Apr. 6, 2010

Will e-novels be shorter?

Ephraim Rubenstein - Still Life With Burned Books

A few weeks ago, over on Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell wrote a post that I’ve been thinking about ever since.

I would estimate that about 80% of the non-academic non-fiction books that I do not find a complete waste of time (i.e. good books in politics, economics etc — I can’t speak to genres that I don’t know) are at least twice as long as they should be. They make an interesting point, and then they make it again, and again, padding it out with some quasi-relevant examples, and tacking on a conclusion about What It All Means which the author clearly doesn’t believe herself. The length of the average book reflects the economics of the print trade and educated guesses as to what book-buyers will actually pay for, much more than it does the actual intellectual content of the book itself. Length may also, of course, reflect some practical judgments concerning the book as a display object.

He went on to predict “an explosion in the number of very short books/essays” as we move to a world of electronic publishing, because buyers will not be put off by shorter books when they can’t actually see (or display) them as physical objects.

I hope he is right, of course. The extinction of padded-out nonfiction books would be good news for everyone, except maybe Malcolm Gladwell.

But what struck me most about the post was how rare it is to see a discussion of how this new medium will affect books themselves. The conversation about ebooks is obsessed with the business of publishing. Which traditional publishers will survive, which won’t? Which reader will dominate, iPad or Kindle or something else? How will authors get by when publishers’ margins approach zero, as resellers like Amazon drive down prices and tent-pole authors find they don’t need traditional publishing houses at all? In all this, relatively little is said about the books.

What about fiction? In a world of ebooks, will fiction shrink, too?

I think it will, but not for the same reason. Unlike nonfiction, which begins to feel overstretched when there are more pages than ideas, there is no “natural” length for a story. Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby are equally masterpieces, of unequal length. I just finished Wolf Hall, a cinderblock of a book, but it did not feel overlong at all. If anything, it ended too soon. (I raved about it here.) The test is whether a story works dramatically. Even a very short story can feel too long.

And that is what will force novels to shrink: as we increasingly move to reading on screens, everything begins to feel too long. The reading public is losing its ability to stay focused on a longer text. Online, readers are conditioned to graze, to nibble and move on. Even the verbs we use for reading on the internet, browse, surf, suggest how superficial the experience feels. These increasingly are our readers, of fiction and nonfiction alike: harried, restless, impatient.

Worse, ebooks will increasingly share the same screens as the rest of the digital tsunami. No longer will you turn off your computer and open a book in peace. The iPad and whatever is likely to follow will be fully web-enabled, so the whole Times Square of the internet will always be one click away. For the moment, dedicated ebook-reading devices like the Kindle offer a quieter reading environment, but that is likely to change as more versatile devices like the iPad enter the market.

I have seen my own patience for long books begin to shrivel. So many novels now seem to drag, particularly in the second act. To be fair, part of it may be other pressures: between two young kids and working, I am squeezed for time. But part of it is the distracted feeling we all share today. It is the way we read now.

I have begun to tune my own writing accordingly. I made a conscious decision to make my third novel shorter than my first two by about 20%. Most of the tightening is in that critical second act, where the pace tends to slow down and the plot often wanders, to no real purpose. I am keenly aware that this novel will be competing with an array of new media and that my hold on the reader’s attention is precarious, and it scares the hell out of me. My competition  is not other novelists; it is all the other media crowding onto my readers’ screens and into their minds, try as they might to shut them out. I simply can’t afford to shuffle my feet for a hundred pages and expect the reader to still be there for act three.

Of course, there is nothing new about novelists shaping their work to the tastes of contemporary audiences. Dickens’ novels are long and intricately plotted because that was what his audience demanded. He generally wrote for serial publication in periodicals, so his stories had to extend and ramify over very long periods, like modern TV series. (HBO’s “The Wire” was often compared to Dickens’ stories, and rightly so.) Serial publication also allowed Dickens to monitor how his books were being received and tweak them as he went along to give readers what they wanted.

It is hard to give readers what they want, of course, because it is impossible to know what they want. But I suspect that shorter novels will increasingly become the norm, just as shorter nonfiction will. This, it should be noted, is a hopeful prediction. Better that novels go on a diet than die out altogether.

Image: “Still Life With Burned Books” by Ephraim Rubenstein (oil on linen, 38″ x 50″).