HOW LONG SHOULD A BOOK BE?
Most people have forgotten the Korean War. Nonetheless, it fascinated me even though I was only six when it started in 1950. It finished—more or less—in 1953, though a full peace treaty has never been signed. Given that North Korea is now a nuclear power, that is somewhat disturbing.
While scouring the school library, I ran across an article in the National Geographic about it, which, amongst other things, showed how the Koreans could carry heavy weights on their backs by using a frame.
Why don’t we do that, I wondered?
And, of course, now we do—but it was an early lesson that the West was not the repository of all wisdom (which, essentially, was the kind of thing I was originally taught). I was an early skeptic because attitudes, and what I could see and read, did not seem to match.
There is a nice story about the Korean War I have long remembered. There were press briefings every day, and a constant theme was that a particular position in the U.N. lines—it would vary—had been attacked by “hordes of Chinese.” This phrase became part of the daily ritual until finally one of the journalists stood up and asked: “How many Chinese to a horde?”
The effect of this question was to create absolute confusion because, needless to say, there was no credible answer. It remains one of my favorite lines.
One used to be able to be more precise when talking about a book. A novella used to be about 30,000 words long. A novel started at about 60,000 words—and a classic big thriller (the kind of book I love and write) came in at 120,000 words plus and could easily be 160,000. Assuming a talented author, this substantial heft guaranteed, in my eyes, a really good read.
Apparently, all of that is changing. A recent article by Michael Lewin in Book Publishing today states that:
“Today, however, the closing of the American mind has given way to the collapse of the American attention span thanks to texting, Facebook and Twitter. Neither authors nor readers seek size from their books.”
“If you are writing a business book to brand yourself as an expert in your field, keep it under 50,000 words… You fiction writers should take heed as well; 90,000 is the new optimum maximum length, down from 50,000 words just a few years ago.”
I guess that means I’ll only have to do half the work in future. Assuming I believe that—which I don’t—how do I feel about the supposed demise of the really good read read?
Profoundly sad, if you really want to know. I guess reading WAR AND PEACE by Leo Tolstoy—which I loved—when I was 13 had a lasting impact on me.
Tolstoy is illustrated above.