The joy of short novels

Noir novels are often quite short. Absurdly short. They’re short in the way that books aren’t allowed to be anymore. James M. Cain’s novels The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity are between 30,000 and 40,000 words long. Jim Thompson’s novels are between 40,000 and 50,000 words long and most of the rest are somewhere around there too.

Now, there was a time when a lot of novels were pretty short. That time was the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. The Great Gatsby is only around 40,000 words. Of Mice and Men and Animal Farm is circa 30,000. Slaughterhouse Five is 50,000. Brave New World is around 65,000. The Catcher In The Rye looks positively bloated at 75,000.

Now I don’t know why novels would have been shorter back then. Perhaps it has something to do with new modes in book distribution technology. This was the golden era of the mass market paperback, and a lot of the above books were published in that format. Maybe the modern era’s switchover to trade paperback means that publishers feel like they should be offering thicker books to justify the higher prices (often twice as high as most mass-market paperbacks). Or maybe I’m just a fool, and this is a false trend, and novels today aren’t any longer or shorter than they used to be.

But the point remains, I adore short novels. And it’s because of any fancy aesthetic reason…it’s just because finishing novels is at least a third of the fun of reading them. Each novel is another notch in my belt. It’s another plot digested. It’s another setting and scenario and character arc that I’ve internalized.

Long novels excel at detailed description of ordinary life, the little telling details that are something which only novels (well, and paintings) are good at drawing one’s attention to. And I love those details, of course. I mean, I have just as much Harold Bloom and James Woods in me as the next guy.

But there’s also a part of me that revels in packing it in and moving on. There’s a part of me that loves the novel as experiential roller-coaster ride. I love going to bed with an unopened novel and finishing it before I wake up. I love being able to reel off a long list of books that I’ve read in the last few weeks. I love being able to make my way through a substantial portion of an author’s oeuvre over the course of a weekend. Short novels give you a sense of completion. They make you feel like you can master this body of work…or that you can understand exactly what is going on this novel. A forty thousand word novel is comprehensible: it can be grasped in your hands; it can be held in your mind all at once. You can download it straight into your brain’s RAM and then crunch every portion of it at the same time.

Short novels don’t require less thought, but it somehow feels like they’re more able to reward thought. To me, they feel less intuitive and more intellectual. But that’s probably a load of bull. Maybe the real truth is that I’m shallow, and that I place more value on having read a book than I do on the experience of reading it…..

Oh well.

9 Comments on “The joy of short novels

  1. Last “modern” short novel I read was ‘Coraline’. It was damn good too.
    Thinking about it, you are right. Some magazines will publish 40,000k worded stories as serials or in one big shield check of text, but not very often.
    I must ponder this.

    • Yes, I’m trying to think of any short contemporary books I’ve read lately…I think that the Brief, Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao might have been a little shorter than average…but I think it’s been awhile since I read a really short contemporary work of fiction that was packaged as a novel (I’ve read many that were packaged as novellas, of course, like Ted Chiang’s 30,000 word story _The Lifecycle of Software Objects_. But I read that for free on Subterranean’s website….if it had been a “novel” then it would not have been free.)

  2. YA is likely to be the place to find short novels these days outside of small press publishing houses. Maybe romance novels and westerns too, I know folks who still buy those by the paper sack full and read them end to end like chain smokers going through cigarettes.

    I do miss the days of the 50K novel for the exact reasons you outline. Chabon’s “Gentlemen of the Road” was fairly short–I wouldn’t be surprised if it was less than 60K words. Maybe this can be linked to a post-war demographic change in reading culture, or whether some other entertainment filled the function these books once did.

    • There might be some sort of demographic change involved…I know that when I was young (maybe 11-16), I absolutely loved large novels. The larger the better. I scanned the bookshelves for the fattest volumes. My theory was that if I picked up a book and liked it, then I’d like it for alot longer if it was thick. Also, thick books (in mass market paperback) were only a couple of dollars more expensive than books that were half or a third as long.

      Nowadays, my reading habits could not be more different. I have passed up on reading tons of books because they seemed a bit longer than I could handle at the moment, and, conversely, I’ve read tons of books just because they were short.

      I’d like to say that nowadays I am just a more sophisticated reader (which is true) and that I no longer see books as interchangeable products and that now I value short reading experiences for themselves…but I think it’s just as easily possible that the opposite true. Maybe, nowadays, I _do_ view books as interchangeable experiences. I know that I can always find a good book, so I’d prefer to read a good book that’s short rather than a good book that’s long (when I was young, for some reason, I could never find enough books to read. I was both picky and unadventurous).

      Also, you’re totally right: YA and mysteries are a bastion of shortitude. Many paranormal romances are also short (also, some naval/historical fiction like the Sharpe series or Aubrey/Maturin series run kind of short).

      And finally, here’s some more congratulations on selling to Beneath Ceaseless Skies!!!

      • By coincidence I came upon this Fran Lebowitz quote today: “Should novels generally be 600 pages? No, they should not. Half of writing, maybe 3/4 of writing, is editing. This seems to be a thing that has not gotten through to them. It’s my impression that you could get rid of half of most of these books. These people are not good enough to be this long, but they’re apparently also not good enough to be shorter.”

        And, thanks!

        • That’s a pretty good quote. I think there’s also a tendency (especially amongst SF/F authors) for novelists to write longer books as their career progresses. Which is strange. Why would people who were once capable of writing more tauter novels suddenly have become kind of saggy. Maybe it’s just that editors once upon a time restrained them from writing long books and as they get more popular, that restraint is gone. But it could also just be sequelitis. You know, sequels always gotta have more explosions, more sex, more love interests, etc.

  3. I love short novels, also. I finished “The Orange Eats Creeps” by Grace Krilanovich and then “The Sea Came In At Midnight” by Steve Erickson last week. I think I may have the “another one under my belt” fetish you so accurately describe… but I also think I just get totally bored after 350 pages almost without exception, so any time I read anything longer, it’s sort of an inauthentic experience where I must force myself to finish it.

    This is also why I abandon a lot of books.

    • Oh man, Orange Eats Creeps has been on my list for _ages_. Was it good? My own novel is kind of a hip vampire novel too, so I am avoiding reading Krilanovich’s so that I won’t feel bad.

      How is Erickson’s novel? He’s another name I’ve started to hear. Kind of unfortunate for him that he shares a moniker with Steve Erickson, the fantasist, since I get the impression that they write pretty different stuff (but not different enough to avoid confusion).

      Yes, I also often flag on longer novels. I dislike that thing where I have to continually calculate how long it’ll be until I’m done with it. The feeling I get when reading a shorter novel is so much more joyful. It’s all like, “Oh man, look how much I’ve read….how can they possibly wrap all this up in twenty more pages.”

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