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Reader Habits

Does Length Matter?

Does Length Matter?

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I was being equal parts careless and provocative, when, the other day on Twitter, I tweeted the following:

1088 pages is just too long a book no matter how skilled a writer you are. Agree or disagree?

Quite honestly, I was bored and looking for something to liven up my afternoon, feeling a bit mischievous, as well as, from a writerly and readerly perspective, interested in hearing opinions on the topic. But I really should to have put the first sentence in quotes, because it isn’t and never was my literal opinion.

So before anyone else takes issue, let me clarify that I don’t think book length is a factor that trumps all others – that would be a ridiculous assertion. Nor do I think that 1088 pages is some kind of magic number, below which quality and skill count and above which they cease to matter. That would be even more absurd.

So what do I actually think on the matter of length? Mostly that each book should, in an ideal world, be exactly the length that best serves its author’s vision, whether that length is two hundred pages or two thousand.

Skill does count; it counts a great deal. Nonetheless, book length is a factor in my reading decisions. Although I have enjoyed long books, unless I’ve gotten a strong recommendation from a trusted source or have read the author in the past, I tend to shy away from them when I make my purchasing decisions. Here are some of the reasons why.

Attention span is a factor, but not the only factor.

In high school and college I had a higher tolerance for long books and my attention span isn’t what it used to be. This makes me sad because I wish I could concentrate as easily as I once did.

In my case, I suspect this shortening attention span is primarily due to web browsing, but I also think a contributing factor is the shortening of the average romance in the early 2000s, which was one of the things that conditioned me to expect to spend less time with books. Back in the 1990s, I loved many longer books, so I have no beef whatsoever with readers who prefer them.

This type of conditioning is one of several reasons I think it’s good that longer romances are showing themselves to be viable in the marketplace now.

But while the change in my attention span has had an effect on my interest in reading longer books, I think that to equate a preference for shorter books solely with an inability to concentrate is a fallacy.

Reading speed is also a factor.

My reading speed isn’t super fast. It took a significant dive when I switched primary languages. I regret it more than I can say, although there is a silver lining in that a side effect of is that as I read, I’m more conscious of the sound and rhythm of words now than I was when I read faster.

Still, this means I’m typically lucky to finish a book a week, and even a two hundred page book doesn’t get read in one sitting.

Why am I bringing this up? Because I don’t think the ability to concentrate or deal well with the boring parts of a book is the only factor in why longer books feel like a greater investment for some of us than for others. Time is an additional constraint, because we all have a finite amount of it.

I also think reading speed and attention span can affect each other. Before you pride yourself on your ability to stick with a relatively slow feeling book and assume it’s all due to your attention span, you may want to consider how much slower that same book may feel to someone who only reads at half your speed.

Flab?

One of the more controversial statements I made in this same Twitter conversation was that longer books mean a greater likelihood of flab. I’ll get to what I mean by this in a moment, but first, let me say that I do understand that each reader is going to define flab differently. Given the subjective nature of reading, it is impossible for what each of us considers flab not to also be subjective.

So let me give one example of what I consider flab. Take the following two sentences.

(A)  William rose up.

(B) William rose.

Personally, I think the word “up” in the first sentence is flab, because it’s not like William could rise except other than up, not do I think the word “up” adds anything to the style of the sentence. Others may differ, and that’s okay.

By my statement that longer books are more likely to contain flab, I don’t mean that any longer book is going to be flabbier than any shorter book. This would be a completely ludicrous statement.

Here’s the point I was trying to make though.  Even many of the best writers will sometimes overlook what given more time they would choose to delete: words they consider superfluous. And I have long thought that all other things being equal, the longer a work is, the more often this is likely to happen, which means that on average this holds true. I could very well be wrong on this point, though.

If a book takes three times longer than most books to read, I want it to be as good as three average-length books put together.

This too proved to be a controversial statement, which surprised me even more. All I meant to say by this was that in the same way that I have to consider whether I’m going to get my money’s worth out of a book, I also have to consider whether I will get my time’s worth. I will generally only put in three times more time (or money) if I expect to get three times more out of the reading experience.

Does this mean I shouldn’t read long books?

Someone suggested so to me, but I don’t agree. Why? Because as Jane’s post about the reader’s ever-changing hard limits suggests, most readers have dislikes that can be overcome.

Just about every reader I know has some kind of strong preference, whether it be for genre, setting, heat level, character types, tropes, style of language, and length is just one of these.

And maybe I’m wrong, but I would venture to guess that just about every reader has had a reading experience which persuaded him or her to suspend at least one of these preferences and enjoy doing so.

It’s certainly true of me. Those books that overcome a preference to the contrary of mine often end up among my very favorites.

So authors, I hope you write books of the length that best serves your vision. And readers, I hope you weigh in below. Do you have any preferences when it comes to the length of your reading material? If so, what are they, and how do they influence your purchasing and reading decisions?

The Reader’s Ever Changing Hard Limits

The Reader’s Ever Changing Hard Limits

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A few years ago I wrote a post about the reader’s consent. Essentially the argument I made is that authors have to win over the readers’ consent to move on to the next stage in a story. Most debates over books arise because readers have different limits on when they’ll withhold consent. One of the most robust discussions I remember from the All About Romance site was over the Jo Beverly book “An Unwilling Bride.” In the story the hero, Lucien, strikes the heroine.

The debate is whether Lucien can ever be redeemed from that moment sufficient for the reader to buy into the idea that he can be a partner for the heroine and one who isn’t going to haul off and smack her every time he believes she’s stepped out of line.

Readers on the side of Lucien believe that the text shows his remorse and a change in his ways. Readers on the other side believe he’s an abuser and worse, enjoying this book elevates abuse as acceptable behavior.

For some readers, a hero striking a heroine is a hard limit, meaning that its intolerable in every situation from when Jamie in “The Outlander” beats Claire because it’s expected by his clan to when Lucien slaps Beth in “Unwilling Bride”.

For other readers, whether the act of a male protagonist striking a female is acceptable depends on the situation. More realistically, it depends on how much the reader enjoys the book because the same reader who excuses Jamie’s behavior may not excuse Lucien’s.

A much lauded book within romance readers is “To Have and To Hold.” Sebastian the main protagonist is a sadistic rapist who buys a criminal condemned to death with the sole purpose of toying with her emotionally and physically in ways that humiliate her to the point that she wishes she was dead. After he rapes her, he has an epiphany and spends the last half of the book turning his character around.

The same reader who enjoys this book may have problems with the current slate of motorcycle club books with the overly misogynistic tones or even “The Last Hour of Gann” (although the hero’s “rape” is not considered to be rape in his culture and he does not ever rape the female protagonist).

So what gives?

Reader’s limits come less from the trope or acts than the execution skills of the authors and the reader’s own bias.

Last week Willaful highlighted a reader who was upset with the characterization of a heroine in a story who left her child in a hotel room to engage in anonymous sex.  I’ve not read the book. For that reader the author’s execution of the storyline did not work and for that reader that particular set up may never work.

In the 70s and 80s, secret baby tropes abounded in greater numbers than they do today. The woman could keep the baby secret with no real justification other than we all knew that men weren’t interested in being fathers so there was no harm done. The cultural attitude toward the involvement of fathers in parenting has changed the type of secret baby book that is acceptable to more readers. Nowadays the mother has to have a really good reason for keeping the baby secret or animosity toward the heroine is hard to overcome.

For many readers, the secret baby trope is just not one that they can get behind anymore but those same readers may, from time to time, enjoy one because of the skillful way that the author has executed the plot line.

When an author writes outside the mainstream such as featuring a hero with a tiny penis, the author has to be ten times more skilled at telling a story than one who is telling a story of a well endowed man. For readers, it isn’t so much that dick size is a hard limit but that there are few authors that can write the tiny penised hero and make readers love him and probably even fewer authors who want to try.

The author has no idea where the reader’s line of consent is other than to look at what’s been successful in the past. My guess is that authors internalize criticism pinpointed toward other authors and then shy away from extending too far out wanting to avoid the same criticism. It’s the complaint I’ve seen in regards to authors writing more multicultural stories. It’s “safer” for the author to stay within a certain set of tropes and characters.

But gaining a reader’s consent takes time. It can be built through previous good books. There are some authors I just trust can take me anywhere with them. New to me authors are treated with much more skepticism. There are new authors that convince me to go places with them where I’d feel uncomfortable going with any other author, even an old “friend” (meaning an author I’ve read for years). Some of the most controversial books are also those most loved by some readers, because an author was able to push the reader beyond her comfort zone. But trust has to be earned, and if readers are shown a limited range of things over and over and over, they’re not being conditioned to push past what the genre routinely offers them.

But the reader’s consent depends upon the text itself and the reader doesn’t always know if she’s going to give up that consent, that willingness to forgive an a character’s behavior or be convinced of a character’s genuine repentance or just be convinced the relationship will last beyond the last page of a book.

When readers express their dismay over a particular storyline, so often they are saying this didn’t work for me and couching it in terms like “I hate secret baby tropes” when they really mean they hate secret baby tropes as executed by that author in that story. Or they are saying the author didn’t convince her of the rightness of this situation. The ability to pinpoint and then articulate exactly what didn’t work is really difficult. I have a hard time doing it and I’ve been writing reviews for the blog for years.

The very first review I did for Dear Author was of Eloisa James “The Taming of the Duke“. In this book, the hero pretends to be someone else and the heroine falls in love with who the hero is pretending to be. I did NOT believe in the love relationship between the hero as his true self and the heroine because the hero pretended to be SOMEONE ELSE for the majority of the book. James never, ever gained my consent for the love relationship between the hero and the heroine. James tried to argue that she left all kinds of clues but I didn’t buy it and I resented her attempts to tell me, the reader, that I was wrong in my interpretation of it.

We all have our hard limits and sometimes we don’t know that we have them until we encounter the storyline and some authors can talk us over them but it all comes down to whether the author gained our consent at all the pivotal moments.