The Long & Short of It

It is a firmly established fact in the world of commercial publishing that there is a Correct Length for novels of each genre. This is why Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (775 pages) is exactly the same length as his Crime and Punishment (430 pages). It’s why P. D. James’s Original Sin (415 pages) is exactly the same length as Ross MacDonald’s The Chill (275 pages).

If a book is too long, it can easily be shortened without damaging the story in any significant way. A writer who is disturbed by this idea, who feels that her story is already trimmed as tightly as it can be trimmed, is just being defensive and egotistical. Thinking your story needs to be longer in order to be effective is just not realistic.

I trust we’re all clear about this.

I have a 110,000-word sort-of-YA fantasy mystery. A developmental editor (whom I believe is very good and whom I would hire to work on the book if there were some way to recoup the $2,500+ I would have to pay her) commented that it’s too long for the market. She surmised that the book could probably be shortened to 80,000 words without materially damaging the story.

Quite aside from the other indignities that are forced upon the writer by the commercial publishing industry (waiting two years for publication, having no control over the cover art, having to sign a contract indemnifying the publisher against “reasonable” attorneys’ fees), this attitude toward the length of the book is simply horrifying. And it’s universal. The agent thinks the publisher will think readers will think a book of this length is too long, so you’ll have to cut it down. If you don’t, it’s not “marketable.”

The other day I ran into a lovely quote from Bertrand Russell: “One should respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.” That sums it up nicely. This whole business of the “marketable” length for a novel is just plain bullshit.

Back in the Sixties (my apologies to those of you who are too young to remember it), there was a cigarette ad that said, “It’s not how long you make it — it’s how you make it long.” That tells you everything you need to know about word count. You’re not going to be able to place your damn novel with an agent anyway, so why hack out a full 25% of it in order to conform to some sort of mass hallucination?

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