Never Mind the Quality – Feel the Width! says Deirdre Palmer

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I had better begin by explaining the title of this post, in case, ahem, you are too young to remember.

Never Mind… was a TV sitcom broadcast from 1967 – 71.  It was about two tailors, one Catholic and the other Jewish, and featured some great actors who would go on to become well-known faces of comedy and drama.  It would never get made today – far too un-PC – but it was a huge success at the time.  The title worked its way into the culture of the day as a saying referring to all kinds of things, some, as you might imagine, more polite than others…  I’m borrowing it now to talk not about cloth but about books.

Something odd has happened to my reading habits, a change that crept up on me while I wasn’t paying attention.  Now, as I’m scanning the shelves in a bookshop or library for my next fix, I’m not only waiting for an author’s name, an intriguing title or a fetching cover to jump out at me, I’m also considering, a bit shame-facedly, the physical properties of the book itself.

How much space does it take up on the shelf?  Has the publisher had the luxury of fitting several lines of large-font text on the binding?  How heavy does it feel in my hand?

In other words, how long is it?

Because therein lies the rub.  If the book still appeals I’ll flick to the end to check that appearances are not deceptive and it does indeed run past the 400 page mark or thereabouts, and if it does, then back it goes.

It’s a nuisance really because I may be missing out on some cracking reads but even if the story’s truly gripping and the writing pacy, by the time I get beyond 350 pages or so I’m just wishing it would be over.  If it’s an actual book, I’m constantly checking the depth of the remaining pages for signs of serious thinning out.  If it’s an ebook, I become weirdly obsessed with the little slider at the bottom of the screen and am stupidly relieved when it gets to 80% and I know I’m on the homeward straight.

 Actually there’s some literary merit to be drawn from this because all too often I come across books which are woefully over-written and make me want to shout ‘You’ve told the story, now stop!’ to the author, but that’s another topic entirely.

So why is this happening?  Is it pure physical stamina I’m lacking due to the short, dark days of winter, or a sharp dip in concentration brought about by my ageing brain cells?  Could it be that there are so many other distractions my attention span has shrunk faster than a woolly jumper on a boil wash?

Or am I, subconsciously, simply following a trend?

To name-drop shamelessly here, I was lucky enough to meet the eminent novelist Fay Weldon recently, and the first thing she said was that readers today want short books with short chapters; quick, satisfying bites they can devour along with their Pret sandwich and take-out Americano.  She was generalising, of course, but it’s easy to understand the logic.

As an aspiring author I see this as a gift; I can at last set aside my worry that 80,000 words do not a novel make because, after all, it is all about the quality and not the width.

As a reader, I don’t have to feel guilty that there are lovely books on my own shelves that remain unread purely because of their length.  There’s The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton which has no less than 645 pages, and the print’s not that large either.  Yet it’s not so long ago I sailed through The House at Riverton by the same author which has 599 pages with no trouble at all.  My collection of Catherine Alliott’s novels (such pretty covers!) all stretch almost to the 500 page mark but I suspect if I re-read them now I’d find them about a hundred pages too long – no disrespect to CA intended.  I’m dying to have a go at Jeffrey Archer, as it were, as I’ve never read any of his and people tell me he writes great stories but the one I have is near enough 600 pages, so dear Jeffrey will have to wait a while longer for my verdict.

By now you might be thinking, why doesn’t she just read short stories and be done with it?  Strange as it may seem, my tastes aren’t working their way towards those, and yes, I may read the odd one that draws me in for some reason, but generally speaking I’m not a great fan of the short story, which is probably why I don’t find them easy to write either.

Novellas, then?  Call me prejudiced but there’s something about the word ‘novella’ that I find distinctly off-putting, although in reality I’m sure there are some excellent reads in this format by some brilliant writers.  The novel’s little sister may be sweet but she’s not what I need right now either.

Luckily there are plenty of books of just the right width to keep me happy and if all else fails I can re-read some old favourites.  Joanna Trollope tends to nudge the 400 page mark but the large print keeps them turning fast. Deborah Moggach hovers gracefully around the upper 300s and some of hers, like the hugely enjoyable In the Dark, are even shorter.  When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman has 335 pages – now there’s an example of the perfect novel if ever there was one.  And then there are absolute gems like Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, each less than 250 pages.   

 ‘She’s going through a phase,’ as my mother used to say, all mothers, in fact.  Well, phase or trend, it looks like I’m stuck with it for the time being.  But that’s fine because I’ve never fancied War and Peace anyway.

The Wednesday Wondering – The One That Got Away!

Welcome to our 2nd posting of The Wednesday Wondering. Can we just start by saying thank you so much to everyone who joined in and commented on or responded to our 1st posting last week.

This week’s question was also posed by Write Romantic Julie:

What is the one published book that you wish you’d written and why (doesn’t matter if it’s a change of genre for you)? 

Ooh, tricky! What will the Write Romantics go for? Will it be their favourite childhood book? Will it be the one that banked millions? Will it be something that inspired them to become a writer? Or simply a story so delicious that they wished they’d thought of it. Let’s find out. I promised Alex I wouldn’t always post them in alphabetical order so she has the constant pressure of being 1st so here are our responses in a completely random order…

DEIRDRE:

When God was a Rabbit by Sarah Winman (Headline Review, 2011): It’s the story of childhood and growing up in the 60’s and 70s, following the narrator, Elly, through to her adult years.  It has the feel of a memoir about it and the relationships she draws between her unconventional family and her friends ring so true that I found myself constantly saying ‘Yes!’ as I read it.  It’s funny and sad and quirky and I so wish I had created this cast of oh-so-real characters.  As a debut novel it’s inspirational as well as an engrossing read.

 
JO:
Going to be fairly obvious and say Harry Potter. Not just because it would allow me to bathe in Champagne, sleep on a bed made from the down of long extinct dodo birds and turn up to the RNA conference in a chaffeur driven Bentley convertible, with George Clooney at the wheel, but also because my kids might actually rate me as cool!
 
ALEX:
I’d love to be able to write a big fantasy book. The kind set in another world full of heroes, villains, magic and monsters.  However, as I struggle to write about anywhere that I haven’t actually been to, I don’t think my brain is capable of creating an entire fantasy  universe. It feels hugely presumptuous to say this seeing as George R. R. Martin is such a brilliant writer but I would have loved to have written ‘A Game of Thrones’.
 
LORRAINE:
Charles Dickens. A Christmas Carol. It is one of my favourite novels. I love the way it takes you into the life of Ebezeezer Scrooge, we get to see all of his life, what it has been, and how only he has the power to change his own future. It is all about second chances. We also see the lives of those he deals with on a daily basis, and how he affects their lives, by the decisions that he makes. An amazing story, that I would have loved to pen.
 
JAXX:
All of them!
 
JULIE:
I’m going to really cheat here because I have three but for very different reasons and one of them is a huge cheat because it’s actually a series. 1. The Malory Towers series by Enid Blyton but, if I had to pick one, it would be Second Form at Malory Towers. I was bought the 1st one as a birthday present from a neighbour and begged my mum to buy me the rest as I was gripped. I loved the ‘nasty girl’ and how the relationships developed between the protagonist and her boarding school friends. 2. Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews which is my favourite book. It made me cry and I could not stop reading it. It’s the first page-turner I ever read and the only book I’ve read more than once (think I’ve read it about 6 times). 3. Bridget Jones’ Diary. It put ‘chick lit’ on the map and opened it up to a whole new reading set. I remember laughing out loud so often and relating (like most women) to so many aspects of it. Well done, Helen Fielding; amazing work!
 
So, you’ve heard what some of The Write Romantics have to say. What would your answer be. We can’t wait to hear from you!