I’ve heard a theory — I forget who originally floated it — that the length of the average mass-market genre fiction work has gone way up due to two things: the demands of the market and the invention of the word processor.
The first one isn’t hard to figure out. Books are getting expensive, and the more you give someone for their $13.95 or what have you, the happier they will be. Small wonder people are going quietly bonkers over the possibility that a bunch of indie upstarts will be marketing their own product for $1 a pop via the Kindle and sawing the rest of the book market off at the shins … or maybe even as high as the knees.
I have my doubts, because I’ve read bits and pieces of a lot of this $1-a-pop self-pubbed stuff and the vast, vast majority of it is like the literary version of those knock-off iPhones that Chinese manufacturers dumped onto the market. They have the words (boy, do they ever have the words), but they almost never have the music. After a while you are more than willing to pay full price for something that has withstood a few old-school filtering processes, like professional editorship. I’m not saying my own self-published work is any better — just that I’m painfully conscious of how tough it is to produce something halfway good. But all this is probably best left for another essay.
The second one, the word processor, is something I’ve witnessed in myself. When you have that many less fetters between your brain and the words on the page, you tend to assume that being able to put down that many more words is that much better. I have a fair number of counterexamples: look at the sheer size of many of the works produced before typewriters (Dickens, Thackeray, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky). Still, I can’t shake the feeling that the word processor, even more so than the typewriter, gives writers that many less excuses to pick the one word that pierces the middle of the target instead of the fifteen or twenty that limn its borders.
I’m also not just talking about mere wordiness here, but the compulsion — or maybe the directive — to take a story and spin it out to unwieldy length at the expense of depth or profundity.
A longer story is not automatically a more meaningful or significant one, but it can produce a great simulation of same. Pile on details and you create “depth” — but it’s depth of a technical sort, where you are simply recounting impressions instead of figuring out what they mean or what they add up to. The Stars My Destination is barely 200 pages in the paperback edition I had for years (I later gave it to a friend — why hoard such jewels?), but there’s more real action, real color, real meaning in those 200 pages than in books ten times they’re length. Small wonder it still holds up after almost sixty years.
Dune is about 500 pages in its standard paperback incarnation. I have a copy next to the desk, and I leafed through it while writing this. I was struck by how remarkably terse the storytelling is: there’s barely a paragraph in the book that's more than five sentences long. That sort of brevity is learned. I think the impulse for most of us is to add “detail” rather than simply be more selective with it. And yet no one would call its universe skimpily described.
I believe both of those things — marketing and technology — are responsible for making fantasy and SF a bloated enterprise (no pun intended). But I’m also of the belief a third trend is on the rise, one that is fed by the first two: a trend in hardcore fantasy and SF audiences away from stories and towards environments or continuums.
Much of that feeling lay dormant until I came across these lines, from a discussion of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books:
… there's an interesting bifurcation in the 'market' (horrid term) for SF and Fantasy: on the one hand the texts themselves (as it might be: Lord of the Rings, Star Wars) which provide one sort of pleasure, and on the other immensely detailed and elongated fan encyclopedia-style anatomies and extensions of those texts: all the Star Wars novelisations, all the books of ships specs and timelines and whatnot. This latter body of writing appeals to a subset of broader fandom, those SFF fans who want to know every atom of the imagined world.
Now what's happening with WoT, it seems to me, is that after a conventional opening, the series is increasingly turning into a man-and-fly-in-the-matter-transporter-together mutant melding of these two modes of text. Each installment devotes a certain amount of energy to moving the story on, and much more to encyclopedically anatomizing world and character.” [*]
In other words, it’s not the story or the characters that people attach themselves to. It’s the way those things (however poorly constructed) provide a degree of immersion into a whole new world. The story being told is secondary. The actual flow of events, the insights that you take away from them, even the characters you meet are just ways to enter that other world all the more completely. (Someone else described it as “world-porn”.)
I know people who are immensely fond of RPG world-books and supplements for the same reason. Storytelling is only one piece of a larger experience for them, because all stories come to an end. What they want is the experience of a place where any number of stories begin and end — a continuum rather than an artifact, the literary equivalent of theater-hopping at the multiplex.
I don’t doubt for a minute how such things can be engrossing. I just feel that there should also be room for proper storytelling, and that it should be cultivated apart from worldbuilding for its own sake. I also wonder whether or not the more we provide environments for our readers, the less they will come to savor stories. A story is finite, although once it receives enough attention and love, it is imbued with a yearning. Readers want to lift that finite work out of the finite and make it endless. Fanfiction is the largest embodiment of this that I know of — a way to take any finished piece of work and make it once again an open-ended enterprise. (Note: I don’t think fanfiction is a bad thing. I just try not to lose perspective about it.)
The problem with this attitude, especially when a creator comes under its influence — whether consciously or not — is that it leads to a willingness to cater to worldbuilding over storytelling. Or, rather, environment-building: the creation of an immersive space which in theory the reader fills with his own imagination — but which in practice is filled by the writer with increasingly dismal storytelling and flat-out bad writing.
Martin Scorsese once said cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out, and in the same way writing is about what you leave in and what you leave behind. When you’re compelled to leave in everything for the sake of “detail” or “immersion”, no matter how jejune or trivial, no matter how badly it sidetracks your underlying concerns, you leave storytelling behind and end up becoming an encyclopedist.
Even this by itself wouldn’t be so bad, if it weren’t for how this mode of writing is fast becoming the stock template for fantasy and SF generally. And I don’t know if the blame for that should be laid with writers, readers, or editors.
In Harriet the Spy, one of the wisest and most incisive books ever written for young readers (or, really, for readers of any age), there’s a letter to the main character from her nanny. One sentence reads: “I guard my memories and love them, but I don't get in them and lie down.” Many sentences in the book still stick with me — e.g., Harriet’s retort to her parents: “I do not go out to PLAY; I go out to WORK!” — but that one has lasted the longest and left the greatest impact. A world on paper may be a fine thing, but it’s only a backdrop against which an actual story can take place. To get in the memories and lie down is to do them a disservice, when what’s really needed is to use those memories as guidance and inspiration.
Maybe there’s a growing sense that the best story of all is not the one you have given to you from some outside authority, but the one you come up with on your own. I can see that — that’s a good chunk of what motivated me to write in the first place. But I’m not convinced that means all acts of creation that you yourself aren’t responsible for amount to a kind of tyranny of the imagination, something ruthlessly imposed on you from an outsider. With any well-written story, you bring everything you are to the story, and between you and the author there will be a collusion that can take place across any distance of time and space. It seems mistaken to conclude that an environment is better than a story, when the immersivity of either depends most on the reader anyway.
Again, I don’t want to make the case that all longer stories are inevitably doomed to just get tied up in their own knots or become too broadly-presented for their own good. I do think that the longer you make a given story, the harder it becomes to not repeat yourself, to not justify including things for their own sake, to not simply string the reader along, and to not get lost in the wilderness of your own pleasures.
In the end, it’s not a question of length or convolution. It’s about what sort of case you make to your audience for their involvement. I’d prefer to make that case with a good, succinct story first.
Incidentally, the same letter from Harriet the Spy is signed off with another phrase: “No more nonsense.” In those two phrases I find more truth about storytelling than in any number of other places.