14 February 2012

Size matters (?)

The Money Illusion | Scott Sumner | Santantango

This post is completely off topic, but something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. What determines the length of novels and films? Novels are usually around 200 to 500 pages, and films are usually around 2 hours. I understand that the length of films is somewhat constrained by the desire of theaters to run two showings after dinner, but I don’t think that’s a complete explanation. The same is true for “art films.” Even art films based on novels, despite the fact that an ordinary novel would take 5 to 10 hours to show on film, especially at the pace of art films.
We do have films that are dozens or even hundreds of hours long. They're called "TV Shows."
I don’t know if it’s just me, but I’ve generally enjoyed “mega-novels” more than novels of ordinary length. I just finished “1Q84,” which is now my favorite Murakami book. In recent years I also read and greatly enjoyed mega-novels like 2666, The Man Without Qualities, and Lord of the Rings. I still haven’t read many of the longer classics (War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, In Search of Lost Time, etc) but am told these are also outstanding novels. Why aren’t there more long novels? The only disappointing long novel that I ever finished was Phillip Pullman’s Golden Compass trilogy, and even that was pretty good until the third volume.
Thousand page books seem great for the same reason hundred year old furniture all seems sturdy: the stuff that wasn't built to last hasn't. We never see the cheap, breakable chairs from 1912, and we tend to forget about the boring, disposable 1000 page novels. (If, indeed, they ever get printed in the first place.)
Maybe I’m attracted to books that allow me to escape into other realities. It took me so long to finish 1Q84 that by the end I felt like I was partly inside Murakami’s imaginary world.
If Murakami can build that world in 944 pages, good for him. That's an impressive feat. But if an author can make me feel the same emotions in 500 pages, or 50, or 5 that's really impressive.

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
  — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I used to prefer long novels and series. Now I like the opposite. Not because I don't have patience for longer books, but because the opportunity cost is high. If I coudl read one 1000 page book or three 330 page books, ceteris paribus I'll diversify my entertainment and go with multiple, shorter books.
Colin Marshall expresses a similar view, even without having seen the shorter version:
I submit to you that, while some stories are indeed best told in 90- to 120-ish-minutes, most others, by pure logic of probability — are not.
I submit to you that, while some paintings are best expressed on rectangles with between one and three meters diagonal, most others, by pure logic of probability — are not.

Where then are the billboard-sized masterpieces. Or the football field-sized masterpieces?

For some loosely related commentary, check out Julian Sanchez's discussion of the differences between self-contained and "extended universe" fiction, specifically as it related to the recently-announced Watchmen prequels.


  1. You want a football-field sized masterpiece? Then look at some of the later levels in any of the Katamari Damacy videogames

    1. Ha! Good point.

      For the record, and at the risk of taking your point too literally, I don't actually want enormous works of visual art. There are of course some, like some "landscape art" or more classically the frescos underneath various renaissance domes. My point was more that we don't expect to see visual art uniformly distributed across all possible sizes, so contra Marshall we shouldn't expect to see books or movies uniformly distributed across all possible lengths. A painting the size of a house is hard to create and hard to appreciate, and a 2000 page book is hard to create and hard to appreciate.

    2. Nah, a 2000 page book is easy. Just blow up the font size.

      But seriously though, yes, of course you're absolutely right. It'll be interesting to see how the number of pages changes in the future. And to get an idea what a ride we're in for, we need only look back into the past, say, to the average lengths of cuneiform tablets.

  2. You're wrong about one thing, some of the cheap furniture from 1912 is still around, passed down the generations of my wife's family until I am at last stuck with a bunch of broken and shoddily repaired furniture that I am not allowed to dispose of...

  3. They're called "TV Shows." - Well-said.

    Novels, films, etc. have long been controlled by gatekeepers whose preferences determine what an example of the medium looks like. 100-minute films & 300-page books are marketable, so that's what gets made.

    As barriers to entry decrease, helped in large part by the internet, you see more variety - in web video series, e-books, etc.

    1. I completely agree. One of the reasons I'm so optimistic about web distribution of video is that you lose the coordination problem of having to fit everything into 30-minute blocks just because that's what everyone else is doing. If you've got 17 minutes or 67 minutes of story you're out of luck with broadcast but fine with online streaming.

    2. 100-minute films & 300-page books are marketable,

      I recall reading that the economics of printing and book selling dictate a 300-page novel (plus minus a bit) hits the sweet spot for publishers: an average novel will sell X copies, make Y money.

      Printing a novel larger than 300 pages cuts into the profit. So it won't make it.

      This might explain why guys like King or Stephenson printed regular size novels as beginning writers, and then much larger books as they became known quantities.

      A publisher, slapping the name 'Stephen King' on a book, _knows_ it's going to sell and make money so they can spend more to print.

  4. Note that shorter books are increasingly common; Subterranean Press regularly publishes deluxe hardcover novellas and novellettes, for instance, and on the other end of the market, short 99 cent eBooks are becoming common.

    And there are lots of written stories out there well past the 1000-page limit which is about all that is practical to print in a single book. These super-long stories are just split into multiple books...