Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Size Does (Not) Matter: The New Paradigm [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

A good friend, writer Jack Mackenzie, got me thinking about book lengths in Science Fiction and how they have been tied to publishing. He also got me thinking about how this no longer matters. Let me explain.

Science Fiction began as a novel medium. As Richard Mathews points out in Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination (1997), "The emergence of realism as the mainstream focus for the literary imagination created a clear dialectical pole against which the fantasy genre could counterthrust as a specialized mode of fiction. In fact, fantasy especially utilized the novel - the most ambitious and popular vehicle for realism - as its primary literary vehicle as well." Fantasy in this case would include everything from The Castle of Otranto to The Hobbit to the Foundation series. All imaginative fiction.

Novels like Ann Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho (291,000 words) were published in three sections because binding did not exist yet for larger books. These were read through circulating libraries that you subscribed to. This three part format dictated that the novel structure often had three distinct sections (Aristotle's classic Beginning-Middle-End). As printing improved, novels became shorter, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (75,000 words) until HG Wells wrote Science Fiction at a mere 60,000 with The War of the Worlds. Varney the Vampire (667,000 words) may hold the record for single longest fantastical work but it was not structurally a novel per se, but a serial sold a penny sheet at a time. The venue dictated the form and length.

Then it changed. Slowly as magazines proliferated, short Science Fiction tales known usually as "off-trail fiction" began to show up in magazines like The Strand and in weeklies like Argosy and All-Story. But the novel took its biggest hit when Hugo Gernsback created the first Science Fiction magazine in 1926, Amazing Stories. Gernsback used novels but writers found short stories allowed them to explore more ideas more quickly and became the norm. Science Fiction books were culled together from stories, but these were not novels. The original Foundation trilogy is not a series of novels. The first three books are short story collections. (Shhh, don't tell anyone.) As were classics like City by Clifford D. Simak, The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, The Black Star Passes by John W. Campbell, Voyage of the Space Beagle by AE van Vogt, and Adam Link, Robot by Eando Binder. You get the idea. Writers still wrote novels, serializing them, but even these were shorter affairs at 40-60,000 words, making them able to fit into an issue or two.

After the Pulps faded away and paperbacks took over, Ace Books came out with a popular series of "Doubles," two short novels back-to-back. These include some classics such as The World of Null-A and The Universe Maker (1953) by AE van Vogt, Philip K Dick's Solar Lottery was paired with Leigh Brackett's The Big Jump (1955), Robert Silverberg's The 13th Immortal went with James E Gunn's This Fortress World (1957), Big Planet and The Slaves of The Klau (1958) by Jack Vance, Marion Zimmer Bradley's Seven From The Stars and Keith Laumer's Worlds Of The Imperium (1962) and on and on and on. Eventually Ace would publish longer single novels in the 1960s but they would keep the same format and look.

Another publishing experiment in a similar line in the 1970s was Laser Books. The Canadian publisher of Harlequin Romance novels wanted to try a Science Fiction line, to sell SF in grocery stores and convenience outlets. Three novels a month by new and established writers, each an independent work, but all in the 60,000 word range. The cover art for all the books was done by Frank Kelly Freas, giving the line a nice uniformity. Authors included Thomas Monteleone, Raymond F. Jones, KW Jeter, Ray Nelson, Stephen Goldin, George Zebrowski, John Morressy, Jerry Pournelle, Jerry Sohl, David Bischoff, Robert Hoskins, Piers Anthony, and Tim Powers. After 57 novels the experiment was declared a failure and the line was ended. No instant classics amongst these novels, but many of their authors did go on to pen worthy additions to the Science Fiction canon.

On the longer side, the 1960s saw the creation of the paperback bestseller. The Lord of the Rings, driven by the counter culture, sold stunning numbers for Fantasy. In the 1970s, John Jakes' Kent Family chronicles did similar things for historical fiction while Frank Herbert's Dune books were Science Fiction's big winners and Stephen King's horror novels for the darker stuff. The paradigm had changed. People wanted big fat books again, books that allowed a reader to dwell in strange places for a good long while. So how big were these books? If we include The HobbitThe Lord of the Rings is only 300,000 words. The original Dune trilogy is 398,000, but The Song of Fire and Ice series (five books, each at 300,000 words) is 1,500,000 words so far.

Most of today's basic bestsellers are 100,000 minimum. Would The Sword of Shannara (1977) have sold as well at 70,000 words rather than 180,000? Probably not. Book buyers were looking for something that felt like The Lord of the Rings as well as read like it (maybe a little too much like it). That's a marketing tactic. Buyers began to equate size with quality. (Bigger is better, our minds tell us. If only this were true. I'd rather read a 2500 word Lord Dunsany gem over anything David Eddings ever wrote!)

The long and the short of it all is that publishing markets determine how long books are. Asimov is what Asimov is because he wrote when he did. Could he have written longer novels if he had come along in the 1970s instead of the 1930s? He did in his later career. But are the later books as much fun as those old Astounding stories? Writers are the product of the markets that exist at the time they are trying to get published. The mid-listers of the 1970s are another good example. Avram Davidson could write wonderful 65,000 word books (sometimes shorter) and be part of Doubleday's mid-list making a small, but consistent living. Today? Forget it.

But then that was the past. All that was true up to 2007, when Amazon introduced the Kindle and the ebook went from an airy-fairy dream to the majority of the market share. And now with a movement towards indie publishing, authors are no longer tied to big publishers who dictate format, length or content (some would cry, also editing and proofreading). An author selling their own books online can now decide all of that for themselves.

This piece isn't about writing though, but reading. To go back to Jack Mackenzie. We both enjoy a good short SF novel. Something like Robert Silverberg's Nightwings or Michael Moorcock's The Eternal Champion or Tom Godwin's Space Prison. Fascinating reads that are 60,000 words or less. The ideas - the fun - are concentrated; not drawn out over 100,000+ words. That's how they wrote them back then. Because you had to.

It's fun to dip into an old stack of Ace Doubles. Jack Vance was the king of concentrated writing. He'd spark off more ideas in a page than a stack of bestsellers. But they weren't slow for all their richness. They moved with a pace that kept you turning all night until they were done and you wished they were longer. I think, and I'm sure Jack would agree, that every library (paper or digital) needs longer and shorter pieces, sagas as well as novellas and short story collections. I know when I've just finished a lengthy series that there is a period of time in which I feel soaked in that world, in that author's words, and it's hard to move on. That's when I reach for the short stuff. It gives you something to read while your brain processes all those chapters of Wonder. It gives you that needed step away from Hogwarts, or Middle Earth, or Arrakis. It lets in a little air, bittersweet as parting is, and says, yes, you will read again.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.

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