Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

the length of texts

Charlie Stross asks an interesting question: “Why are novels (the prevailing form of fictional entertainment on retail sale today) generally the length that they are?”

Back in the mid to late Victorian period, when books were frequently printed and sold as weekly serials, in chapter-sized magazines that could be bound together, the length of a book was really dictated by the author's (and printer's) stamina. In contrast, as I mentioned in my last blog entry, I've got a book coming out this month which is actually not a stand-alone novel, although that's what it's listed as in the publisher's catalog — it's the sixth (and final) installment in a multi-book story, six volumes long. Why isn't that story coming out in a single binding?

It looks obvious at first — novels are the length they are because, well, they're novels — but in truth, the length of a novel varies depending on the prevailing publishing industry distribution model when it's written. . . .

Going forward, I speculate that if we make a successful transition to ebooks — that is: if ebooks become a major sales channel and authors are still writing professional quality work for money, and readers are finding some way to pay them — we may see a revival of other formats: novellas for one (they're undergoing a renaissance in SF publishing among the smaller publishers), the Dickensian serial for another, and the gigantic shoebox-sized monster for a third. The corsetting of the modern novel to fit between the tight constraints of binding costs and price elasticity of demand will be unstrung, or replaced by bras, or some other over-stressed metaphorical construct.

I find this scenario both plausible and exciting. The constraints Stross describes in book-publishing — the whole post is quite detailed on these matters — are matched by a similar set of constraints in the periodical world. For periodical fiction and nonfiction alike, there are a set of containers of more-or-less fixed sizes, and stories, essays, and reports need to fit into those containers. Some of the most celebrated moments in the history of the New Yorker, for instance, center on deviations from those norms: John Hersey’s Hiroshima), which took up a whole issue — and can you imagine the magazine today running a story the length of Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924”, no matter who wrote it? (Well, maybe. But it would be a cause célèbre.) Digital environments could turn out to be ideal homes for the miniaturist and the super-expansive writer alike.


  • It seems like serials will be a shoo-in if/when commercial e-publishing really takes off. If you get a good writer who can end a chapter on a great cliffhanger, that gives you a pretty good place to hit readers immediately afterward with a subscription request.

    One of Marshall McLuhan's four laws of media is that every new medium retrieves a previously obsolete function -- such that, say, the MP3 resurrects the single (and in doing so, makes the album format obsolete). The idea that serials and novellas and massive tomes of fiction might be on their way back in would not have surprised him at all, thirty years ago.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]