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.