RARA-AVIS: RE:Book lengths and the unexamined life

From: Dick Lochte ( dlochte@home.com)
Date: 20 Nov 2001

Someone recently made the comment that publishers want longer books. This may have been true in the past, but not now. The current wisdom is that the crime novel masquerading as potential bestseller should be less than 100,000 words. The crime novel not masquerading as p.b. should be about 70,000 words. The desire for a physically bigger book was based on several previous beliefs. The bigger the book, the bigger the price tag, the bigger the profit. One of the secrets of Stephen King's success (and Robert Ludlum's and John le Carre's and Peter Staub's, etc.) was the size of the books. Serious research like that. Now, publishers have discovered that they can put a big book price on a normal size book and make even more profit. The shorter book is a quicker read, duh, and therefore frees the reader to buy more books. The shorter book is more appealing to foreign language publishers. The shorter book lends itself better to audio adaptation. And, I suppose, with the way things are going, they feel a shorter book will be quicker to download.

So, I don't believe authors are being encouraged to pad their novels, per se. What they're being encouraged to do is provide more information about character -- bio, favorite color, shoe size, etc. -- than the average crime novel needs or can support. This is why many series seem to fall apart -- because after all the blanks have been filled in about a protagonist's personal life, the only thing left is the job at hand. That would be fine, but editors believe readers are more interested in the personal stuff than the professional. So the author winds up repeating, ad nauseum, info about the sleuth or concocting something drastic to change the status quo - which is where supporting characters oftentimes are put into play. Either they're pushed into the limelight, where their personal lives can lumber the mystery, or they get bumped off. Either way, the book becomes a "breakthrough" addition to the series, with lavish promotion and critical acclaim and, Lord help us, reader affirmation.

Chandler and Hammett didn't have to worry about all that crap. They, particularly Hammett, wrote about heroes who got the job done. They were identified by their attitudes and their actions, with no page space wasted on extraneous biographical information. Off the job, Marlowe went to his apartment and drank or played a game of chess. That wouldn't be good enough by today's standards. The chess game would be described move by move, with each move triggering some memory that would provide the reader with a blinding insight into Marlowe's character, possibly the reason this man of more than average intelligence would choose such a lonely unrewarding profession. Maybe, when he was just a little chess player, some bad kid stole his white knight. Chandler didn't bother with such guff. The fact that Marlowe knew and liked the game of chess said enough about the man.

Anyway, my theory is that the continuing popularity of Hammett and Chandler is based in large amount on the fact that the lives of the Op and Spade and Marlowe (in the early books) are basically unexamined by the text. What we know about them, particularly Hammett's characters, comes from reading between the lines. As much as I enjoy Robert Parker's novels, I'm not sure how long they'll continue to be read once the last book in the series has been written. For my money, Parker has told and retold us everything a reader could possibly want to know about Spenser, Susan, Pearl the dog, Hawk and their perfect relationships -- sort of a middle-age "Friends" without the laughtrack. But, judging by the length of time this list has spent prodding, poking, analyzing and criticizing the novels, I could be wrong. Maybe Pearl is Parker's Flitcraft.

Dick Lochte


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