Saturday, November 22, 2014

Size Doesn't Matter

I love to read. I LOVE TO READ. I’ll read anything, including soup cans, so clearly I’m not picky about word count. What I don’t understand is why there appears to be a virulent undercurrent of animosity aimed at shorter reads prevalent in current society. I’ve noticed over the last year or so readers are speaking out against short fiction. And they seem angry at the form. One author was reviewed harshly over word count (and only word count) for a story that was given away as a free read! 

This is very much an argument for:
 
DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS …. LENGTH. 

I brought the subject up in my writer’s group not that long ago and even there the consensus was decisively split between those that love the form and those that would never “stoop” to purchase a novella. And there it was again, while these writers weren’t angry at the short read like some readers I have encountered seem to be, they still saw the short story as LESS worthy or their time and money.[1] If it’s a cost based issue, as a great many people claim it is, they feel they are getting ripped off. Well, I just don’t see it. One – I have never mistakenly purchased a novella thinking I was getting a novel. Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, virtually every online retailer includes the print length or word count in the item’s description.  
Two – I don’t know about you but I have never seen a novella priced higher than $5 and precious few ever priced higher than $3. And I know I’ve dropped in the area of thirty dollars on one hardback book, without hesitation, more times than I’m willing to hazard even a loose guess at over the last twenty years. 

I’m not suggesting that I would be willing to pay $27.95 for 50 pages or less of fiction [A recent JD Robb hard back novel was recorded at 417 pages and retailed for $27.95]. But at $2.99 a pop I am agreeable to purchasing 9 different novellas by 9 different authors in 9 different genres. That’s the same amount of money and likely a total page count that would surmount 417 pages if it was just the money. 

That doesn’t feel like a rip off to me. It feels like a deal.

I actually enjoy short reads just as much as I do enjoy long ones. Sometimes it is a matter of convenience. Like everyone else in this world, I have to fit a lot of living into each day. Family, day job, sleep, bathroom visits, COFFEE, [hmmm, coffee, I’ll be right back] [I’m back] the blog, social media, writing, editing, marketing [GOD, HOW I HATE MARKETING], travel to and from the day job….I have a lot of stuff to do. You have a lot of stuff to do. It’s hard, HARD, to find time to sit down and read 417 pages. And I am one of those people that have to read all 417 pages in one sitting. It’s a compulsion thing – I don’t read soup cans because Campbell’s is fine literature, duh! I read because I must.

There are days when the only time I have to myself to read for pleasure is the forty-five minute train ride between my day job and home. I can read an entire book in that time frame with a novella. Yay! I don’t feel cheated. I’m not hiding in the laundry room trying to read just one more chapter. Or forcing myself to stay awake until three a.m. when I have to get up at five to start another work day to finish a book I knew I should’ve waited for the weekend to start. Short reads fill a specific need for me!

It’s not the size of the book that matters;
it’s how the author WORKS IT baby!

Plus they give me a chance to try a new author or genre without committing an entire day or weekend of my life to that book. And if it is something I like, I’m going to run out and spend that $30 on the hardback that I MUST now own by that new author I have just discovered courtesy of the novella I one-clicked for 3 bucks. 

I do still not understand why in a world full of buying in bulk, extreme couponing, fast food and communicating in 140 characters or less, the novella is treated like the leper of the literary community? 

Short stories, novellas and the like have a firm standing in the foundation of American literature. John Steinbeck, Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, O. Henry, these men were known for their novellas. I can’t imagine going through school without reading these stories. Of Mice & Men is one of my favorite books of all time. The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson, is a short story of magazine length and continues to be ranked as an important piece of literature. 

And before you start poking at the age of the examples I have chosen, I’d like to express my personal opinion that Stephen King’s finest works can be culled from his short stories. If you don’t believe me, simply thumb through the table of contents on a couple of his anthologies and what you will find will simply take your breath away. This is a man that truly understands the intricacies of the form. 

Which leads me to my final point, promise – if a short story or novella is well written, you should feel like you’ve read a full book. The characters should be fully realized, as should the plot. In a great many ways, it’s harder to tell a big story in small time frame. It can be a testament to the skill of the author that they pulled it off (see what I said about Stephen King!). The writer has to choose his words more carefully for maximum impact and edit with that same clear vision. And for the reader it can be a more intimate experience because instead of being led to the point, they may have to lean a little more on their own imagination. 


I don’t automatically believe a longer book is going to be good because it is lengthy and expensive; or that it will suck for that same reason. And I don’t assume a short book is going to be a great read because it is short. I’ve read plenty of stinkers and I’ve read plenty of gems in all formats, long and short. And I’m not about to turn my back on affordable, flexible, schedule friendly, sometimes brilliant pieces of fiction ripe for the plucking because there is some kind of blanket prejudice against that form. 

What do you think? Do you feel strongly for or against short fiction? And please share your opinions, I’m interested.

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[1] Interestingly enough, per my loose poll, fans of short fiction are equally enamored with longer works.

This post originally appeared on Wordpress on March 25, 2014
 
Articles you may find interesting in Forbes and The New Yorker magazines.
 

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