Middle-Aged Spread

Simon Fraser studied history at Oxford and spent twenty-odd years working in public relations and advertising in England and Sweden, before deciding to chuck it all in and try writing a novel.  He is about 80,000 words in but keeps getting pleasantly distracted by his wife, two children and dog.

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In his rather excellent campus novel, Changing Places, David Lodge invents a parlour game which he calls Humiliation.  Players take turns to name a famous work of literature which they haven’t read, and score a point for each of the other players who have read it.  In the book, an American professor of English admits to not having read Hamlet.  He wins the game, but loses his job.

I am a great admirer of the English novelist John le Carré.  But until a few weeks ago I had never read his most famous book, and the one that established his reputation:  The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1963).

It was le Carré’s third novel, his first two having had little impact.  It won the Somerset Maugham prize, and its commercial success enabled the author to give up his foreign-office career and do whatever he liked.  By 1977, worldwide sales exceeded 20 million copies.  (For comparison:  Last time I looked, Fifty Shades had sold 60 million, in a world that contains more than twice as many people as there were in the 1960s.)

It was a big success then, and made le Carré’s reputation.  I read it over two or three evenings this winter, and a cracking read it was.  Just 240 pages; I estimate 65,000 words.

In 1977, five books later, le Carré published The Honourable Schoolboy.  The hardback first edition is 532 pages long, and (as was the fashion of the time) the pages are bigger, containing about one-third more words.  At about 190,000 words it’s almost three times as long as The Spy who Came in from the Cold.  Le Carré’s books got even longer, but have shortened again now as he reaches old age.

Both novels have similar themes and a similar plot.  The Spy who Came in from the Cold has 26 chapters averaging 2500 words; The Honourable Schoolboy has 22 chapters averaging more than 8500 words.

What does the extra length do?  Where’s the meat to sustain what is not going to be a short read?  Is longer better or worse?

A big clue comes right at the start: a two-page foreword in which le Carré thanks those who have assisted his research.  Much of the action is set in Hong Kong, with additional scenes in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam as the US was finally pulling out in 1975.  From the foreword one imagines a leisurely few months flitting around the Far East, chatting to people.  And there’s a lot of travel writing in the text that follows.

In contrast, The Spy who Came in from the Cold was set in London, the Netherlands and East Germany, and there’s no real attempt (or need) to establish a sense of place.

The other clue is people.  Each scene has a chorus of minor characters tripping on and off the stage, some speaking, some just snoring delicately as they lie against the insomniac body of our hero.  Where we had dialogue before, we now have multi-party conversations.  Boy, do they love to talk.  It’s like listening to a symphony after a chamber piece.  And most of the talk is expository.

The tendency to write at increasing length is not uncommon among highly successful writers (look at the Harry Potter books).  Authorial self-confidence, however misplaced, must be one of the main causes.  It might also be a result of lighter editorial touch:  the publisher knows that the author’s brand guarantees sales, so why bother to expend the effort to trim a bloated book and risk alienating the golden goose?

One must also think of the reader, who might make a crude value-for-money calculation which will always tend to favour fat volumes (“Can I get a Venti John Grisham?”), and can at least hope for an immersive, almost Tantric, reading experience stretching over days or weeks.  Preferably on a warm and sunny beach.

So there you are, folks!   Want to write a blockbuster with literary pretensions?  Take one part taut plot, one part exotic travelogue and one part cast-of-thousands, then layer them into a Scooby snack of a size that suits.

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