The Long and The Short of It

Originally published in Creative Wisconsin, June, 2012.

First place winner in Bo Carter Memorial Contest,  essay category, April, 2014.


Scene 1: I’m at book group, holding the book under discussion on my lap, open, fanning the pages. “This book is a hundred pages too long.” I’ve said this too many times lately, when I no longer care what happens to the characters. Or when conflicts and characters appear and disappear with no resolution. Or when the story’s either going nowhere or going in too many directions at once.

 Scene 2: I’m at writing group, listening to fellow writers as they struggle, trying to figure out how long their book will be/should be. Steve is incredulous at an agent’s suggestion that he add 20,000 words so his book would be more marketable.

 The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s website has the most definitive answer regarding length: Novellas are between 17,500 and 40,000 words. Novels are 40,000 words and more. But other internet sites say a novel is over 90,000 words and below that is a novella. Another says anything shorter than 60,000 words is going to be hard to publish, and 70,000 or 80,000 words would be easier to sell.

 I’ve read similar comments in book review columns on the length of a short story and the special properties of the short short story. No one seems to know anything for sure. Even today, the influence of Raymond Carver, who was writing short stories and novels in the 1980’s and ‘90’s is still noted; he was considered a minimalist. So, I ran to the library and checked out his short story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, originally published in 1981.

This tiny book of 159 pages contains 17 stories. The shortest is four pages long. I didn’t count the words. I’m not that curious. But that short of a story seems well below what, according to some, constitutes a short story. If four pages is not a story, then just what is this interesting piece of writing? The 294 pages of Alice Munro’s Open Secrets contains eight stories; the longest is fifty pages. Carver can write short and Munro can write long. They both write wonderful stories. And that’s what’s important.

The concentration on word count and number of pages seems odd. How does a writer know when they begin, just what it will take to tell a story? What is a story anyway? I know, it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and who knows what it will take to get the whole thing down on paper.

Scene 3: I’m sitting in my most comfortable reading chair, hugging the book I’ve just finished, yet another John Irving novel. His books, critically acclaimed for their sheer readability leave me totally satisfied. This one’s 827 pages seem just enough. Isn’t a story finished when everything is said that needs to be said? Isn’t it more important that the story is moving, characters are well developed, plot lines are clear, and everything is wrapped up nicely at the end? And that is John Irving.

I think of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as a great story that can’t get much shorter. And whether this qualifies as a novel, a novella or a long short story, it is, first and foremost, a compelling piece of literature. Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is an absorbing story where every word counts. Or as editors say: every word advances the story.

  so what prompts my “this book is too long” conundrum? Are authors, these days, adding some fill-in chapters or a few peripheral characters to please an editor instead of telling a tightly knit story with punch? My praise for John Irving may quell your thoughts that I’m a casual or lazy reader. Clearly, for me it’s quality, not quantity.

So what if Hemingway’s editor had insisted that his classic man-against-nature-fish-story absolutely had to be at least 40,000 words to be worth publishing? By the way, the fish story’s word count is 26,580. Is that a novella, a novel or a manuscript that would never be published because it’s too short? And the same for Fitzgerald, who’s editor could have said “Come on Scott, 50,061 words is just not long enough.”

At the other end, John Irving is known for doing research for up to ten years before he finally sits down to write. By then, he knows just what it will take to completely describe the pathos of Dr. Larch or to fully develop the likeable but quirky boy/man, Owen Meany.

How tragic if any of these writers had added or deleted something, anything to meet the demands of the market or an overzealous editor. I think the best advice is to write until the story is told. This essay that I’m writing is 816 words long. I’m stopping now because I’ve said all I have to say.

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