Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Things you do not say to artists

I’m obviously a bit sensitive these days about my profession. I’m not claiming we’re above reproach. Hardly. And I think the dialogue between librarians and editors has been enhanced by the Internet and this is a great thing for books and authors. But Tough Love: And Open Letter to Kids’ Book Publishers in the latest SLJ has at least one thing absolutely wrong and backwards from my vantage point:

2. Better editing.

It's time to tighten up those stories. Unless you're publishing Madame Bovary or The Brothers Karamazov, 200 pages is plenty. And, yes, I know all about “Harry Potter” and “Redwall,” two series that successfully exceed that limit. But they're not the norm. And if a hefty book isn't super popular, its length can easily overwhelm many young readers. Plus, long novels often smack of assigned reading—even for middle school and high school students. Still not convinced that less is more? Consider these relatively thin titles: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (167 pages), Charlotte's Web (184 pages), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (155 pages), The Adventures of Captain Underpants (128 pages), Casino Royale (181 pages), Of Mice and Men (118 pages), and A Separate Peace (196 pages). I rest my case.

This is tricky. I don’t disagree that there are books out there that are too long, and I really love short novels, but I respectfully (but firmly) reject the notion that there is a meaningful general limit to length. I also disagree that the case “rests” on the precedents of previous generations, as though these earlier books are faultless archetypes of what makes good novel writing for young people (they are not, and more importantly, the eras they represent were obviously not). The case in art NEVER rests. Nothing is more damaging to the genre or its audience than to minimize expectations and opportunities for readers or writers. This is the straightest path back to second class status for the creation of children’s books. As an editor, I refuse to be a party to this. Do books get shorter in the editing process? Absolutely. But that is not the goal and it shouldn’t be. The goal is always the best book.

I suspect many novelists who write for children have heard versions of this comment: “When are you going to write a real novel?” Heartbreaking, right? Every one who works with books for children is diminished by this perception and we should all be fighting the inferiority complex, not contributing to it.

(Also, the notion that long novels smack of assigned reading seems doubtful to me. At least two of the short novels she mentioned are staples of assigned reading, along with notable short novels like The Pearl and Lord of the Flies, among others. I suspect with more energy focused on testing, the trend in assigned reading will be toward short. I’m inclined to think extracurricular entertainment (including gaming) will  have to carry the torch for the long form narrative, not the other way around. But that’s for another day.)


Maggie Stiefvater said...

I know I wasn't the most normal child out there, but on my weekly trip to the library, my goal was to hunt out the longest books possible -- if I met characters that I liked, I wanted to hang around with them for as long as physically possible.

But the issue I take with this is shifting the responsibility to editors. I know that when I wrote SHIVER, it was a mammoth 90K words (not much for adult novels, but by YA standards . . . ). That, I felt, was the length that novel needed to be. It needed to be something that took some time to read, and the pacing needed room to roam. It was 25K words longer than I usually wrote, but it felt right. I would have been beyond unhappy if some editor, acting upon the rule of short children's books, told me to chop it down to 75K. I would preferred to write an entirely different novel.

Different stories need different things. And I think the general length starts with the author, and then is honed by the editor. A good editor does many wonderful things, but I would consider weed-whacking of prose to be the least valuable of them.

I should rush in to say that I do agree with a lot of the other points made in the article, however. Especially clearly stating the series number on the book in a non-standalone series.

A.S. King said...

I was really overwhelmed by geometry in school. I wonder can we call for less of that, too? Maybe only 100 pages? Because when it comes to geometry--less really is more. :) (Also Chemistry.)

I've asked my YA readers on Twitter what they think and they, like me, think that every book finds its own length. I agree with them wholeheartedly. I feel asking editors to chop work due to the delicate feelings of certain readers is no different than asking the school district to dumb down math programs because some kids have trouble keeping up. If a child needs shorter books, there are plenty out there. But to claim shorter is ALWAYS better, or less is ALWAYS more? That's an oversimplified and rather narrow-minded view of literature based on page length, and not the craft of writing, and the work and thought that goes into it.

Like Maggie, I do agree with other parts of the article, though.

Ivan Chan Studio said...

Thank you for that post.

It really disappoints and surprises me (I suppose both deal with expectations) that anyone would make a suggestion that quality can be determined by length. Really?

There are several unfounded assumptions made by the article's highly subjective author, who also promotes fear rather than knowledge (Oh, no! Longer novels mean they'll be assigned reading?).

The intention behind the author's advice is probably good (shorter books = more readers, which I think is a corollary to pretty cover = good book), but as your post replies, the best book possible is the aim of both authors and writers, not meeting an imagined lower standard that reflects what is tantamount to disrespect for readers, writers, and editors.

Has anybody bothered to ask the readers what they want in a book? If length matters to them? (Like you, I enjoy short novels, but there are times I want a big, fat book to occupy my time and imagination. In fact, a big, fat book in a big, fat series is my idea--and many readers'--of heaven!)

Anyway. I've heard of the limit. And I disagree with it. I disagree with it out of respect for the profession and its audience and I disagree with the article author's unsubstantiated claims (the case hardly rests; I even wish there had been better evidence to stir up real thought instead of an attempt to raise my fears).

Thanks to Maggie for Tweeting the post!


mr chompchomp said...

Totally agree with your assessment of the editing, and with other comments addressing it. The subtitle reads "Better Editing" and this translates immediately to shorter books.

To be fair, though, this may have simply been--ahem--poor editing on the letter writer's part. Perhaps what she means is that there need to be more short books out there (not necessarily that long books need to be better edited). Given this very generous interpretation, I'm tempted to agree.

My son, who at age six is an excellent reader, doesn't have the patience to complete many of the books that are written at his "level." He can read a couple of chapters of a Harry Potter volume, and he understands them and enjoys them greatly, but he gets daunted by the book's length and abandons it before he's finished. Some of the books that the letter writer suggests--Charlotte's Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory--are the sort of thing we are always looking for for: books that are smart, challenging, but not too long. There actually are plenty of them out there. Still, more wouldn't hurt.

Heidi R. Kling said...


Thank you.

mr chompchomp said...

One more issue with the Open Letter. This passage:

In fact, in many cases, the main characters could just as easily have been males—and that would make my job a lot easier. Our young guys love Anthony Horowitz's “Alex Rider” series (Philomel), Dav Pilkey's stuff, and Jonathan London and Frank Remkiewicz's “Froggy” books (Viking). But a novel like Ann Halam's Siberia (Random House, 2005) could have included a male protagonist. (Sorry, Ann, but it's true.) And Gloria Whelan's The Impossible Journey (HarperCollins, 2003) could have featured an older brother and a younger sister—instead of 13-year-old Marya and her younger brother, Georgi. Am I being silly?

Not, silly, no. Sexist actually. You're suggesting that books with girl protagonists ought to be about female issues. Should books with Asian characters be only about "Asian" issues for fear that white kids won't read them?

We could solve a world of problems if we could convince boys that girls can be cool, and that even as boys they can still relate to girls. Of course there need to be excellent girl books about girl issues. And there need to be boy books about boy issues. And there need to great GLBT books too. But what we need more of are great books about human issues that feature girl protagonists. Because girls are cool people. And what we need to do is convince boys to read those books.

And you know who might be in a perfect position to convince boys to read them? Hmm. Maybe, librarians?

I'll probably address this in more detail on my own blog.

A.S. King said...

Dear Mr. Chompchomp--

I really adore your last comment. And I agree so much I could explode.


Andrew Karre said...

I'm copying these comments over from Facebook. Two of the professional musicians in my life (one my brother) made interesting comments, so I'll pass them on.

First from Ross Karre:
"I'm a firm believer that media (printed, sounding, or otherwise) determines the trends of human perception not the other way around. These trends change quickly. In addition to speed, the more important phenomenon is changing media rarely narrows our abilities of perception but expands them. A perfect example is cinema sound from 1930 - 38. Prominent theorists in the early thirties developed strict protocol for matching image space with sound space in the studio. They cultivated carefully calibrated charts that compared focal length of the camera to microphone distance to the sound source. By 1938, the opposite protocol had been established as the norm. Close-micing became the norm such that the viewer was placed "in the scene" sonically and visually, unlike precedents established by the Wagnerian music drama (the proscenium). In less than a decade, the expected human abilities of perception were turned on their head by creativity and innovation within a prominent medium.

"What's more interesting is that focal length to mic distance practices weren't removed from cinema, they were simply seen as one tool among many in the intricate field of sound design. Therefore, I doubt that attention span is "reduced" by new media but rather that a few media hone our skills at conveying and perceiving via the short work (the short story, the miniature, the one act, etc). Others, such as the common 2.5 - 3 hours cinema experience, Harry Potter, etc. do the opposite. It would be great if we could allow the concept of the work to drive its structural properties (in this case, duration) and not the other way around."

Next from Bill Barnewitz, under whom it was my privilege to study French horn:
"Music, as in literature, has experienced the same dumbing down of attention span; classical radio has long since gone to a format of a movement of this or a movement of that. A Mahler or Bruckner symphony now stymies the average listener. This has had the effect of ghettoizing our prolific artists as "boring", or "long-winded" and, I think, reduces or collective consciousness to bumper-sticker-like pat answers to everything. We do young readers and young listeners no favor by intentionally reducing content just to keep them from groaning at the possibility of discovering a vast saga out in front of them. Harry Potter and Redwall being two brilliant examples. The Golden Compass series is surely some of the best children's lit ever to hit the printed page. How can we grow up to have the patience for War and Peace or Great Expectations or even Lonesome Dove, without knowing that one can get so lost in an epic story that turning around and reading it all again is a distinct possibility."

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Just had to poke my head in again to say that I agree soooo whole heartedly with Mr. Chomp Chomp -- it really is worthy of legions of blog posts.

And I'm finding this whole thing really fascinating. Thanks for bringing over the comments from Facebook. That mic distance bit in particular was my "you learn something new everyday" moment.

Heidi R. Kling said...

This whole thing reminds me of the complaint a Certain Someone had about Mozart: TOO MANY NOTES!

Silly Mozart with his long-winded music. ;)

Rose Green said...

I agree on editing out stuff that doesn't belong in the book. I've read my share of stuff I thought should have been torn out before it was printed. But uh, has this librarian checked lengths of CURRENT bestselling children's/YA books lately? Kids WANT to submerse themselves in the books world. A lot of hot books in the past couple years have been closer to 100K than 50K.

literaticat said...

Books are as long as it takes to get to the end of the story, right?

I mean... as long as something isn't like SO LONG that it is absurd and can't be bound properly or wouldn't fit on a bookshelf or would be outrageously expensive or whatever. I mean, you can't have a specially made easel or a page-turning crane for EVERY book in your house. But if the story is that long by nature, it can be made into multiple books.

On the other hand, it shouldn't be so short that it feels like a gyp to pay money for it -- but if it is, it can be put in anthology.


Ps: The Red Pony SUX.

Maggie Stiefvater said...

Oh, Lit, I love you.

Actually, this entire discussion reminds me of an edit letter, where the SLJ letter is the suggested edit "make it shorter!" -- but the actual problem she's having is that kids are putting down the books halfway. The kids putting down the books halfway is a symptom, and she's suggesting that the problem is the books' length.

This is like cutting off someone's legs below the knees because their pants are too short. Perhaps the problem doesn't lay with their height . . .

robinellen said...

I agree with many points here -- certainly the most important being that a story is the length it needs to be (let us hope). Also, my son, another strong reader at 7, has similar challenges as ChompChomp's son -- truly long books intimidate him and he has a hard time sticking with it. However, I think this will change as he ages, and because there are so many wonderful books out there which are shorter, he has plenty to choose between.

Of course, when I was young, there weren't any 'long' books, really (other than various classics); and I'm another who wants to be lost in a book for as long as possible, so I might be biased.

However, as a writer, I tend to write shorter books (the longest yet is ~55K). Definitely an interesting article and very intriguing comments.