Last week, in discussing Julian Barnes' The Sense of Ending, I expressed my appreciation of the book's concision. He achieves so much in such a short space, and the unstated points and ambiguities contribute to the powerful overall effect of the story. Reflecting on the many heartfelt tributes paid to Hal David, I've also given more thought to the lyricist's flair for saying so much in so few words. Very often, more quality is packed into something short and - at least, superficially - simple than in some vast, sprawling tome. Yet I sense that over the past decade or so, there has been pressure from publishers (nnd one assumes they are responding to consumer demand, though with some publishers, you never know) for books to become chunkier.
One best-selling writer confided in me a few years ago, for instance, that her latest three-book contract had upped the required word limit per novel by 20,000 words. She wasn't impressed, not seeing any good literary reason to write longer books, and neither was I. I've read so many excellent books that would, in my opinion, be even better had they been shorter. Yet quite a few of them have been best-sellers, so perhaps I'm in a minority. And I vividly remember my shock when a colleague once told me that, faced with a choice between two books at an airport, he'd always buy the fatter one. Looking for value, you see.
As a student, I wrote song lyrics, and in fact a couple of songs of mine were recorded (one on a vinyl LP which I still cherish) but I never mastered a very demanding craft. All the same, the experience did teach me the value of brevity, just as it taught me that Hal David's skill was sublime. Paul Gambaccini has spoken of the cleverly conversational nature of the words to 'I Say A Little Prayer', written against the backdrop of a unusual melody. And the universal appeal of the song is shown by that scene in My Best Friend's Wedding, where everyone at the reception joins in - Elvis Costello once pointed out, it works because it's credible that they all know the words.
David Hepworth says in a ,good article in The Independent today that most of the people who could sing Hal David's "songs in the shower don't realise that they already know the best poem about going home a failure. It's called Do You Know The Way To San Jose? and we all know it by heart, which is really the only way." He did the same thing in "Message to Michael". "Paper Mache" is a neat skit on the consumer society, and the marvellous, under-rated lyric for "The Windows of the World" was a comment on the Vietnam War which gained fresh resonance after 9/11.
With novels, the challenge is different - but some of the best crime fiction offers phrases which stick in the mind in much the same way as great lines from lyrics. Think of some of the memorable lines from the Sherlock Holmes stories or the Raymond Chandler novels. Conan Doyle and Chandler didn't pad out their best stories, and we like them all the more because of it.
Is there any likelihood of the trend in favour of chunky blockbusters being reversed? Well, maybe digital publishing will encourage people to look more closely at the quality of writing instead of being so attracted by the sheer size of the book. If so, I'd say it's one more reason to welcome the rapidly growing popularity of ebooks.