Pieces of string and the importance of length

Back when I was at university there was a story doing the rounds about a tutor’s response to the question ‘how long should an undergraduate essay be?’. ‘As long as girl’s skirt,’ he is alleged to have answered, ‘long enough to cover the essentials, short enough to be interesting.’  This might have been what passed for wit back in 1988 when women were still banned from wearing trousers in lots of offices (thanks Arthur Anderson for shouting at my temp agency for that one), but even in the mists of those sexist times it seems likely that it was an apocryphal story.
But length does matter and is particularly exercising me at the moment because, try as I might, my latest manuscript will not come over 80,000 words. It’s seventy nine thousand and something, but every time I add a section I simultaneously find myself filing off another bit of hard skin from the sole of the book. Like my weight, it’s got a magic number at which it plateaus. While I’m always trying and failing to get my body to below a certain weight, the opposite it is true of my latest manuscript, I’m worried that it’s not heavyweight enough. It’s as though whatever I do, it’s destined to be the length at which it stubbornly remains. To add even the missing 400 words would make it too flabby.
Does it matter? Probably not, although the general consensus as to what length a novel should be seems to be between 80,000 and 100,000 words. Any less than 50,000 and you’re definitely straying into novella territory, but there’s a grey area that my novel is (just) falling into.
I wonder why my books are often at the shorter end of acceptable novel length. When I’m toiling away and doing those endless word counts to see whether I’ve hit an acceptable daily tally, it of course makes sense to write as short as possible. But I’m not sure my inherent laziness is the whole answer.
I think brevity is good. I like my songs to be three minutes and my films to be ninety. I don’t think I’ve ever come out of the cinema and said, ‘well that film was just too short wasn’t it?’, but frequently say the opposite.
My heart rather sinks when the book I pick up has over 500 pages of densely typed prose, while others more worthy might be rejoicing in being able to luxuriate in such wordage. Listening to a review of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries on the radio the other day, all the reviewers were sighing at the 800 pages of it and I knew at once that it was a novel I was never going to get round to reading. As Alan Partridge once said of a similarly hefty tome, ‘don’t drop it on your foot.’
And yet, when it comes to 19th century novels, I relax my mean limits. Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, Middlemarch – they’re hardly pamphlets. Is there something about that time and the themes on which they were writing that makes such expansion more tolerable?
For now, though, I’ve given up trying to nudge my manuscript (titled The A-List Family if you’re interested) over that magic 80k line…

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