I write short novels. My latest, Hit & Run, clocks in at just under 60,000 words. My previous novel and my next novel are about the same length. I pretty much think if you can’t tell a story in 60,000 words, what’s the fucking point?
OK, that’s ridiculous, there are some fantastic longer novels out there. I admit that. But there is also a shitload of oversized, flabby, longwinded, baggy tomes creaking under the weight of their own self-importance.
I review books for a number of newspapers and magazines, and I’m continually bombarded by obese novels full of dreary, self-conscious, sanctimonious overwriting. Not one of them says anything about the human condition that isn’t covered infinitely better in 116 pages by James M. Cain in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Economy is the key. Authors, blurt out your big first draft, by all means. But then you must edit until your eyeballs piss blood out the sockets, carve away until the essence of the story is all that’s left. Boil your novel down like the severed head of a tribal enemy, until only the clean skull remains to drink your victory toast from.
Some readers seem to equate a large number of pages with both intellectual weight and value for money. They are wrong on both counts. Long books are just showing off. And I despise writing that shows off. Look at me, the author! How clever am I! Fuck off and tell the story.
Writers of long novels, a pox on you all! Unless, of course, you’re one of the few great ones who can pull it off without boring the arse off your readers. Reading should be a joy, not an endurance test. Sort it out, people.
I’ll finish with two arbitrary lists of short classics. Needless to say, I’m not equating my work with any of these, Christ, I’m not a total dickhead. These are all works of genius, I’m just a two-bit story scribbler.
Five Short Noir Classics (with page count)
Horace McCoy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (122)
Nathanael West, Miss Lonelyhearts (58)
James Sallis, Drive (178)
James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice (116)
John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (103)
Five More Short Classics
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (157)
Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange (149)
Albert Camus, The Outsider (117)
George Orwell, Animal Farm (95)
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (96)
Driving home from a party with his girlfriend and brother, all of them drunk and high on stolen pills, Billy Blackmore accidentally hits someone in the night …
In a panic, they all decide to drive off. But the next day Billy wakes to find he has to cover the story for the local paper. It turns out the dead man was Edinburgh’s biggest crime lord and, as Billy struggles with what he’s done, he is sucked into a nightmare of guilt, retribution and violence …