Aug 18 2009
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There is a sinister power afoot, an evil influence that is threatening to steal our enjoyment and satisfaction, a darkness that dims our reading joy. What is this evil, you may ask?
Someone is stealing words from the genre!
Although books have been getting shorter for a while now, readers are catching on more substantially now, and they are not happy. In her recent review of Loretta Chase’s new novel, Don’t Tempt Me, Smart Bitch Candy lamented that
-Chase does a lot with the decreased wordcount she’s working under. (I was anal-retentive enough to do a quick-and-dirty comparison: Lord of Scoundrels was 375 pages and 37 lines per page; Don’t Tempt Me runs 355 pages and 32 lines per page. Hmmmm.)
And in the comments of my review for Victoria Dahl’s One Week As Lovers, Growly Cub indicated that
Most importantly, this is yet another book I’ve read lately that absolutely suffered from word count constraints. Don’t know if they are self-imposed (aka considered "tight plotting’) or publisher-imposed, but there were at least 4-5 books so far this year that really needed more story and words rather than fewer. It’s really frustrating to read all these books and be left thinking at the end that they were good but could have been so much better.
I have heard various excuses for the lowered word counts, from cost of paper to printing costs to an insistence that readers today prefer shorter books. I remember reading a comment from someone on Twitter, an author, who indicated that her most recent contract called for word count < 100K, which I think many of us count as standard, especially for historical Romances, which, from authors like Jo Goodman, are still coming in at longer lengths. I don’t know how many words The Windflower is, but that sucker is looooong. As are so many of the epic historical Romances from the 80s and 90s. You can almost stack two of today’s mainstream historicals next to a book like Christine Monson’s Rangoon, which, in lush detail, crosses continents and cultures.
So are books published today suffering for being shorter? Are readers being cheated out of wonderfully detailed and leisurely-narrated books?
As much as I hate the idea that word counts for single title books are being contractually dictated (and didn’t I read somewhere a couple of years ago that Harlequin has shortened word counts for category titles, too?), I’m not convinced that shorter books are necessarily weaker books.
Take, as a counter example, Judith Ivory’s Bliss, which clocks in at a mere 373 pages. Now I do not know how many words it is, but I’m pretty sure it’s fewer than Black Silk, which clocks in at 407 pages and, at least in my original edition, has reallyreally small print and much smaller margins than Bliss. But is Bliss a lesser book than Black Silk? The latter is probably my favorite Romance novel ever, but both are mighty fine books, in my opinion.
Then think about categories, past and present. Kathleen Gilles Seidel managed to convey so much complexity in Mirrors and Mistakes than I have seen in almost any other boss/secretary Romance. LaVyrle Spencer’s Spring Fancy remains one of the most provocative and meaty Romance novels I’ve ever read, tackling class issues as well as infidelity on the part of the engaged heroine. On the whole I prefer Jennifer Crusie’s categories to her single title books, both for meat and wit. And I’m still impressed with what Kathleen O’Reilly managed to convey in her Sex Straight Up hero, Daniel, who lost his wife in the 9/11 WTC attacks.
I have always likened genre Romance to the sonnet. Sonnets are among the most restrictive poetic genres. But still, within the traditional 14-line structure, some of the most powerful poetic expressions have been recorded. Not that poems and novels are literally equivalent, but I’m also not certain it’s fair to assume that if today’s Romance novels were, as a matter of course, longer, that they’d be better.
Now it may be that some authors just write longer and some write shorter, and in that case, if contracts are determining word counts, are authors negotiating those terms? Are there really editors out there who are going to turn down a beautifully-written 100K single-title novel because it’s 15K too many words? Now I believe that publishers do some really boneheaded things in the name of sales (like trying to guess reader tastes two years out), but are there editors who are truly willing to kill a brilliant book because it’s longer than 85K? Or could it be that authors are trying so hard to write more books, faster, that they’re perfectly satisfied with the shorter word lengths? How many books have any of us read – short and long – that have what seems like lots of filler? I can think of numerous books I’ve read that contain a wholly unsatisfying combination of shorthand and filler.
So let’s hash this out: are shorter books creating suffering among readers and books, or does it even matter how long or short books are?