What, I ask myself, is the reason for the seemingly ever-increasing length of a story these days? It seems increasingly difficult to find a novel that isn’t “Book One of Eleventy-Seven.” Is the new publishing mantra “More Is Better”? And if so, does the blame lie on an over-effusive writer, a lackluster editor, or a greedy publishing house? Perhaps worse, is it the fault of a reading public who latch on these ‘marketing tricks’ and thus assure the future purchase of Book Two, Book Three, and Book Ad Infinitum?
Perhaps I’m being overcritical. I certainly realize that I don’t speak for everyone, as sales numbers no doubt show. Yet, I find myself incredibly frustrated when I drop into a book store (yes, Margaret, they do exist) and see that the cover of every bestseller has a cover emblazoned with “Book One of…”
I want a new book to, let’s face it, flirt with me. I want the first page to tease me and lure me in, then keep me up at night until I reach the climax after hours of stimulation. What I don’t want is to start the first date by putting a ring on my finger and planning our future budget, while I look at the calendar and wonder when that magical night will finally come. (Okay, that metaphor got away from me a bit, but you know what I mean.)
Of course, my problem isn’t just with the serials, but also those massive tomes that serve equally well as doorstops, paperweights, and threats to the legs of coffee tables everywhere. For an example, I’m afraid that I must point a finger at Galen Beckett’s The Magician and Mrs. Quent, which I finished reading today and served as the inspiration for this little rant of mine. Though not initially a book I had any interest in, my wife urged it on me (and since I’ve done the same to her and undoubtedly will again, I acquiesced). I won’t waste your time or mine writing a review, since others have covered that territory already. I will agree that this 512-page novel was entertaining, but I felt it suffered strongly from the lack of an editor’s firm hand. By the time I’d reached the midpoint of the book, I’d begun to skim fairly often, as much as one to three pages at a time. Worse, when I did so, I saw I was missing nothing save the frequent repetition of the heroine bemoaning her situation and quite failing to advance the plot.
The book also suffered from another trend I dislike, which is alternating chapters between protagonists. Worse, this book had three main characters, which only meant that once I ended an exciting chapter, I often had to suffer through two unrelated and less intriguing plots before I could pick up where I left off. And by then, the magic was gone (or at least very hard to recapture). Despite this, I thought I might attempt the second volume, The House on Durrow Street – until I picked it up and saw that it was almost 200 pages longer than the previous one, at a whopping 702 pages. Sorry, Galen. There’s no chance. After all, what if I dropped it on my foot?
I don’t want all authors to go back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, and contain their stories to a mere 12 clay tablets – but it might be a good place to start. Let me see a complete, wonderfully satisfying tale in 12 pages. Or, hey, let’s go crazy. How about I give you up to 200 pages, plus a list of a few ‘obscure’ authors who occasionally (or often) stayed under that limit and still managed to produce some ‘slightly well-known’ works. You might want to check them out: Agatha Christie, John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, George Orwell, Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, Mary Shelley, Joseph Conrad, Emily Bronte, and Oscar Wilde.
Now come tell me why you need an epic.