential of telling stories without any kind of print limits. Could an author present a new world, a great character, and an involved plot in less than two hundred pages?

That would take approaching a novel’s complexity with the attitude of a short story writer. I’m not convinced we think that way anymore. When every chapter had to arrest attention because otherwise it meant the reader simply didn’t pick up the next magazine for the next installment, authors had to pour their souls into every word. I’m convinced authors still want to hold attention, but they have the luxury of more than whatever space the magazine gave them this month. Does it make them lazy? Or is it that we now have the space to breathe, and I’d rather be forced to hyperventilate? Is my short attention span driving me toward shorter, simpler writing?

Or do modern novels suffer from decompression? Do modern writers know that longer works are more likely to sell (at least, judging from bookstore shelves), so they pad out their stories? Really, do we need to know what every main character is wearing in every scene, or is that simply good descriptive writing?

There are a lot of thoughts here… and I haven’t found the answer. I know that for the moment, the shorter novels are far better for my reading time. I also like saying that I’m spending time reading the classics (though I don’t necessarily share I’m reading Carson of Venus and not Wuthering Heights).

So why are novels so much longer now? Does it make for better or worse stories?


Today, I’m reading shorter novels. Tomorrow, I’m hoping for longer. Both offer certain benefits. I’d like to see more authors trying to write their magnum opi in shorter form, though… just to see if they could.



4 thoughts on “Novel Decompression?

  1. 1) Short novels get published all the bloody time. Buy a subscription to Analog — they love publishing novellas!
    2) Fewer and fewer authors come out of the magazines, which tend to teach people how to tell stories concisely.

    1. There are some magazines still “holding the fort” and I appreciate them — I was quite unhappy when “Amazing Stories” went down the tube. And I very verymuch agree with your second point. Writing for magazines forces people to pay attention to word limits. Every word must be weighed and worthwhile!

  2. Sometimes I find the characters in Burroughs, early 30 minute TV dramas, Andre Norton novels, etc. much more real than many in the 800-900 page monsters that I read now. The shorter genre demanded by available time or pages to tell a story that holds the readers/viewers created many great stories. Those writers were story tellers first and foremost. Writers like Clancy, Cussler, Modessit, Moon, Bull, etc. are allowed to write continuing stories in one book. Perhaps, that is the major difference. When you buy an 800 page book, you expect several stories around one central tale.

  3. I have read a wizard of Earthsea and found it very good–short enough to not be exhausting and complex enough to want my attention.

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