‘Book Inflation’ and Author-Editor Relationships

I write like fat ladies diet.

Stephen King

In 1914, poets TS Eliot and Ezra Pound met while living as exiles in Europe, and their famous friendship went on to produce one of the defining masterpieces of Modernist poetry. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, in its final form, was first published in literary magazine The Criterion [October 1922] and later in book form by Eliot’s friends Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press [September 1923]. With Pound’s assistance, the original manuscript [now part of the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library], was edited and re-edited over the course of a few months, transforming the fragmented tangle of non-rhyming free verse; ghostly, disparate dialogues; dislocated domestic scenes; streams-of-consciousness; oblique literary allusions to Dante, Shakespeare, et al; contemporary song lyrics and musical references; and numerous lines written in Latin, Greek, Italian, French, and German into a taut, concise elegy on the horrors of the Great War. Pound’s efforts placed Eliot in his debt, and earned him the title il miglior fabro [the better craftsman].

T.S.-Eliot-and-Ezra-Pound – The Poetry Shed
T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound

In Pound’s autobiographical poem, ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’, he writes of his struggle to “resuscitate the dead art/Of poetry” — a struggle shared by all the Modernist writers. We must also bear in mind his infamous maxim, “Make it new”, a notion borrowed from Confucianism, although Pound modified it as a call to arms for writers to strive to be innovative. ‘The Waste Land’ was precisely that, an innovative, experimental, far-reaching piece of literature that hammered both men into the literary canon. Eliot and Pound’s collaboration continues to intimidate readers even today, but, one can argue, the original version would have been far less accessible without Pound’s input. Simply put, ‘The Waste Land’, as we know it, would never have existed without him.

Today’s lengthy article (some might say bloated), isn’t so much concerned with Pound and Eliot’s relationship so much as the relationships between all authors and their editors. It’s not uncommon among writers like Anne Rice, Stephen King, etc., to become “too big to edit” the more successful they become. Editing is an elusive art form, oftentimes completely absent from the public consciousness, for whom writing remains an ever-fascinating and lucrative business.

But writers don’t just empty their heads onto the page. No first draft is ever finished. Editors work with writers to shape, or sometimes tear down, a writer’s work in pursuit of a polished and refined finished product. Just as Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ might have fallen into mediocre obscurity had Pound not torn down and rebuilt it, so too would many writing careers have flouted success, were it not for the writers’ editors to reign in their prose.

Book Inflation

Ben Blatt writes that, “24 first-time writers [since 1980] have […] [seen] their novel[s] receive immediate recognition as either a Pulitzer winner or finalist”[1], with “17 [returning] with a [longer] second novel,”[2] and only 7 with a shorter one.[3] Numerous authors follow the same pattern. Nicholas Sparks, for instance, “was an unknown when he was paid $1 million for […] The Notebook [while] his 17 books since have all been at least 25% longer.”[4]

Similarly, Amy Tan’s acclaimed debut The Joy Luck Club[5] ran to only 288 pages[6], but, at 163,000 words, The Kitchen God’s Wife[7] is over 70% longer.[8] Many other cases exist, indicating a recurring trend where a writer’s published work inflates post-debut. This is true not just for individual series, like Harry Potter, but for unrelated novels by the same author, suggesting that, as authors become more successful, they also become more verbose.[9]

This is evident in several long book series, notably The Dark Tower, The Vampire Chronicles, and Harry Potter. The trend is neither universal nor always sequential or exponential, but it is plain to see in countless novels published since the early seventies. Numerous factors influence book length, but, given the editor’s role in shaping a text before publication, it seems that book inflation is more than likely a product of the author-editor relationship growing and changing over the years.

Stephen King’s ‘The Dark Tower’ Series boasts multiple hefty tomes

Stephen King

Stephen King’s first novel Carrie[10] weighs in at a reasonable 61,000 words[11]. While there is much debate over where novella ends and novel begins, this is an appropriate size for a debut. Publishers are less likely to take a chance on an unknown writer if they have written a tome best banished to the coffee table. Bigger books tend to alienate casual readers which spells significant financial losses for publishers.

Carrie was a huge success, with Signet Books purchasing the paperback rights for $400,000.[12] Only two years later came the first film adaptation, which received two Academy Award nominations and is still regarded as both a cult and critical classic. [13] Similarly, Salem’s Lot[14] and The Shining[15] were both commercial and critical successes that garnered many awards and their own television[16] and film adaptations[17].

Interestingly, both novels display notable size-increases after being published post-Carrie. The former comprises 152,000 words[18] while the latter racks up 161,000[19], both of which equates to more than double Carrie’‘s total word count. Furthermore, The Stand[20] features a staggering 472,000 words, equating to 1400-plus pages in paperback, while It[21], at over 444,000 words, runs to 1000-plus pages. Moreover, Under the Dome[22] and 11/22/63[23] weigh in at 334,000[24] and 275,000 words[25] respectively.

Book inflation seems equally apparent, if not more likely, in long-running series like King’s The Dark Tower. The first book, The Gunslinger[26], at 304 pages, comprises only 64,000[27] words, but The Drawing of the Three[28] doubles this to 127,000, after which the series keeps getting longer until book five[29], dropping to 214,000 words, 35,000 less than book four[30]. Book six[31] also drops an additional 85,000 words to 128,000, before the seventh[32] novel inflates again to 277,000.

King himself has admitted, “I have a real problem with bloat—I write like fat ladies diet.”[33] Television may be to blame for book inflation by conditioning readers to crave longer stories[34], prompting publishers and writers to meet this demand.[35] As Erin Bow suggests, “If some banks are too big to fail […] some authors are too big to edit”[36].

Charles Dickens and J. K. Rowling

Although some may deem it blasphemy, the novels of Charles Dickens display a similar inflation trend. Due to the demands of serialisation, many chapters in Great Expectations[37] feel overly prolonged or altogether redundant, despite the proliferation of cliff-hanger chapter endings to bait readers’ appetites for the next installment. The same could be said of Dickens’s other novels, many of which are far longer than the average best-seller today.[38] But does bigger always mean better?[39]

In the age of binge-watching, readers might wish to lose themselves in longer stories, although, at least for television, length leads to sluggish plots, poor pacing, and a general decline in quality. J. K. Rowling suggests as much in an interview with Time’s Lev Grossman: “Phoenix could have been shorter. I knew that, and I think I ran out of time and energy towards the end.”[40] But, then again, as Blatt writes, “When authors find themselves in a bubble of popularity, book inflation is the norm.”[41] If readers are reading, does it matter how good your book is? It may be that readers don’t care so much about quality as much as they do getting more for their money.

Great Expectations, originally serialised runs over 183,000 words. Bleak House more than doubles this word count.

So book inflation, while a consequence of commercial success, or vice versa, contributes to declining quality, because longer books are “often a failure of quality or planning,” and if “books [start] to sprawl, [the author] [or the editor] is doing something wrong.”[42] Not only are the author and editor damaging not the former’s literary merit, but the integrity they both share as literary artists. Editing, like writing, is “a fine art”[43], but an editor’s creative input is often overlooked except in the most famous cases.[44]

Unfortunately, Damien G. Walter writes, “As publishing corporations push for ever greater profits in a market of declining sales, editors have less […] time to actually edit the work of writers.”[45] In fact, this laissez-faire approach to editing appears deliberate, a question not of the quality or form of which a published work takes, but of how saleable it is.

The first Harry Potter book[46], despite Rowling’s meagre first advance, was a resounding commercial and critical success, “scoring a six-figure advance for the American rights,”[47] spawning six novel sequels as well as numerous film and stage adaptations; and, like Stephen King’s Carrie, it is comparatively short compared to later installments in the series. At only 84,000 words[48], Philosopher’s Stone adheres to the pattern of a short first book followed by several much longer ones, because, when a novel like Harry Potter does so well with readers, there is “far less incentive for the author or editor to aim for a shorter [follow-up]”[49].

The Order of the Phoenix[50] boasts the series’s highest word count,[51] and yet, The Half-Blood Prince,[52] instead of upping the ante, displays considerable shrinkage.[53] With every previous book increasing in size, why this sudden backtracking? Perhaps Rowling took note of her bad habits and sought to correct them, with or without the assistance of her editor.

Harry Potter book spines #classicread. Plenty of secrets in the ...
Phoenix could have been shorter[…]”

Anne Rice

Debut novelists with no experience of the publishing world may feel pressured into producing a slimmer novel than they would prefer. As they meet with greater and greater success, it may also be that they feel less bound to editorial demands. It is, after all, the author who has the last word,[54] and any successful author should be able to publish books of whatever size and scope they wish, “if their goal is to explore a bigger creative space, [in which case] the extra length is needed”[55]. An editor should appreciate this fact, especially in the case of Anne Rice, who has worked with Victoria Wilson for over forty years.

lot-18-anne-rice-10-complete-vampire_1_475f0c1d2c2149cb630cfdf363785e4b
A selection from Rice’s intimidating oeuvre.

Surprisingly, Rice’s first novel Interview with the Vampire[56] weighs in at a lengthy 140,000 words, but, when juxtaposed against The Vampire Lestat[57] and The Queen of the Damned[58], both of which are over 500 pages in paperback,[59] it pales in comparison. In such cases, are we to attribute book inflation to the author’s growing ego or to lax editing?

Should an editor change too much, the story loses the essence of the author’s style, but, on the other hand, edit too little, and the story will sag and flounder without focus. The editor’s task is to “make small positive changes that enhance the story”, to “work with [authors] [and] not against [them]”, respecting the author’s point of view, genre, and style.[60] It is not their job to alter the story in any significant way but simply to help it flow more easily.[61] Therefore, editing should be viewed not as a burden on the writer’s work, but as a necessity for its improvement and publication.

James Ellroy

The case of James Ellroy is unique when it comes to editing and book inflation. His first two novels Brown’s Requiem[62] and Clandestine[63] amount to 250 and 350 pages. The former, like Harry Potter or Carrie, seems a reasonable size for a debut, while Clandestine pushes the envelope slightly further. Both novels, however, were published to mixed reviews and little acclaim, despite attracting a cult following. It wasn’t until Ellroy’s seventh novel that he was recognised by readers and critics as a writer worth reading. The Black Dahlia[64] marked the beginning of his critical success, but it was L.A. Confidential[65] that immortalised Ellroy as the “Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction”[66], garnering critical acclaim and multiple film and television adaptations[67], as well as driving his departure from “the tradition of classic modernist noir fiction […] to […] postmodern historiographic metafiction.”[68]

LAconfidentialcvr.jpg

Furthermore, “[the] heightened pastiche of jazz slang, cop patois, creative profanity and drug vernacular”[69] for which he is known is the product of his editor’s wish to shorten L.A. Confidential[70] by more than one-hundred pages[71]. Instead of removing subplots, Ellroy eliminated every superfluous word, reducing sentences to short staccato lines.[72] The result was his trademark “direct, shorter-rather-than-longer sentence style that’s declarative and ugly and right there, punching you in the nards.”[73] A significant departure from the standard hardboiled prose of his earlier novels, Ellroy perfected his baroque telegrammatic style throughout the L.A. Quartet, reaching its apotheosis in The Cold Six Thousand[74], a novel of 670-plus[75] pages.

9780099537755

Moreover, 2014’s Perfidia[76] spans a weighty 700-plus[77] pages, contrasting greatly with the featherweight Brown’s Requiem. This demonstrates how, like King or Rice, Ellroy’s verbosity has increased alongside his popularity. Were it not for Ellroy’s editor, the Demon Dog’s future fiction works may never have come to exist in their current forms, and we can only speculate as to whether he would have met with the same success had they not.

Editing has been, at least for Wilson and Rice, “the longest marriage in publishing.”[78] As such, after “a lifetime of working together”[79], such a relationship may have matured enough for Wilson to slacken the editorial leash. She may not feel it necessary to edit a manuscript so severely, as, for a writer as popular as Rice, concerns about size, as opposed to quality, may fall to the wayside, as readers demand ever more for their money.

This is also true of the Harry Potter fandom, many of whom did not want the stories to end,[80] which is why editors may encourage authors to prolong book series over many years, if not to revive them. Rice herself returned to The Vampire Chronicles after an eleven-year hiatus with Prince Lestat,[81] but authors have been reviving and expanding book series for decades. Indeed, J. K. Rowling recently authored a stage play sequel to Harry Potter.[82]

In 1981, novelist John Gardner stepped into the late Ian Fleming’s shoes when he was commissioned to write multiple new James Bond[83] novels. Similarly, Sophie Hannah authored two new Hercule Poirot[84] books in recent years, dividing fans and critics alike. The ethics of using another author’s ideas are of particular interest to the works of H. P. Lovecraft, which, after Lovecraft’s death from cancer in 1937, came under August Derleth’s control.

H. P. Lovecraft vs August Derleth

Derleth became both literary executor and posthumous editor of Lovecraft’s work, shaping and contributing to it, coining the term “Cthulhu Mythos” and co-founding Arkham House to first publish the stories in book form. But Derleth’s usurping of the Lovecraft canon has garnered criticism from the likes of S. T. Joshi, who described Derleth as “disreputable”[85] for marketing his own stories under, and profiting from, the Lovecraft name. Nonetheless, despite conflicting opinions, and printing little more than 1200 copies of The Outsider and Others[86], Derleth was absolutely responsible for sparking global interest in Lovecraft’s fiction, ensuring future readers could appreciate “the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale”[87].

By prolonging the life of Lovecraft’s work, or rather imbuing it with new life beyond the span of Lovecraft’s living career, lest it have languished in a series of obscure pulp magazines, Derleth makes one question our view of the editor. Who deserves credit, not just for Derleth’s contribution to the Lovecraft canon, much of which has been defamed as often as praised, but also for Lovecraft’s overall success, editor or author?

The Outsider and Others - Wikipedia

Inserting himself into Lovecraft’s oeuvre, and merging that body of work with his own, blurred the line between author and editor, pushing the limits of creative influence over another writer’s work. Editors play a vital role in determining in what form, and to what quality, a novel will be published, but, in the case of Derleth vs. Lovecraft, the former’s efforts, as all editors wish, have clearly succeeded in making the latter a success, albeit a posthumous one.

The Case of Alan Moore

If a writer’s work represents a potential goldmine for publishers, it is the editor who chisels away at it, shaping it for distribution. The editor ensures a writer’s work flows smoothly and is thoroughly polished. But editing is at times a compromise between parties whose wishes may not always run parallel. Publishing is first and foremost a business, and no matter how meritorious (or vainglorious) an author’s work, if the powers that be deem it uncommercial, agents and publishers will gladly pass on it for something else that, instead, might generate a lot of publicity (or controversy) and sell millions of copies.[88]

Take Alan Moore’s Jerusalem[89], a literary epic spanning the history and cosmology of his native Northampton. Only Moore’s second novel and ten years in the making, it is the culmination of a lifetime of work in comic books, political activism, avant-garde film and music, as well as study and practice of the occult. Weighing in at 1200 pages[90] and “roughly the size of a schooner”[91], it is arguably a major case of book inflation, especially when we consider that his first novel, The Voice of the Fire[92], ran to barely 300 pages. Nevertheless, despite Moore’s lofty aspirations, great writing “demands […] restraint”[93]. Therefore, as reviews suggest, intervention by a good editor may have benefited Jerusalem’s “dozen shades of […] purple prose”, “philosophical digressions”, “literary showoffishness” and “monomaniacal duration”[94] to no end.

Jerusalem by Alan Moore (2016, Paperback) for sale online | eBay
Creative freedom writ large or left unchecked?

Damien G. Walter writes, “[Editorial] choice[s] […] [are] increasingly being made by marketing managers and accountants who have an eye for the bottom line, but no real knowledge of literature. As editorial influence declines mainstream literature is [arguably] becoming less original, less adventurous and consequentially less interesting.”[95] There, then is the rub: as true creative editors are phased out, replaced by unqualified money-men with an eye not on crafting a great novel but a viable commercial product, book inflation has become the norm. Although, it does not spell complete doom for the industry, as veteran editors sometimes choose to step back and let authors write freely,[96] but this tactic may not always prove successful. Either way, for many writers, be it down to authorial ambition or lack of editorial guidance, “book inflation is real,”[97] although it is less a hazard of the profession, and rather, simply, a fact of the writing life.

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Endnotes

[1] Ben Blatt, Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve (London: Simon & Schuster, 2017), p. 192.

[2] Equating to 71% of the sample.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, p. 195.

[5] The Joy Luck Club (New York: Putnam, 1989).

[6] 95,000 words.

[7] The Kitchen God’s Wife (New York: Putnam, 1991).

[8] Blatt, p. 191.

[9] Peter Shawn Taylor, Maclean’s <http://www.macleans.ca/culture/books/books-just-keep-getting-longer/&gt; [accessed 22nd March 2018].

[10] Carrie (New York: Doubleday, 1974).

[11] 242 pp.; wordcounts and page-counts are approximate.

[12] Stephen King, On Writing (London: Hodder, 2001), p. 93.

[13] Carrie, dir. Brian DePalma (United Artists, 1976).

[14] Salem’s Lot (New York: Doubleday, 1975).

[15] The Shining (New York: Doubleday, 1977).

[16] Salem’s Lot, dir. Tobe Hooper (Warner Bros., 1979).

[17] The Shining, dir. Stanley Kubrick (Warner Bros., 1980).

[18] 497 pp.

[19] 598 pp.

[20] The Stand (New York: Doubleday, 1978).

[21] It (New York: Viking, 1986).

[22] Under the Dome (New York: Scribner, 2009).

[23] 11/22/63 (New York: Scribner, 2011).

[24] 900 pp.

[25] 700 pp.

[26] The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger (New York: Grant, 1982).

[27] Only slightly thicker than Carrie.

[28] The Dark Tower: The Drawing of the Three (New York: Grant, 1987).

[29] The Dark Tower: The Wolves of the Calla (New York: Grant, 2003).

[30] The Dark Tower: Wizard and Glass (New York: Grant, 1997).

[31] The Dark Tower: Song of Susannah (New York: Grant, 2004).

[32] The Dark Tower (New York: Grant, 2004).

[33] Skeleton Crew (Warner Books: London, 1985), p. 6.

[34] George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series and HBO’s Game of Thrones, for instance.

[35] Taylor, Maclean’s.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Great Expectations (London: Chapman & Hall, 1861).

[38] Tucker Max, ‘How Long Should My Book Be?’, Book in a Box <https://bookinabox.com/blog/how-long-should-book-be/&gt; [accessed 1st April 2018].

[39] Taylor, Maclean’s.

[40] Nabokov’s Favourite Word is Mauve, p. 192.

[41] Blatt, p. 189.

[42] Erin Bow, Maclean’s <http://www.macleans.ca/culture/books/books-just-keep-getting-longer/&gt; [accessed 22nd March 2018].

[43] Damien G. Walter, ‘The award for best fiction editor goes to . . . nobody’, The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2009/apr/17/science-fiction-editors-awards&gt; [accessed 26th May 2018].

[44] I.e. Ezra Pound vs. T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.

[45] Walter, The Guardian.

[46] Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (London: Bloomsbury, 1997).

[47] Blatt, p. 189.

[48] 309 pp.

[49] Blatt, p. 194.

[50] Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (London: Bloomsbury, 2003).

[51] 870 pages long and, at over 250,000 words, three times as long as Philosopher’s Stone.

[52] Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (London: Bloomsbury, 2005).

[53] Less than 170,000 words.

[54] Kristen Houghton, The Huffington Post <https://www.huffingtonpost.com/kristen-houghton/the-author-and-editor-relationship_b_8612940.html&gt; [accessed 22 March 2018].

[55] Blatt, p. 195.

[56] Interview with the Vampire (New York: Knopf, 1975).

[57] The Vampire Lestat (New York: Knopf, 1985).

[58] The Queen of the Damned (New York: Knopf, 1988).

[59] 250,000 and 230,000 words respectively.

[60] Houghton, The Huffington Post.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Brown’s Requiem (New York: Avon, 1981).

[63] Clandestine (New York: Avon, 1982).

[64] The Black Dahlia (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1987).

[65] L.A. Confidential (New York: The Mysterious Press, 1990).

[66] James Ellroy: Demon Dog of American Crime Fiction, dir. Reinhard Jud (Fischer Film, 1998).

[67] L.A. Confidential, dir. Curtis Hanson (Warner Bros., 1997); et al.

[68] John C. Tibbetts, Novels into Film: The Encyclopedia of Movies Adapted from Books (New York: Checkmark Books, 1999).

[69] Scott Timberg, ‘The Ellroy Enigma’, L.A. Times <http://articles.latimes.com/2008/apr/06/entertainment/ca-ellroy6&gt; [accessed 27th March 2018].

[70] The resulting volume still runs close to 500 pp., leaving us to wonder how long the original manuscript must have been.

[71] Timberg, LA Times.

[72] Nathaniel Rich, 190 (2009), James Ellroy, The Art of Fiction No. 201’, in Paris Review.

[73] James Ellroy, in ‘James Ellroy’, The A.V. Club <https://www.avclub.com/james-ellroy-1798208407&gt; [accessed 27th March 2018].

[74] The Cold Six Thousand (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001).

[75] Around 300,000 words.

[76] Perfidia (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).

[77] More than 300,000 words.

[78] Victoria Wilson <https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=8&v=jXqIhEv1FTQ&gt; [accessed 22nd March 2018].

[79] Ibid.

[80] Blatt, p. 194.

[81] Prince Lestat (New York: Knopf, 2014); among her longest novels at 464 pp. in hardback.

[82] Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (London: Little, Brown, 2016).

[83] License Renewed (London: Jonathan Cape, 1981); et al; Kingsley Amis even wrote a Bond novel, Colonel Sun, under the pseudonym Robert Markham.

[84] The Monogram Murders (London: HarperCollins, 2015); et al.

[85] S. T. Joshi, H. P. Lovecraft: A Life (West Warwick, Necronomicon Press, 1996), p.638.

[86] H. P. Lovecraft, The Outsider and Others (Sauk City: Arkham House, 1937).

[87] Stephen King, in ‘The Man Who Can Scare Stephen King’, American Heritage, 8, 46, (1995) <http://www.americanheritage.com/content/man-who-can-scare-stephen-king&gt; [accessed 26th March 2018].

[88] The less said about Fifty Shade of Grey the better.

[89] Jerusalem (London: Knockabout, 2016).

[90] Longer than the Bible.

[91] Douglas Wolk, ‘Alan Moore’s Time-Travelling Tribute’, New York Times <https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/16/books/review/alan-moores-time-traveling-tribute-to-his-gritty-hometown.html&gt; [accessed 10th April 2018].

[92] The Voice of the Fire (Marietta: Top Shelf, 1996).

[93] Stuart Kelly, ‘Jerusalem by Alan Moore’, The Guardian <https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/15/jerusalem-by-alan-moore-review&gt; [accessed 10th April 2018].

[94] Wolk, New York Times.

[95] Walter, The Guardian.

[96] Provided they have an established readership.

[97] Blatt, p. 193.

Written by Michael Conroy.

Cover image from Pixabay.

Copyright © 2020 Sirius Editorial | All Rights Reserved

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