Big book, big bore.
(ca. 300-240 BC)
RECENTLY A FRIEND of mine who reviews fiction for her local newspaper was grumbling about some of the Arnerican titles she'd had to read. It wasn't that the books were particularly bad; but they were big, and reading them had been a strain on the arms as much as the eyes. She steadfastly maintained that this wasn't the case with the work of most British and Canadian writers. "But what can you expect from the society that brought us Cadillacs and the Big Mac?" she asked. "It's just the cult of size - the bigger the better."
It seems far-fetched to generalize about a nations psyche according to the thickness of its best sellers. But my friend does have a point: US books often are bigger, and that anomaly has apparently reached the status of received wisdom, at least among many writers and publishers. In a recent interview, Doris Lessing commented that "they like fatter books in America, and thinner books here [in Britain]. Everybody laughs about it. If you have a thin book here, publishers will like it, if it's fat they'll groan."
Michael Coren, a biographer and a transplanted Brit who deals with publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, says that the trend holds in his experience, a Ithough he can think of notable British exceptions (Salman Rushdie, A. S. Byatt). He adds that his American publishers have encouraged him to exceed the approximate word-count on projects - "there's a tendency to think you can't leave anything out" - white the British preference is to cut back.
It wasn't always so. When Britannia ruled the waves, the empire gobbled fat books as greedily as it did colonies. At the beginning of the 19th century, most British novels were printed in three, and sometimes four, volumes; the "threedecker" held sway until the end of the Victorian period, and all the major writers of the time - except the Brontes - published in some serial form. But these days the British book tends to be much trimmer than either its portly predecessors or bloated US counterparts. Take, say, Martin Amis's Time's Arrow, a mere pinprick of a book at 175 pages; and remember that Julian Barnes gave us the history of the world (abridged, admittedly) in only 10 1/2 chapters and a nudge over 200 pages.
In the United States, on the other hand, "big" books really are. Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost swaggered onto the New York Times best-seller list at a hefty 1,3 10 pages. Stephen King's Needful Things creeps over 700, and lest it seem as if it's only the men who hog a lot of room on the shelf - Scarlett, Alexandra Ripley's sequel to Gone with the Wind, comfortably tops the sales' chart and the 800-page mark. These books are all big enough to double as a doorstop or a footstool; though they're not likely what Sydney Smith, the British essayist and clergyman, had in mind when he said that there is "no furniture so charming as books."
Perhaps for some writers it's a personal form of manifest destiny, a way to dominate as much space as possible and make sure they're not taken if you'll pardon the expression - lightly. James Michener, whose novels are the literary equivalent of theme parks, writes in his memoir, The World Is My Home, that he wants to be remembered "by that row of
solid books on library shelves throughout the world " As for the public, its appetite for big books may be partly compensatory: isn't it conceivable, in this era of fad diets and a shrinking standard of living for many North Americans, that readers simply want to be able to binge on something? There's also the economic factor: as long ago as 1957 Dorothy Parker wrote in an Esquire review that "there exists a curious convention that length is what gives you
your money is worth."
Free trade and cross-border shopping notwithstanding, James Adams, senior editor of the paperback division of McClelland & Stewart, doesn't think that Canadian publishers have gone in for the kind of "epicization" of books that occurs in the United States. He mentions Stephen King's novels, which, according to Adams, "you practically get a hernia" taking down from the shelf M & S has done the occasional big book - Pierre Berton's Flames Across the Border and David Gurr's The Ring Master are both over 700 pages - and Adams acknowledges that "if Margaret Atwood came through with a 700-page book, we'd publish it regardless" But he feels that writers such as Mailer and Michener have conditioned their readers to expect - and want - "a big, fat tome they can just sink into, like swamp ooze. A book that big is an experience," he adds. "It gives you the message: this is a book that's going to take your time to get through " On the other hand, Adams says that M & S has passed on books that were "too slight" "Wholesalers won't take seriously a book that's under 124 pages," he explains. A slim book doesn't cost any less to produce, so it isn't cheaper. And think of how skinny it looks on the shelf, crammed spine to spine with more robust specimens.
Don Daurio, co-publisher (with Beverley Daurio) of the Mercury Press, jokes that, whatever their dimensions, "literary titles don't sell." He also points out that size is a matter of perception, and the publisher's and public's may vary. For example, one of the press's recent non-fiction titles, Getting Elected in Canada, was big by its standards (at over 250 pages), but got called "a slim volume" by a Globe and Mail reviewer.
Nancy Colbert, the publisher of HarperCollins, says firmly that a book "should be as long as it takes to tell the story." She acknowledges that different genres require different lengths - as a reader she enjoys "nice, fat novels," but feels that mysteries and thrillers can't be tautly paced and 500 pages long, too - yet seems bemused by the notion that a book's size has anything to do with its popularity, in Canada or anywhere else. What matters, Colbert implies, is a book's content.
Most readers would likely agree. Epic proportions are fine for movie screens and great public buildings; but a book's impact will never depend on sheer size, unless it's being used as a substitute for barbells. And let's face it: the "big, fat tome" may be a diminishing breed in the ecologically conscious 1990s. Leaner, after all, is greener.