“A Literary Obesity Problem” (by Kevin Mims)

When I am asked to speak about short stories at fan conferences, I often bring up as one of the pleasures of short fiction that it can be read in a single sitting. This week’s blog post has reminded me that it used to be possible to read most novels in our genre if not in one sitting, then at least in one day or long winter’s evening. It’s a pleasure I had nearly forgotten—the shutting out of all else for an entire day while in the thrall of the unputdownable novel. Such books do still exist: James Patterson has authored a whole series of them in concert with other writers, and they usually come in at around 144 pages. The books in Twist Phelan’s Finn Teller series are of a similar length. But they are the exceptions to what has become the new rule for thrillers—as essayist and short story writer Kevin Mims documents in this post.—Janet Hutchings

At the risk of sounding like a bad Andy Rooney impersonator, I’d like to ask: What ever happened to the skinny thriller novel? During my formative years as a reader, back in the 1970s, bookstores and bestseller lists were full of pop fictions that could be read in three or four hours. James Grady’s 1974 thriller Six Days of the Condor ran 192 pages in hardback. It could easily be consumed over the course of a single lazy weekend (Sydney Pollack and Robert Redford made it even shorter when they converted it into the film Three Days of the Condor). Ira Levin’s 1972 thriller The Stepford Wives ran 145 pages, a veritable sliver of a book (curiously, Levin later wrote a novel called Sliver, which weighed in at a slightly less svelte 190 pages). Rosemary’s Baby was massive for a Levin novel—245 pages—but that’s not a lot of pages when you consider the size of its cultural impact. My 1974 paperback edition of William Goldman’s Marathon Man is a zippy 268 pages long. That’s more of a sprint than a marathon. What’s more, his thrillers Magic (243 pages) and Heat (244) were even zippier (Goldman managed to name two novels after Florida NBA teams even before those franchises existed!). David Morrell’s 1972 thriller, First Blood, a book that inspired the five-film Rambo franchise as well as an animated TV series, was 252 pages in hardback. According to Morrell, First Blood was partially inspired by Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male, a classic thriller from 1939 that runs well under 200 pages in most editions. Alistair MacLean’s thriller, Puppet on a Chain, made the very first New York Times bestseller list of the 1970s and spent a total of 17 weeks there, holding its own with the likes of The Godfather, Love Story, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman. It runs 224 pages in paperback, which was a fairly typical length for MacLean, one of the mid twentieth century’s best-known thriller writers. A page count of 224 was fairly typical for another great twentieth-century writer also. The last Agatha Christie novel published during her lifetime (1975’s Curtain) and her posthumously published Sleeping Murder (published in 1976) both ran to 224 pages in hardback. That’s consistency for you. Jack Finney’s 1955 thriller TheBody Snatchers was so slim at 191 pages that Hollywood decided to fatten it up by adding two words to its title for the 1956 and 1978 film versions. Fail-Safe, a 1962 thriller by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, ran 286 pages in hardback. Both The Body Snatchersand Fail-Safe were originally serialized in magazines (Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post, respectively). Today’s thriller writers seem more interested in spawning 18-part HBO adaptations than three-part magazine serials. Michael Crichton’s novel The Terminal Man was serialized in three issues of Playboy magazine back in 1972. The hardback novel spent 19 weeks on the bestseller list that year. The book ran a mere 247 pages. And speaking of medical thrillers written by Harvard-educated medical doctors, Robin Cook’s 1977 bestseller Coma weighed in at a slender 280 pages. James Dickey’s 1970 novel Deliverance, which arrived on the bestseller list on the same week that Puppet on a Chain fell off it, packed its numerous thrills into a lean and mean 278 pages. Peter Benchley’s Jaws, arguably the most famous thriller of the 1970s, had less fat on it than a shark, also running a lean and mean 278 pages in the original hardback. I recall my mother reading it in its entirety over the course of a single Saturday. I read it in its entirety the very next day. Mary Higgins Clark’s 1975 bestseller Where Are the Children? is one of the most successful thrillers of all time, having been through at least 75 reprints. In hardback it ran 290 pages. For both me and my thriller-loving mother, it was another one-day read. Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution was the ninth bestselling book of 1974. A clever Sherlock Holmes pastiche, it delivered its many thrills in a mere 244 pages. Its two sequels, The Canary Trainer (224 pages) and The West End Horror (222) were even slimmer.

It wasn’t just thrillers that were thinner back in the day. The bestseller lists of the 1970s included slender romances (Love Story, 131 pages), inspirational novels (I Heard the Owl Call My Name, 159 pages), and weird fictional meditations on the lives of shorebirds (Jonathan Livingston Seagull, 127 pages including photographs and a lot of white space).

To be sure, plenty of doorstops hit the bookstores and bestseller lists back then also. But often these were novels exploring a topic that demanded a big canvas, such as the birth of a nation (Exodus by Leon Uris), the birth of an island chain (Hawaii by James Michener), an entire industry (Wheels, The Moneychangers, Overload, and other books by Arthur Hailey), a world war (The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, by Herman Wouk), an entire mythological realm (Shardik and Maia, by Richard Adams), or an actual historical realm (Shogun, by James Clavel).

Alas, the read-it-in-one-sitting thriller seems to be a thing of the past. Stephen King, whose first novel was the rapidly-paced Carrie (199 pages in hardback) now produces novels like 11/22/63 (880 pages in paperback), Under the Dome (1074 pages), and Sleeping Beauties (720 pages and cowritten by his son Owen). Elizabeth George’s books were always pretty hefty. Her debut novel, 1988’s A Great Deliverance, ran to 432 pages. But her more recent novels are behemoths. They include The Punishment She Deserves (704 pages), Just One Evil Act (736), This Body of Death (692), and A Traitor to Memory (722).

And don’t even get me started on Greg Iles. Natchez Burning is 816 pages long and it’s only the first book in a trilogy! The publisher describes the three-volume work as a single “mesmerizing thriller.” I’m sorry, but there’s no such thing as a 2,480-page thriller. It’s as unthinkable as a 2,480-line sonnet. Other Iles novels that have been described as thrillers include Spandau Phoenix (704 pages) and its prequel Black Cross (656). Whatever else they might be—historical dramas, crime dramas, adventure novels—Iles’s books are not thrillers in the traditional sense. Both Robin Cook and Greg Iles have published novels titled Mortal Fear. According to Amazon.com, one hardback weighs in at 217 pages and 9.6 ounces, and the other at 576 pages and 2.05 lbs. I’ll let you guess which is which.

The most generous explanation of why would-be thrillers (and novels in general) have gotten so fat is, well, generosity itself. You could argue that these novelists are trying to give their readers more bang for the buck. And that may sometimes be true.

Technology may also account for the thickening of the thriller. Word processors make writing and editing a lot easier than they were back in the mid twentieth century. In 1970, an author who had just typed up a 300-page manuscript was probably loath to want to go back into it and add a few extra details here and there. It would mean typing up a whole new clean copy. Nowadays, an author can tinker with a manuscript endlessly, adding and subtracting things (usually the former, alas) almost up until the hour it goes to the printer. And the internet makes research a lot easier as well. A novelist in 1975 might mention that his hero’s plane landed in the Frankfurt airport at 8:05 Saturday evening, and from there our hero caught a cab to his hotel. A contemporary writer, even if he’s never been out of Dubuque, IA, can go online and find a wealth of photos and information about the Frankfurt airport and then insert a lot of specific details about it into his description. Details are good, but too many of them can gum up the works.

The thing about thrillers is that they are supposed to be literary roller coasters: fast-paced, filled with ups and downs and hairpin turns and dramatic reversals, and then—bam!—over almost before you know it. If it takes you a week (or longer) to read a thriller, it probably wasn’t that thrilling. Marathon Man, The Body Snatchers, Jaws, The Stepford Wives, The Terminal Man, Six Days of the Condor—these books all have their flaws. William Goldman was no William Shakespeare. James Grady is no James Joyce. Ira Levin was no Leo Tolstoy. But whatever their shortcomings might be, all of those books roll along like runaway trains. They build momentum quickly. The tension in those books is constantly being ratcheted up. The authors of pacy thrillers often skimp a bit on character development (though not as much as you might think—the characters in Jaws the novel have much more depth and complexity than the characters in Jaws the movie). Likewise, they often confine a book’s action to a single small locale: the Bramford apartment building in Rosemary’s Baby, a small island off the New York coast in Jaws, Mill Valley, CA, in The Body Snatchers, a futuristic housing development in The Stepford Wives. They sacrifice large casts of characters and vast geographical canvases in order to focus on small, tightly choreographed dramas. John Farris’s When Michael Calls, published in the same year as Rosemary’s Baby, unfolds over just a few days in a sparsely populated town, but I have read its 256 pages twice, both times in a single sitting. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read the 215 pages of True Grit in a single sitting (the novel may be a Western and a black comedy, but it is most definitely a thriller as well—and, unlike the other books discussed here, flawless). Thriller writing was an art form much like sonnet writing. There is still a tiny handful of contemporary writers (Timothy Steele and A.E. Stallings come to mind) who can write sonnets as well as Christina Rossetti and Edna St. Vincent Millay did, but for the most part it seems to be a dying art form. The same thing seems to be true of the classic thriller.

You could argue that fat thrillers are a good thing, a sign that even pop-fiction junkies have longer attention spans than they used to. But I think just the opposite is true. Jaws, The Stepford Wives, even The Day of the Jackal (a superthriller despite its relatively hefty 380 pages) were written for people who had the ability to sit still for the three or four hours it would take to read them in their entirety. In the 1970s, people didn’t listen to these books on tape while they commuted to work or exercised on a NordicTrac Fitness Pro 2000. And most people didn’t read them in ten-page installments each evening before bed. They sat down in a comfortable chair and they ignored the phone and the television for several hours while giving these thrillers the attention they deserved. Roller coasters aren’t designed to be ridden in stages. You don’t get off the ride after the loop-de-loop and come back later to experience the corkscrew. No, you strap yourself in and hold on for dear life until the ride is over. Ira Levin understood this on a cellular level. If only it were possible to clone a whole bunch of him.

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9 Responses to “A Literary Obesity Problem” (by Kevin Mims)

  1. realthog says:

    Hear hear. The same goes for science fiction, as I was reflecting for the umpteenth time last night when I saw a 176-page book described as a novella. During my teens and for a while after, when I read almost exclusively sf and crime/mystery/thriller, 160 or 176 pages was a fairly normal length for a novel and anything over about 256 pages was a fatty.

    These days I read a fair amount of crime fiction in translation, and often those novels are refreshingly short by modern US/UK standards.

    • Kevinmims says:

      Yeah, the stand-alone fantasy novel also seems to be a thing of the past. Nowadays we have these massive fantasy series, story cycles like Robert Jordan’s 14-book Wheel of Time series, and the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, not to mention the Harry Potter series or the yet-to-be-completed Song of Fire and Ice. Back in the day, we had stuff like Alfred Bester’s “The Demolished Man” (250 pages in hardback and serialized in three installments by Galaxy Magazine), John D. MacDonald’s “The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything” (a 172-page paperback original), “Donovan’s Brain” by Curt Siodmak (my paperback copy is 160 pages), and so forth. Slim, slender, sci-fi and fantasy novels were a staple of the publishing industry back in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. You could devour one over the course of a single rainy Saturday. Those were the days…

      • realthog says:

        Yes, although the era of the slender commercial fantasy (as opposed to sf) novel didn’t last long, thanks to the reissues of doorstops like Lord of the Rings and Gormenghast.

  2. susansalzer says:

    Agree 100 percent. So often I sense the author lumbering toward, and struggling to reach, the magic 80,000 word count. Bloat is a problem in this and all genres. Sadly, I am also sometimes guilty. Nothing beats a taut, well-written thriller.

  3. I agree. Many contemporary thrillers are too fat, too heavy to read them for example in bed, like I used to do. Fortunately there are ebooks. What I missed in this interesting article, are word counts. A publisher can vary the amount of words on a page very easily. So 199 pages (Carrie) and 880 pages (11/22/63) give an impression of the size of the books, but the word count would have given a clearer impression, I think. Is it possible to verfy this (start counting, Kevin! There’s a good fellow!)?

    • Kevinmims says:

      Anne, you make a good point but estimating word counts is kinda tough. In general, I think page counts are a reasonable way of measuring book lengths. If anything, some of the shorter novels of the 1970s (like Love Story and Jonathan Livingston Seagull) probably took up more pagythan they had to because the publishers used various tricks (wide margins, more front and rear endpapers than usual) to make them look longer than they were. I don’t know of a reliable source for accurate word count info. I don’t own an ereader so I don’t know if they track word count or not. If you have any suggestions I’d be happy to hear them. When trying to estimate a book’s word count I usually just count the words on a sample page and multiply the total number of pages. But that’s a time-consuming process and would have been tough to do on every title mentioned in this essay.

      Kevin Mims.

      • Well, I don’t want to be too tough on you, Kevin. If you would do counts for my sake, I would deprive you of the time to read the same book. How awful! A violation of your human rights!

        However, when I started writing thirty years ago (being a teenager), I wanted to know how many words other authors used in my favorite books. I made estimated guesses by counting the words in the first chapter, then make a calculation for the rest of the book. I estimated Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Hound Of The Baskervilles” to contain approximately 60,000 words. Now, this book is in the public domain, so it’s fairly easy to get a digital copy. I just checked the word count: 59,186 words.

        But, speaking of chapters, I hate long chapters that doesn’t seem to end. And those bricks called novels sometimes have very lengthy chapters. I haven’t read an Elizabeth George in a great many years (partly) because of her chapter length. If I just want to read a chapter before turning in, it upsets my biological clock!

        Shorter chapters are more tempting to continu reading, by the way. So the biological clock gets upset anyway . . . And sometimes it’s then harder to get asleep. Well, there are always sheep to count . . . So, even after thirty years I’m still counting!

  4. mfwilson65 says:

    A writer that has gone in the opposite direction is Martin Cruz Smith. His first Arkady Renko novel “Gorky Park” (1981) was over 400 pages. But lately his Arkady Renko novels have gotten shorter. “Tatiana” (2014) is 304 pages, and “Siberian Dilemma” (2019) is down to 288 pages.

  5. Jon L. Breen says:

    I’ve been griping about too-long books for years, and I certainly agree with all Kevin’s points. I have to confess I really enjoyed that Greg Iles trilogy, but that’s an exception to my general rule. The enthusiasm for big books has sometimes led publishers to make appear more prolix authors who continue to write at a reasonable length. (I can remember Otto Penzler, at a Bouchercon auction I think, holding up the most recent Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker and jokingly assuring the audience it was not the large print edition.) The unfortunate result of many writers responding to the demand for greater size is good old-fashioned padding, as in Kevin’s Frankfort airport example. Some writers can get away with play-by-play narrative, in which every single move by the protagonist is described, but more commonly it’s an annoyance. Having said all that, I’ll name two contemporary authors of detective stories who write multipage sagas who I wouldn’t ask to cut a word: Tana French and C.J. Sansom.

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