Procrustes the publisher

‘The Children of Húrin’ and the size of books


Yesterday afternoon I received and read my copy of The Children of Húrin, the latest published extract from the formidable corpus of J. R. R. Tolkien’s unfinished work. I intend to write more about this very interesting book soon, but first I want to consider the interesting problem of the format, and what it may imply for the artistic health of commercial fantasy.

Húrin, as I shall call it for brevity’s sake, is a strikingly attractive book, with eight colour plates by Alan Lee and two more illustrations on the dust-jacket. The white spaces at the beginning and end of eacn chapter are filled in with Lee’s drawings, which are less visually impressive than the plates, but have the compensating merit of being more obviously related to the story. Christopher Tolkien has drawn a new map for the book, a tipped-in foldout on sturdy paper that should serve as an exemplar for all other publishers of books containing maps. The book is a handsome size as well. Amazon helpfully informs us that it contains 320 pages (not counting the plates), with no doubt a rather nervous view to justifying the cover price, which is as much as you would expect for a hardcover novel of that size.

The only trouble is, it’s not a novel of that size.

Húrin is beautifully typeset, with the sort of beauty that one finds chiefly in advertisements and glossy brochures: short on text, but artfully arranged. The margins are wide, the white spaces generous, and the type is set with only 28 lines to the page. Using a couple of standard methods, I calculate that the main text does not quite come to 60,000 words. To this have been added the usual introductions and explanations by Christopher Tolkien, a spaciously formatted index of names, and several blank pages at the end, perfect for scribbling ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit’ on. In short, there seems to have been a deliberate commercial decision to publish a book with the covers a certain distance apart, followed by a dogged and quixotic effort to fill the space between them.

If Tolkien were alive today, and trying to sell this book to a publisher, he would give his editor conniptions. ‘Sixty thousand words! Can’t you pad it out to a commercial length?’ But of course the unfortunate soul would buy the book just as it was. Letting an author of Tolkien’s commercial stature take a book elsewhere is punishable by crucifixion for the first offence and perdition for the second. Stephen King has traded on this fact. The shortness of The Gunslinger must have put its editor through all the phases identified by grief counsellors, from shock and denial to acceptance.

But for all those authors whose mere names are not enough to sell out a six-figure print run, the process would not end in acceptance, and the author would have to finish the grieving by himself. It appears to be an article of faith, especially with American publishers, that short novels don’t sell. The public for commercial fiction is apparently considered to be a subliterate mob that buys its reading-matter by the pound, and will sneer at any book that can be easily lifted with one hand. I have heard the rationale patiently explained by all sorts of people connected with the trade. People will pay twelve dollars for 800 pages of paperback before they will pay ten for 400, and a book thin enough to sell for eight would be mistaken for a Chamber of Commerce brochure. So the theory goes.

None of this applies to nonfiction, of course. When the reader is presumed to be looking for information as well as entertainment, brevity is a positive asset. The One-Minute Manager had no good qualities but brevity, and was the biggest seller of its time. It is many years ago now, but I seem to have vague memories of harried executives rushing about with shopping carts filled with copies of that daft booklet, congratulating themselves on their shrewdness. If your time is worth a hundred dollars an hour, imagine how much money you can save if you only buy books that can be read in fifteen minutes! Why, if a junior vice-president bought a thousand copies and read them all, he could retire on the proceeds of the time he saved.

Oddly enough, something like this attitude used to prevail in fiction as well. Jonathan Livingston Seagull was the One-Minute Manager of the 1970s: almost as short, almost as vacuous, every bit as popular. At a time when a mass-market paperback of that bulk sold for fifty or sixty cents, it could afford to be popular. When you could read a book in an hour or two, and buy it with ten minutes’ wages, it was easy to buy on impulse.

At that time, the cheapest and most usual size for mass-market paperbacks was 192 pages. A book that size holds 70,000 words on the nose if you skimp on the margins, and countless novels were written deliberately to that length. Isaac Asimov’s first book, Pebble in the Sky, was expanded from 47,000 words to 70,000 on the express orders of the editor. He knew paperback rights would be easiest to sell at that length. This standard paperback, which sold for 35 cents in the 1950s, crept up and up until it reached $1.25; soon after that it disappeared. Publishers decided that anything over a dollar was too much for an impulse buy. So they tried to position books as an ‘economy’ buy instead. Instead of ‘Try this for a dollar!’ their sales pitch became ‘Look how much you get for $2.95!’ By the early 1980s it was unusual to see a new paperback original much shorter than 100,000 words, and the upper limit (previously established by blockbusters like Rootsand Shogun) was determined simply by how much paper could be crammed into a mass-market binding.

These days it is just possible, if you are a Big Name and a proven seller, to get a 60,000-word novel into print; but your publishers will almost certainly disguise it, as they disguised Húrin, to make it look like more. Now, many a 70,000-word paperback original was really a novella padded out to fill the space, as with Pebble in the Sky. Readers knew this perfectly well. But when writers began padding out novellas to 100,000 words, the quality of the stuffing dropped off precipitously. Compared with the average hack novel of forty years ago, today’s hack novel is windy, rambling, and tediously redundant.

It was many years ago that I began to notice the padded prose style of new books, and compare it unfavourably to the economy of old ones. I set myself as an exercise to see how much I could shorten the opening chapters of Eddings’ Belgariad, without omitting any details or falsifying the tone. I found I could easily squeeze out 15 percent of his wordage. I could easily have done more, for Eddings is greatly susceptible to what Mark Twain called ‘lightning bugs’. Often enough I could have substituted one or two exact words for five or ten vague ones; but I confined myself to such changes as could be made using Eddings’ own words. Had I let myself strike redundant sentences and pointless scenes, I could probably have cut it by half. (I have cut some of my own drafts by a fifth in this way.) And yet Eddings is, or was, a paragon of concision compared with some present-day novelists.

The whole process of producing mass-market books now works against quality. The paucity of stand-alone genre novels, especially but not only in fantasy, is a testament to their generally poor quality, and that can be blamed on the padding. If you write a good novella, you must pad it to a fare-thee-well to make it a salable novel; so when readers see a novel not part of a series, they almost expect to find an overstuffed novella. If you have a story that wants to be a single tight novel, plenty of unscrupulous operators will urge you to dilute it into a trilogy. Beyond that point there is not much commercial incentive for further adulteration, unless your first name is Robert and your last name Jordan.

Even the tools we write with are conducive to hack and bloat. The copyist-monks of the Middle Ages valued every stroke of the pen, and wasted no written words. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, for instance, is an extremely terse work; for all its immense scope and importance, it fits easily in 300 pages of print. We find, at the end of mediaeval manuscripts, reminders of the labour that produced them. One scribe finished a book with the couplet, Explicit hoc totum: pro Christo da mihi potum. (‘This concludes the whole; for Christ’s sake give me a drink!’)

The invention of print made books cheaper, but writing no easier — for original manuscripts still had to be written by hand — until the typewriter brought movable type within the writer’s reach. That degree of mechanization made hackwork easier, but did not actually discourage quality. Some pulp writers used to type their first drafts in duplicate, by the prodigal use of carbon paper; that way, if a page could be sent to press with no revision, they could save the effort of retyping. But this was a rare and eccentric thing to do. ‘Real’ writers never submitted first drafts, and piqued themselves on the fact.

Then came cheap word processing. As recently as 1980, most desktop computers lacked the ability to display lowercase letters, and a ‘word processor’ was a dedicated machine costing $10,000 or more and requiring a specially trained operator. The IBM PC and its successors changed all that. Suddenly every working writer could compose first drafts with virtual carbon paper. The eccentricity of 1970 was the standard procedure of 1990.

In the days when you had to copy out each succeeding draft of a script by hand, or at best with a typewriter, you had time to look at every word and consider its savour, fine or foul. If you left a sentence unchanged in your second draft, you did it deliberately, because you had to type every word over again. It was once thought that word processing would improve the quality of writing, because it made editing so much less laborious. This expectation has been dashed. Part of the trouble is that it is so easy to leave sections of a so-called revision unrevised. When you polish a tabletop you have to rub every inch of the surface with the chamois, because if you miss a patch it will be obvious by its dullness. But words on a screen are all equally bright, whether written at the first pass or the tenth. You may think you have polished your whole story when in fact whole pages have scarcely been looked at since the first draft. This does not show in the hardcopy, which is always neat and clean and machine-perfect (leaving aside such celebrated goof-ups as ‘My Chequer Tolled Me Sew’). But the reader can feel the effects.

The critics, too, have been playing along. The 192-page paperback was born in the lifetime of Virginia Woolf, whose favourite blood sport, perhaps, was sneering at ‘three-volume novels’ and the hacks who ‘manufacture’ them. Modernism, of which Woolf was a leading exponent, was the received critical wisdom well into the 1970s; then it changed, at exactly the time that the economics of publishing changed. (A Marxist critic could have a field day with this discovery. I rather imagine many of them have, but I am not about to start reading Marxist criticism for the fun of finding out.) By 1997, James Wood could observe: ‘It is easy, and rightly so, for big books to flush away criticism.’ Like the art critics of the early nineteenth century, who all but prostrated themselves before twenty-foot canvases, today’s literary critics have developed a hankering for sublimity, and too often settle for mere bigness.

In 1944, when Tolkien was writing The Lord of the Rings, he confessed: ‘It is a curse having the epic temperament in an overcrowded age devoted to snappy bits!’ In 1966, in the preface to the second edition, he wrote:

The most critical reader of all, myself, now finds many defects, minor and major, but being fortunately under no obligation either to review the book or to write it again, he will pass over these in silence, except one that has been noted by others: the book is too short.

That was a sign of things to come. Publishers began to discover the selling-power of big books and multi-volume novels, and after the disappearance of the dollar paperback, made them the mainstay of their business. The loose and sloppy prose of the word-processor generation was perfectly suited to their needs. They were publishing books in greater numbers and at greater length than ever before, with editorial staffs constantly shrinking; one hears of cases where a single editor is expected to acquire and publish a hundred books per year. Meanwhile print runs were shrinking, advances and royalties remaining static at best; so that a mid-list author, to survive, had to become a hack, churning out vast quantities of work and sending them to press only half revised. The result: countless acres of what in our especial field is called, with a perfectly justified sneer, ‘Extruded Fantasy Product’. (The more general term ‘Extruded Book Product’ is occasionally used as well. I Googled that phrase and found to my chagrin that my own LiveJournal profile topped the list.)

Owen Byrne goes a good deal further than I do in assigning blame:

Rich moronic publishing executives got tired of watching star authors steal all their profits. So they developed systems to produce cheap, reliable and good selling (but noticeably BAD) books.

Dedicated or addicted readers will buy this stuff by the cubic quagmire, but ordinary people are rightly put off. We have thrillers too slow-paced to thrill, mysteries too prolix to mystify, fantasies in which nothing is fantastic but the obesity of the prose. Even writers I enjoy and admire are caught in the sucking vortex. I have greatly enjoyed, and still reread for pleasure, Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series; but never because of her prose style. She is one of these writers who throw a million words at a subject in the hope that some of them will stick. At 900 pages apiece, her books are alarmingly flabby; they could with advantage be sweated down to half the size. Once in a while an author appears who has something to say, knows what it is, and says it shortly; and her books sell by the millions, not only to the usual crowd, but to occasional readers, ex-readers, all the people who have given up trying to find anything worth buying in the torrent of published crud. J.K. Rowling is the most striking example of this, but not the only one. Unfortunately she lost the art of careful revision in her later books, rushing half-baked drafts to press to answer the clamour of her fans; and so she herself recapitulated the whole sorry history.

At this point, with rich irony, we find Christopher Tolkien publishing The Children of Húrin. Half a century ago, his father could hardly find a publisher because his masterpiece was too long. Now we find that Húrin is too short; and, terrified that the public will discover this, the publishers use every device to make it seem longer than it is. Yet of all the reviews of Húrin that I have yet read, from the gushing to the damning, not one has complained about the shortness of the book. It is long enough to tell the story well, and that is all that ought to matter.

Procrustes has been sitting in the editor’s chair for far too long. Would it be uncharitable of me to suggest that it is time to put him to bed?

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