In Defense of the Small Book
In his well-known guide Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass writes: “Breakout novels are highly detailed and generally complex. Their authors do not stint if adding material will deepen the impact of their stories. Many breakout novels are long. Do not be afraid of that.”
I have no doubt that Maass, a literary agent for writers like Anne Perry, is correct. I cannot think of any recent book I would describe as “breakout” that has been under 300 pages. Most are long books that are also part of a series — Harry Potter, Fifty Shades of Gray, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo come to mind. Traditional publishers only allow well-established authors to release shorter books.
Where I disagree with Maass is that these longer books are inherently more valuable. Maass asks readers to think of their three favorite books. He makes a great deal of assumptions about what kind of books you will include: “Probably all of your favorites are novels that swept you away, whisked you into their worlds, transported you to other times or places, and held you captive there.” Maass argues novels should have a cast full of larger-than-life characters, detailed settings, and intricate plots.
For a good chunk of time following the decline of the slim mass-market paperback, the kind of book Maass is talking about was the only thing available. But the ebook market has changed this. Writers who prefer short novels and novellas can appeal directly to readers. And there’s considerable interest in shorter books for good reason.
Regarding Maass’s three favorite books question, my three don’t fit his model: Pablo D’Stair’s this letter to Norman Court, Fuminori Nakamura’s The Thief, and Jake Hinkson’s Hell on Church Street.
Not only are these books short (the longest is The Thief at 224 pages), but they’re limited in their scope. Each book only has one memorable character, the setting is perfunctory, and the plots are straightforward.
It is the narrow scope of these books that makes them fascinating. Each has an almost claustrophobic feel, being stuck with the character in a tight space. Each pushes the conflict forward on every page without filler about secondary characters or the weather. Each provides a vivid snapshot of the character, leaving the reader to fill in much of the character’s back story.
If we followed the rules of contemporary mainstream publishing, we wouldn’t have classic short books like Camus’s The Stranger or Cain’s Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice.
The insistence on producing sprawling works that “transport the reader” isn’t just artistically stifling; it ignores readers interested in a different experience. For those with electronic reading devices, a short book provides a length better suited for passing a plane ride or a visit to the DMV.
Luckily, independent presses are publishing short novels, novellas, and novelettes. In crime fiction, publishers like Shotgun Honey, Beat to a Pulp Press, and All Due Respect Books have established themselves in this field.
When it comes to the short book, even the notoriously sluggish mainstream publishing industry has recognized its shortcomings, with writers like James Patterson, Lee Child, and Gillian Flynn all releasing novella-length works. Big books will continue to be big business, but there’s a place for small books, too.