I picked up my reading habit back in the ‘60’s when paperbacks were dirt cheap. Most of them ran about 45 to 60 cents, some were as cheap as 35 cents, and a few exceptionally thick tomes might run as much as 95 cents. Most of those books were not terribly long. I’d say the vast majority of popular fiction published in paperback ran to less than 75,000 words, with many novels running no more than 50,000 to 60,000 words. Even though I’m not an especially fast reader, I could still knock out at least two or three books a week and still have some time for newspapers, magazines and non-fiction. Granted, most of the stuff I read was forgettable or just plain bad.
Today, paperback fiction and popular fiction in general is obscenely bloated. Stories that would have taken maybe 60,000 words in the ‘60’s now take three or even four times that length, and the book sets you back $7.95, maybe even $8.95. Thrillers that might have taken 80,000 words in 1970 now seem to take 200,000. Science fiction and fantasy are particular offenders, with series books that weigh in at seven or eight hundred pages, stretching over nine or ten volumes, and with no more substance to them than a marshmallow. Stories that might have been just dandy at 100,000 or 75,000 or even 50,000 words now sprawl over hundreds of pages and seven or eight volumes.
I mean, jeez. Look what E.E. “Doc” Smith managed to do in six or seven books all well under 300 pages each. Hell, Fritz Leiber (see his Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser series) and Harlan Ellison could tell better stories in a novella than most writers can seem to do in 800 page novels these days.
I dunno, maybe I just enjoy faster-paced, punchier fiction than most folks, maybe I’m just so out of touch with popular culture that I can’t relate to it any more, or maybe I’m just too cheap to spend my hard-earned shekels on those big thick books. It’s just that whenever I pick up contemporary popular fiction these days, more often than not I find myself mentally screaming at the author,* “Will you please just get on with the freakin’ story already??!?”* And I really, really hate investing a lot of time reading a book, only to find that the ending is a huge disappointment. That’s not so bad if it only takes you an evening or two, but if it takes you a week to read the thing, and at the end you feel like calling up the author and demanding a re-write, then you’ve lost more than mere money. You’ve lost a considerable chunk of time as well.
Maybe publishers feel they have to give you big, thick books to justify the prices they charge. But it really does seem to me that editors and readers are much to indulgent with authors today and too often allow them to get away with ridiculously padded stories.
I don’t doubt there’s some worthwhile, even great, popular fiction out there, but can’t authors and publishers remember they’re making demands on my time and my wallet? Is there any possibility that this might ever change?