Among the vast number of contradictory phenomena I don’t understand there is this: Why do Americans seem to have a decreasing attention span (witness the popularity of tweets and the fact that interest in a YouTube video declines after thirty seconds) while at the same time publishers and presumably readers want longer novels? For example, I read a lot of mysteries, and it turns out that between 1960 and 1979 the median length of novels that won the Edgar Award for Best Mystery was 72,001 words. However, since 1980 that medium length has been 102,533. There are a lot of theories about why the length of all novels has increased. One person in publishing told me readers feel cheated if they pay thirty bucks and get a thin novel. Or maybe novel readers take a look at the world and have a greater need to escape than they once did.
For those of you who enjoy or write novels under 65,000 words, I thought I’d compile a list of brief novels. I figured I’d list ten classic novels under 50,000 words to emphasize the point. Here are the titles, authors, and word count of those novels:
Animal Farm, George Orwell, 29,966
A Christmas Carol. Charles Dickens, 28,944
Farenheit 451. Ray Bradbury, 46,118
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald, 47,094
Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck, 29,160
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway, 26,601
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane 47,180
A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf, 37,761
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut, 49,459
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle, 49,965
There are also many great classic mystery novels that are relatively brief. James M. Cain was a master of brief novels. Double Indemnity, for example, had 30,072 words. I don’t have the exact word count for The Postman Always Rings Twice, but it was about 35,000 words. Cain wrote such tight prose with compelling narratives that I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the films made from these two novels are among the best mystery films ever made.
Of course, this is not to suggest that great novels need to be brief. In the 19th century, without all the distractions of contemporary life and without radio, film, audio books, television, video games, and the internet to offer alternative ways for readers to find the pleasures of storytelling, novels were often much longer. War and Peace was 587,287 words. Tolstoy was, by comparison, a slacker in creating Anna Karenina. That was only 349,736 words. In the United States, Melville took 206,052 words to compose Moby-Dick. Emily Bronte was, by comparison, frugal with her words. She used only 107,947 of them to write Wuthering Heights. Jane Austen was somewhere in the middle. Emma was 155,887 words.
I personally often prefer shorter novels. I can carry the characters and the plot completely in my head throughout the story. I can finish a book in one sitting. A briefer novel can, at its best, carry the power of a poem. But, judging by novels now being published, I am in the distinct minority.
I’ve been thinking about writing a literary mystery. However, if I do, it will be brief, and I therefore wonder how it would ever be published and, if it were, whether readers would feel cheated, as though they bought a blouse or shirt only to discover a sleeve was missing.
What strange literary questions contemporary America engenders.