Monday, 3 September 2012

The Craft of Writing - Short and Simple?

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.


Unknown said...

Martin - I couldn't agree with you more that longer books are not at all necessarily better. To me quality always trumps quantity. It'll be interesting to see if you're right and the trend to ebooks affects the move towards longer novels.

Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

These days faced with a choice I usually go for the shorter book as I've found that (generally speaking) the longer books have a fair bit of padding. I think many of them would be much better for some pruning. I would welcome quality over size any day.

doug_eike said...

I tend to look for shorter novels that someone recommends to me. Few novelists are able to write long pieces that are efficiently constructed and edited to their essences.

Publishers that increase word requirements still don't get why they're going out of business. Their ridiculous insistence on authors' platforms and inanities like length requirements are taking them down the tubes (where they belong). They miscalculated when they got greedy and quit publishing quality writing, and they are getting what they deserve for doing so--their butts handed to them on a platter.

The Passing Tramp said...

This last Rufus King I read is about a 50,000 word novel. And that's a great length for a novel, imo. Willa Cather's advice in "The Novel Demeuble" is lost on the modern mystery publishing industry.

Ruth Rendell's psychological thrillers back in the 1970s were about 200 pages, now they're twice that long. I think the earlier books were better (though to be fair I think her Vines benefit from greater length).

I think the model for many nowadays is the Victorian novel, but in my view a lot of Victorian novels are padded and boring. A Dickens can come up with the characters to make that long a novel interesting, but a Dickens doesn't come along every day.

And of course there were cultural and commercial reasons why Victorian novels were so long that don't obtain today. It wasn't as if the Victorians suddenly hit upon the one acceptable for all time form for novels.

Martin Edwards said...

Many thanks for your comments - I find it reassuring to think that I'm not alone in this.
Curt, I wholly agree. My very good English teacher used to say that with Dickens, you have to skip. And if that's true with a genius, then how much more so with the rest of us. You've got me interested in Rufus King, by the way.

Sarah said...

I missed your Julian Barnes post but rather than post twice I'll do it here. I thought 'Sense of an Ending' was one of the best books I read last year. And I kept saying to people that it had a similar structure to a crime fictional novel.My only criticism was that I had to read the denouement about 3 times before I worked out what was going on. I can remember doing the same with some of the classic crime books that I've read so that would be the only problem I have with a short book.
I don't want to write off longer books per se. I've just read Deon Meyer's 'Trackers' which was very long but enjoyable all the way through. Although funnily enough that had a short denouement too. I clearly need things explaining a bit more as I get older!

Martin Edwards said...

I know exactly what you mean, Sarah. I needed to look at the Barnes more than once to 'get it', so I did feel a bit of sympathy for Tony!

Anonymous said...

Yes. The trend to longer books is worriesome. I have wondered if editors are cowed by best selling authors into letting them have chunky books or is the reverse true?

Whatever. I agree with the readers here and go for the shorter books.

Speaking of which, I thought I would try Charles Dickens (Bleak House) on audio - 30 cds. Although I have the book I'm curious to hear it.