Bloated popular fiction

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?

I think you’ve really put your finger on something here. I often find myself thinking, upon finishing a book, “you know, they could have knocked about 100 pages off that and had a much better book.”

This is especially annoying with mysteries, where they’re not writing lit-ra-chure, for crying out loud – PD James, I’m looking at you.

Oh, is Atlas Shrugged something you’d knock off on a trip to the bathroom, I suppose? And Dicken’s sure has his share of bloated novels. It’s not just the modern writers guilty of this.

Interesting. From what I’ve heard from my writer friends, the pressure is to keep the size of books down, because of paper costs. Fewer pages, less paper, less cost, though they can still sell the book for $6.99 or $7.99. I can only speak for the realm of mystery fiction, but I have spoken to some publishers that say anything over 400 pages has a much harder time getting published because as the book gets larger, it get more expensive to print.

When I saw the OP I thought first of Atlas Shrugged. But I do agree, a lot of what is written today could make use of a good editer.

I don’t think I’d classify Atlas Shrugged as a popular work, even though it does often read like pulp magazine fiction. I’d classify it as polemical fiction, like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry, or Jean Respail’s The Camp of the Saints. Granted, Dickens was a popular writer, but IIRC most of his novels were first published in serial form in newspapers and magazines and so didn’t make huge demands on his readers’ time.

Interesting. Perhaps I’m even more out of touch with contemporary popular fiction than I’d thought. I don’t read a lot of mysteries, and when I do I generally borrow them from the library. It does seem to me that there’s a trend in SF&F towards huge, bloated works, though. Tom Clancy and Stephen King could definitely use editors with enough spine to stand up and shout, “CUT! CUT! CUT!” Paperback romances seem to have hit the right balance when it comes to price and length (though admittedly I’ve never read a paperback romance in my life).

Would you say that any of your writer friends’ fiction has actually benefitted from the need to keep the pages down and be concise? Admittedly, my own tastes and prejudices come into play here, as I much prefer a story that rockets along (at least when I’m looking for popular fiction).

LonesomePolecat said “Today, paperback fiction and popular fiction in general is obscenely bloated.” which is correct and has nothing to do with Ayn Rand. Or Dickens, either. The reasons are partly specific and partly from a longer cycle of publishing.

For the cycle, the 1930s are about the first period that is comparable. Popular fiction tended to be relatively bulky then. Mysteries usually ran over 300 pages and popular novels were much fatter than that.

In the 1940s, publishing got hit simultaneously with the rise of the paperback and government rationing of paper stock. Publishers quickly realized that printing more but thinner titles was more profitable than fewer and fatter titles. Paperbacks were unwieldy when they got too thick and also tended to break in half because bindings couldn’t handle the stress. Also, all paperbacks sold for a standard 25 cents. More pages meant more costs with less of a hope of a return.

And tastes were also changing. People were living faster paced lives, with less time for reading. And, after the war, the noir effect arose: people turned to stripped-down, fast-moving adventure tales.

For most of the 50s and 60s genre books were churned out in quantity, even by the top quality authors. Again, part of it was money: the majority of genre books were now paperback originals rather than reprints of hardbacks. Nobody had money. Publishers fit manuscripts to formats. There’s a story about a Philip Jose Farmer novel that just stops in mid-page because his publisher’s profit point was 188 pages. If a manuscript ran long it got cut. This one got axed.

But somewhere around the 70s, a funny thing happened. People started realizing that these genre novelists were actually pretty good. Some of them were even great. And they started selling so much that they moved from original paperbacks to hardbacks, and then became hardback bestsellers. I could mention dozens of names, from Ed McBain to Donald Westlake to Ross Macdonald to John MacDonald in mysteries; Len Deighton, John LeCarre in spy thrillers; Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov and Anne McCaffrey in sf. Some guy named Tolkien inspired a whole new wave of fantasies, too.

But whether perception or reality, publishers thought that the public wouldn’t accept 200-page books at bestseller prices. Heft equaled value. And many writers, perhaps all of the above named and a bunch more, were told to write 400-page books. And most of them didn’t know how, so they wrote 200 page plots with bloat.

The 80s saw the rise of “world-building” fiction. After Star Wars and Star Trek and Tolkien, publishers saw that readers wanted to inhabit favorite worlds for as long as they could escape into them. So trilogies were hatched, and got longer and fatter, and turned into series, and writers who could have been working on their own fiction got seduced (seduce me, please!) into what is derisively called sharecropping, writing books in other people’s worlds.

And it keeps happening and happening. For a good laugh, line up the Harry Potter books next to one another and realize how tiny the first one now seems.

And in the meantime there rose what has to be called a genre of bestsellers. Stephen King and Michael Crichton and John Grisham and Danielle Steel and Nora Roberts write genre, but it’s no longer considered that. They do a certain type of book and it sells like crazy and it’s fatter than your hand can hold because they have so much power that no editor dares edit that necessary hundred pages out of their prose. And you can change whatever you want for a guaranteed bestseller, because you always get your money back.

But, there’s always backlash to any cycle. Fatter books always cost more than skinny books and book prices are getting so high that a point of resistance has been reached. Writers are being asked, and told, in both mysteries and sf to cut back on the length of their books. Barnes & Noble even went so far as to quietly tell the publishing industry that they would no longer accept midlist books (non-genre, non-bestseller books) longer than 110,000 words.

And the better writers have begun to rebel. Ed McBain, for example, is writing somewhat shorter, tauter, better paced- and plotted 87th Precinct mysteries now after years of bloat.

In addition, smaller presses are publishing high-quality books but can’t afford the bloat in any of the senses of the word, and so a lot of literary fiction is coming out as much skinnier books. Specialty genre presses are doing the same.

If you search, you can easily find me railing about this in any number of threads. Most genre books are much better when they are shorter, IMO. Most authors don’t know how to pace and handle a 900-page book, IMO. Editors should return to editing instead of marketing, IMO.

LonesomePolecat, you’re dead on.

I’ve remarked on this before on the Dope Board. Back when I started buying books, you could indeed get books for $0.60, 0r even $0.50. There was even a $0.45 papernback of Greek Plays I contemplated buying, just to say I bought a 45 cent book.

Of course, those books were much shorter. There were a lot more books in the 100-200 page range. They published a lot of single plays (that’s how I got copies of Sleuth and Man of la Mancha and Fiddler on the Roof and others, too many to count. Nowadays there are few published plays, they tend to be bundled in collections, and you only find them in large bookstores. I bought those plays in department staores, fer cryin’ out loud.

And there was a lot more short fiction. A lot of SF got sold that way. Back then you could buy slim volumes of Robert Heinlein (Children of th ky, Beyond this Horizon), Arthur C. Clarke (Earthlight) or collections of shorts by, say, Robert Sheckley. Recent science foiction seems to consist entirely of bloated books. Look at the last Heinlein works – The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, To Sail Beyond the Sunset – doorstops. Asimov’s early Foundation series were elatively trhin books. His later additions could choke a horse. By some magic (bigger type? Widere margins?) they have managed to make Heinlein’s juveniles – hich are pretty slim in my older paperback editions – balloon up to modern novel size.

But I can’t buy that publishers are complaining about paper costs. They’d reprint those thin paperbacks if it were profitable – something in the publishing industry is clearly making it unprofitable to publish slim books anymore. If that weren’t th case, the later books by Heinlein et al. wouldn’t be so damned thick, and Rober Jordan books wouldn’t produce handstrain from holding them.

I’m sure this is true for published authors, but I went to a Writers Conference a few months ago where the universal feedback from agents and publishers to keep the length of fiction down well under 120K words, or lower. I paid special attention because my novel is 200,000 words total, but splits very nicely into a 70K word first chunk and a 130 K word second chunk (and is a series anyhow, so this isn’t a killer.) One specialty publisher said that he can’t afford to publish big books.

I’m guessing the Farmer book mentioned is his Tarzan spinoff on ancient Opar, which ends (with a cliffhanger) right in the middle of a scene. A second book finished it up. It was a DAW book, so I could see Don Wollheim committing this travesty, which was heavily commented on in the reviews.

LonesomePolecat - I’m hijacking your thread to tell you I love your user name. Are you a big Seven Brides for Seven Brothers fan?


I’d assumed it had to do with the advent of word processors. On the old manual Remingtons, you had to make your point economically before your fingers turned to mush.

Even earlier, when editors were often the same guys who would have to hand-set the type, aspiring novelists were encouraged to be pamphleteers.

People keep saying this, but I know of no real evidence behind it.

Lots and lots of writers wrote like maniacs with manual typewriters, not to mention every reporter in the country. Pulp writers especially wrote faster than you can imagine. Some wrote 50,000 publishable words a week, year in and year out. James Thurber had a wonderful profile in The New Yorker about the king of radio soap opera writing, a man who wrote five or six dairy soap operas, and novels in his spare time. Even major novelists like Thomas Wolfe wrote million word long manuscripts, which his editor had to hack down to size, and he was hardly atypical. The list of million-word-a-year writers is as long as my arm, and that’s way more than Stephen King publishes.

My guess is that working writers in the old days wrote more wordage than the average writer does today. It just got published in smaller chunks.

It surprised me not at all to read recently that Anne Rice has been boasting that she ino longer needs to submit to having her work be edited by others. She’s so famous and popular that she can tell her publishers they aren’t making any changes to her precious books.

There can’t be a lot of authors getting away with this, but just a few could account for a lot of bloat in popular fiction.

To be sure, cows really don’t have very complex dialogue.

As someone who really only got started in reading fiction again (After a 10 year break) a couple years ago, I’ve noticed the same thing.

I got started reading old pulp authors (Burroughs, Howard, Spillane, Rohmer, Vierick, Mundy, etc.) and slowly moved into some more modern stuff (late '70s DAW books, Anderson from the early '80s, random guys and ended up with Martin’s GAME OF THORNS book). The stuff written after the '50s (don’t have much '60s except for some Lieber who is an excpetion) definitely suffers from bloat. It’s not necessarily even about the page count - there is so much padding in there that I rarely finished any books (apparently I have a very rare copy of THE STORM KING that’s worth some cash. I’ll never read the damn thing).

The difference that I’ve noticed is that more modern books look like they have higher page counts and lower word counts (as often evidened by the font size). It appears to my unstudied eye that 450 pages + is a good total and going through the stacks at a bookstore will show that the type is altered to help reach this goal. I presume that the idea is a buyer will look at these and consider them a good value for the money.

The [modern] stories themselves are, as LP noted really watered down. I recall from my youth reading the various D&D-related novels and even then falling asleep at points. After starting a thread asking if I should continue with Martin’s work, I finally forced myself to read about 400 pages on six hours of plane rides and simply gave up. Comparing those sorts to Burroughs or Spillane (and you can catch those guys throwing filler in every once and awhile) is no contest. Even better are guys who wrote for pulp mags like Howard. Those guys were forced to put a lot of story and excitement into a very limited space. I’ve yet to see another author able to write action sequences or paint a picture as well as Howard.

Anyway, the pulp-era authors were numerous and prolific enough that I don’t think I’ll have to worry about being stuck with nothing but JONATHAN STRANGE to read anytime soon.

Heh never read a L Ron Hubbard book I take it? Talk about bloat.

I think the big difference is that books used to be short entertainment comparable to watching a sitcom today. As TV destroyed the need for that books became escapist fantasy that most people buying fiction wanted something to do for an evening. Same reason there’s not many serial movies on the big screen anymore there’s just no need when you have a TV right at home.

I rather suspect that Tom Clancey and Stephen King are in a similar situation… both would benefit from a fairly heavy-handed editor.

I’m not really a horror fan, so the only Stephen King I’ve read is the Dark Tower. My impressions of the series:

Book 1: Not great the first and only time I’ve read it, but I’ll give the rest another shot and try rereading book 1 sometime. Fairly thin book.

Book 2: Now we’re getting somewhere. I see why people really like this series. Somewhat thicker, but the plot never drags.

Book 3: Now we’re really really getting somewhere. I am now committed to finishing the series. Even thicker, but still, no drag.

Book 4: Plot slows down and becomes freaking glacial. Back story is nice, but I don’t need 300 pages of it for one incident of Roland’s life, no matter how important. Even thicker and I don’t see myself rereading it any time soon.

Book 5: Look, if I wanted to, I could watch Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, and The Magnificent Seven Returns in the same amount of time it took me to read this book and gotten approximately the same plot. As I said, I don’t read horror (well, not horror marketed as horror like Stephen King) so I haven’t read and don’t really care about Salem’s Lot. King is starting to do what I hate authors doing, which is to try to connect completely unrelated works into a whole. The book is a freaking doorstop and about the same size as Harry Potter 5. You drop this thing from a height and you could knock someone unconscious. I’ll admit that the use of various pop culture references to show some sort of the connection of the worlds to each other isn’t a bad idea, but some of it could just be jarring.

Book 6: Thinner, thank God, and a faster read. That said, it wasn’t a great book. Don’t have much of a comment about it otherwise.

Book 7: Haven’t read it yet. I don’t buy hardbacks unless I can get a really good price and it’s not available in any library I can easily get access to. Probably won’t read it until Christmas.

I think that you can see the effects of the writer’s success and career stages in this. Someone please correct me if any of this is wrong. The first book was partially published in FSF, I believe, which helps explain a lot about it. Plus, it was fairly early in King’s career. The second and third books were published while he was getting more popular, but before he was writing massive bestsellers. The last three or four books are indicative of “instant bestseller” writer status, which could help explain why they seem bloated and in need of an editor.

I see the same thing with J.K Rowling. The first book, while not the greatest, is enough to get people into reading the rest of the series. The second book is better, enough to get people to really commit to finishing the series, but still not the best. The third book, while still larger, is easily the best of the books published so far published (1-3) in the series. The fourth book is bloated and could badly use an editor. If you lop off almost all of the quidditch world cup and some in the middle, you’d have a much better read. The fifth book is even bigger, but the bloat doesn’t seem as bad (more central to the overall ark and showing attitudes and such instead of the tangent that is the QWC), though she could still use an editor.

Anyone agree with me? Think this analysis works for other series that go on for several novels? It seems to me that once you start getting past a trilogy, the latter works just bloat out.

I like the Quidditch World Cup. Great visuals. To me, the parts that need thrown out is Hermione’s S.P.E.W. club. Unless of course, for some reason, it is important to Book Six or Seven.

Yeah, but you have no idea have much wordage had to go into the instructions to the sound effects guy in between each “Moo.”