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Less Is Not More

June 2, 2010

Notable News from a Year Ago, June 2, 2009: Nothing of interest, although I’m two weeks away from attending the New York Pitch and Shop Conference.

Of course it isn't, stupid.

I read a lot of reviews, okay?  I call myself researching the market and considering the range of stories, mostly on the New York Times, that are considered worthy or intriguing enough to have a hyperlink affixed to them.  I’m a human and I have an engineering background — I notice patterns.  Overwhelmingly, I notice a preference among reviewers for writing that is concise and works that exhibit an “economy of words”.  In other words, the message I’ve gotten from reading reviews these days: Less is more.

I don’t know why I bristle every time I read a review promoting this weltanschauung.  As I like to say: Revision is my Muse.  Sometimes the only solution for a problem in the text or the manuscript is simply to cut it out and start over, or cut it out and leave it gone.  Stephen King, one of my mentors (unofficial, of course), uses a 10% rule on word count when he’s editing a work, and although I’ve made no hard and fast rules in the process of rewriting, I’m always looking for ways to express my thoughts and ideas in fewer words.  There’s power in trimming the fat.  I cannot, and will not, deny it.

It’s not too far-fetched to say we are prejudiced against ampleness in books the way we are, especially in Western society, prejudiced against obesity in people, most notably in women.  And since women are the largest buyer of books…

Yet, even though I know this, I still bristle when reviewers praise sparse word use over verbosity.  On one hand, since I’ve seen it so much, I get the impression that book reviewing, like publishing itself, like expert analysis in any field it seems, is a copycat trade that has only gotten more pandemic with the speed of information transmission.  One reviewer says something unique, and then every reviewer or expert says a derivative of the same thing, as if the repetition is more indicative of truth than it is of brainwashing.

For instance, in the NBA play-offs [last] year, the Orlando Magic was branded as the team that couldn’t be “trusted” by one ESPN NBA analyst, and then before you knew it every ESPN analyst was saying the same thing, as if “cannot be trusted” was the ESPN-approved view of Orlando. It didn’t matter that such statements flew in the face of observable evidence to the contrary.

Orlando beat Philadelphia in Game 6 in Philadelphia without Dwight Howard — but they couldn’t be trusted to beat the Celtics.  Orlando beat Boston in Games 6 and 7, with Game 7 in Boston — and yet, when they were up on Cleveland 3-2 heading back for Game 6, in Orlando, they couldn’t be trusted.  I’m not an Orlando Magic fan, but the more I see of this critical copycat analysis, the more I am convinced that I have to make my own decisions about what is good and what isn’t, and leave the speculating to the so-called pros.

But, back to the taintless world of publishing and NYT peer and expert reviews.  I suppose this is a very fitting discussion since last week I presented an article on the subtle censorship that exists in trend analysis and forecasting based on historical data, and how that subtlety, especially in the subjective fiction ranks, gets more pronounced when race is an added variable.  It would appear from everything that I read that reviewing is also a subtle form a censorship.  Write a book longer than 450 pages and, tsk tsk, you just haven’t done your job as an author.  On the other hand, write a trim, powerful, 254 pages and, my God, all praise the second coming of Herman Melville.

Oops.  I meant to say Hemingway instead of Herman, but more than likely you don’t believe I made any such mistake; you believe there was purpose, perhaps even prestidigitation, in my name-dropping.  Yes.  I admit it.  I wanted to place Moby Dick and A Farewell to Arms in the same sentence, see how many modern readers and reviewers cringed at the juxtaposition.  I wanted to show how length alone, even in the face of modern fiction’s skew toward Hemingway’s economy, can never be the sole measuring stick of excellence.  Just ask Shakespeare, Alex Haley, or Tolstoy if they feel any differently.  I’m sure they’ll side with me.

Less is more as a modern publishing zeitgeist isn’t even uniform across genre.  For the past two weeks I’ve been preparing for my trip to New York.  We leave Saturday, June 6th [2009]; the conference starts Thursday, June 11th [2009]; Monday, June 15th [2009], we return.  I’ll take with me the pitch that I’ve rewritten over the past three weeks using examples gleaned from the local library, a local Books-A-Million, and the books that I own.

One of the things I learned: the novels in the Cleveland [Tennessee] Public library aren’t very indicative of what’s selling now, and in some cases, what’s been selling for the past two decades.

Second lesson: Even though I thought I had done it before this was first time that I thought critically about where my book should appear in the book store, how it should be categorized, what titles I want to appear next to The Twin Paradox.

Which led to the last realization, which I stated three paragraphs ago: Genre implies length and in some genres, like science fiction and fantasy — which is where, for wont of a more fitting better category, I will market The Twin Paradox as — historically speaking, less certainly isn’t more.

I read more than the New York Times, of course.  As my essay stated last week, I also read Publishers Marketplace, Publishers Weekly, and pretty much anything that I can find with reviews and insight into the state of the industry I’m trying to break into.

Word is, there’s pressure from bookstores on authors of the sci-fi and fantasy community to write smaller books so that more product can fit on the bookshelves.  Moby Dick is great, and so is The Fourth Saga of the Elflund Dragon, complete at 1251 pages; but it costs the same price as Lisa’s New Boyfriend: Or How to be Swanky, Fabulous and Bitchy, Lose Fifty Pounds, Smoke Tobacco-less Cigarettes and Get Any Damn Man You Want and All the Other Haters Can Kiss Your Ass and Blog About it if They Want, You Don’t Give A Shit, which is a crisp, rollicking 212 pages.  So the bookstore can fit 10 of Jenny’s New Boyfriend on the shelf while they can only fit two of The Elflund Dragon.

An economy of words, they claim?  Yes, indeed.  If I’m reading the present trends correctly, before long the subtitles will be longer than the books themselves.

Furthermore, it’s not too far-fetched to say we are prejudiced against ampleness in books the way we are, especially in Western society, prejudiced against obesity in people, most notably in women.  And since women are the largest buyer of books…

I don’t, of course, want to appear insensitive to the needs of bookstores.  If I was a bookstore owner, and was faced with living and breathing extinction as nearly all of them are, I’d want to hedge my bets, make sure my offering was diversified.  I cannot, and do not, blame them for taking this stance.  And, at the same time, as an author who swears by revision (which is why I haven’t published a blog by the way) [it should be obvious why I marked through this statement], I understand the power of redaction, and see my writing improve with each word I erase.

But it is categorically irresponsible, from a reader’s standpoint, for a reviewer to defame a book on the basis of length alone, or make side-angle comments that decrease luster because there were, in the reviewer’s opinion, 10K more words than there should have been.  Perhaps I show readers too much credit and not enough to those who do the reviewing, especially since there are more books on the market and nowhere near the number of reviewers to do them justice.  I just know that, as a reader, if the story is good, if the writing is compelling, I am unconcerned with length.  As a reader, when the story is good, you never want it to end, and the really good stories stay with you long after you’ve finished.  So how, in this context, could less ever be more?

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