In Robert McCrum’s piece in The Observer yesterday he complained that “fiction is putting on weight.” He described a trend in which novels are becoming increasingly lengthy and comes up with a few reasons why:
“You can blame the computer for the contemporary writer’s reluctance to cut. Again, you can blame the decline of editing at the big imprints, which is actually more apparent than real. Or you can point the finger at the pressures of the marketplace, especially in America.”
Personally, I think novels being in the 300-600 page range is actually fairly standard and has been for as long as I can remember, so I’m not sure what McCrum is complaining about as a recent development. Yes, it’s better to have short well-crafted story than a long babbling vomitorium of a novel, but if the author is capable of writing a 300-600 page novel that is well-crafted and purposeful I’d choose the longer over the shorter tale. Who wouldn’t want more of a good thing?
That said, I do find there is a trend (though again, this is nothing new) of established authors letting themselves go overboard with their word counts and forgetting (or their editors forgetting) that even famous people still write unnecessary scenes.
Rowling went through a period when she was guilty of this with Harry Potter. Order of the Phoenix‘s length was extreme for a children’s novel, which I wouldn’t have minded if it was all necessary and interesting. However, the bulkiness of the novel seemed attributable more to repetitive scenes of Harry lashing out in petulant fits of adolescence than to essential bits of story. It’s as if Rowling’s publishers and editors decided all the Potter fans would want every scrap of writing J.K. produced simply on the merit that it was part of Harry Potter’s world, even if some parts weren’t very good. There may be some truth to that — the obsessive greediness of fans seeking more material knows no bounds — but it’s a bit of an insulting “let them eat cake” policy to throw readers garbage that would be discarded from the manuscript of any less successful author.
The same thing seems to plague George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. The first novel has direction and momentum of plot. But after that, things get a little bogged down. The wheels are spinning, but the whole plot barely moves along. This makes sense considering Martin originally intended to write ASOIAF as a trilogy, but then expanded it. Martin says the story organically grew beyond the confines of three books, but it seems to me that the story still could have fit within three books if he edited it responsibly. Even Suzanne Collins’s sequels to The Hunger Games seem a little too long for the actual story contained with them, despite the fact that one of Martin’s books could eat two of Mockingjay or Catching Fire and still have room between its covers for more.
I must admit that as I rewrite and edit my MS there are times when I sit back in my chair while in the middle of slashing down a favorite scene and think: “if I were famous, I’d be allowed to keep this part…wouldn’t that be nice?” But then I have to snap myself out of it and remind myself that just because you might have people willing to read a scene, that doesn’t make the scene worth reading.
This may be the only leg up we aspiring writers have on famous ones: we know no publisher is going to make exceptions for sloppy editing in our novels so we have to stick to our guns and slash and burn until we get to the polished gem of our narrative.