The Lost Virtue of Lean Prose

Conan

As much as I talk about older scifi and fantasy, I like some contemporary fiction. I’m a fan of the Witcher stories. I like Harry Potter (is that contemporary anymore?). Hell, I was even on the Game of Thrones bandwagon back before HBO picked it up. But looking at a lot of the material that’s out there these days, something has occurred to me.

So much stuff that comes out today is just so padded, so bloated. Sometimes I look at what other people are reading, and I just want to rend.

bloated

641 pages. Book #10. Holy crap, man. I mean hey, if you really love what the writer is doing, maybe you just want to read their story forever. But for me, it’s gotta be something really special, and most of the stuff out there…isn’t really special.

This is another thing that I’ve come to appreciate about older SFF. The short story is a diminished form these days; more a novelty item for anthologies and gimmicky collections. But properly utilized, the short story is wonderful for a punchy, concise tale. It gives the author a flexible medium in which to experiment with an unusual theme or setting, or to slowly build upon an on-going world or character. Sure, this can be done with 700-page novels, but then you’ve got wait years between installations and you often get more than you need.

It’s not even just the sparsity of short stories today, though. Writers and publishers have gotten into this mindset; they have to push out door stoppers now.

It wasn’t always so.

Not everyone is a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, or Robert E. Howard, or Jack Vance. But the dudes knew word economy. They knew flow. They knew how to make a story lean.

Have a look at this bit of scifi (!) from one of my favorite Conan stories. Look at how well Howard wields prose. Look, and despair.

Again tears fell as the tortured body was rocked to and fro in the grip of varied emotions. Conan looked on, bewildered.

Then the convulsions ceased; the soft, sightless eyes were turned toward the Cimmerian, the trunk beckoned.

‘Oh man, listen,’ said the strange being. ‘I am foul and monstrous to you, am I not? Nay, do not answer; I know. But you would seem as strange to me, could I see you. There are many worlds besides this earth, and life takes many shapes. I am neither god nor demon, but flesh and blood like yourself, though the substance differ in part, and the form be cast in a different mold.

‘I am very old, oh man of the waste countries; long and long ago I came to this planet with others of my world, from the green planet Yag, which circles for ever in the outer fringe of this universe. We swept through space on mighty wings that drove us through the cosmos quicker than light, because we had warred with the kings of Yag and were defeated and outcast. But we could never return, for on earth our wings withered from our shoulders. Here we abode apart from earthly life. We fought the strange and terrible forms of life which then walked the earth, so that we became feared, and were not molested in the dim jungles of the east, where we had our abode.

‘We saw men grow from the ape and build the shining cities of Valusia, Kamelia, Commoria and their sisters. We saw them reel before the thrusts of the heathen Atlanteans and Picts and Lemurians. We saw the oceans rise and engulf Atlantis and Lemuria, and the isles of the Picts, and shining cities of civilization. We saw the survivors of Pictdom and Atlantis build their stone-age empires, and go down to ruin, locked in bloody wars. We saw the Picts sink into abysmal savagery, the Atlanteans into apedom again. We saw new savages drift southward in conquering waves from the Arctic circle to build a new civilization, with new kingdoms called Nemedia, and Koth, and Aquilonia and their sisters. We saw your people rise under a new name from the jungles of the apes that had been Atlanteans. We saw the descendants of the Lemurians who had survived the cataclysm, rise again through savagery and ride westward as Hyrkanians. And we saw this race of devils, survivors of the ancient civilization that was before Atlantis sank, come once more into culture and power—this accursed kingdom of Zamora.

‘All this we saw, neither aiding nor hindering the immutable cosmic law, and one by one we died; for we of Yag are not immortal, though our lives are as the lives of planets and constellations. At last I alone was left, dreaming of old times among the ruined temples of jungle-lost Khitai, worshipped as a god by an ancient yellow-skinned race. Then came Yara, versed in dark knowledge handed down through the days of barbarism, since before Atlantis sank.

19 Comments

  1. From what I understand, one of the reasons that books are so long is because of marketing reasons. Bigger books stand out on the shelves. Frankly, though I prefer shorter works.

  2. I don’t mind a door stopper under certain conditions. Those conditions are both limited and somewhat fickle.

    But it helps to be Brandon Sanderson. It hurts to be George R.R. Martin. It helps if you have an interesting setting and plot. It hurts if you are going to preach to me. I reserve the right to add and subtract conditions at any time for any reason.

    In regards to the Short Story, I’ve recently come back around to being a fan, especially in the case of Cirsova magazine and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly, Great things can come in very small packages.

    I now avoid Beneath Ceaseless Skies like the plague. Torturous, purple ‘Literary Fantasy’. Never was able to finish a story that I tried there. All The Right People seem to like them though, so they’ve got that going for them.

    • You make a great point fractalrabbit. I’m a fan of some doorstops myself, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time for one. I also rather enjoyed Tad Williams’s Otherland, Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and Shadowmarch series. Note, though, that Williams’s series were four, three, and four books long respectively . . . although he’s in the middle of a sequel trilogy to Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn as we speak.

      I’m not opposed to doorstops on principle, but there is something to be said for slightly leaner books that get to the point without a lot of, for lack of better words, bloat or padding.

  3. You know, I tried Tad Williams’ Otherland and just couldn’t get into it. And it’s been enough to ward me off of the other two series. But they’ve been recommended so many times. Maybe one of these days, I will try again.

    On Robert Jordan, it was never the length of his books that made some of the Wheel of Time series tedious. It was, of course, the content. His prose in some of the more…laborious books was quite readable and decent: he just needed his editor to tell him to stop with the endless fabric and button descriptions and braid tugging. If fabric and buttons, is your ‘thing’, there are few books in the series tailor made (ha!) for you. And I say this as a fan, who fell in love with the world and the characters, especially Lan and Nynaeve (and that shocked me because I couldn’t stand her at the beginning).

    • As with everything, to each his own. It took me a while to get into Otherland as well because it was a bit bewildering, but i stuck with book one and was gald I did. Of course, I had read Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn twice before Otherland, so I’d already knew I could trust Tad Williams. Yet other people can’t stand the guy’s writing.

      I would recommend a stand-alone book he wrote called “The War of the Flowers.” I thought it was very cool.

      Regarding Jordan, I never though this descriptions of clothing were detrimental. I found they really pulled me into the world, tugged me, you could say, like a hand on a braid.

      • Nah, that is fine. I completely understand where you are coming from, as I regularly complain about there not being enough standalones nowadays. I just think Tchaikovsky is an excellent author and that not only can he pull off the Big Book thing, he does so on an almost annual basis.

        All the problems you describe with big books and series I find don’t apply to Tchaikovsky.

        • There are definitely exceptions, and tastes vary from person to person for sure. The GoT books are bricks and I enjoyed the first threeish of those.

  4. Shadows of the pt, now there’s a RPG session that spiraled out of control. Some interesting idea, but it was a ten book series that should have been five…and a series that got a horrible treatment from tradpub.

  5. Agreed. I picked up an older novel (that I read as a pup) and it was . . . tiny. Nice. (Ballroom of the Skies by John D. MacDonald – it was pretty old when I read it). I remember picking the older novels up and reading them in an afternoon.

    And one thing to mention – they were fun. Adventure. Zero preaching. Zero virtue signalling.

    A lot to be said for chopping out 500 pages. I think I blame Stephen King.

  6. I think the problem with fantasy is (and always has been) that authors seem to need to go on and on about their world to make sure the reader understands what it’s all about (and I’m a fantasy fan since the 1980s, I’m not trying to put fantasy in any bad light). Often, pages and pages are devoted to building the world, whether or not the story needs it.
    With a few notable exceptions, classic fantasy was mostly written on magazines. Authors learned to write in that environment of strickt word count and fast pace, they knew every word needed to count and what didn’t belong to the story must be ditched. I suspect most of them just kept doing it even when they shifted to novels.

    Today we live in a publishing world where limits have mostly dissolved. An author that self-publishes in ebook format has basically no limit of wordcount and (as Alexander and Metthew have pointed out) traditional publishers have they reasons to prefer a doorstopper when the author is popular.

    Personally, I don’t have anything against doorstoppers or stories in parts, if the story is strong and actually needs a longer form. Unfortunately, most of the news stories I’ve stumbled upon (both in fantasy and other genres) don’t seem to fall into these categories.

    • “Personally, I don’t have anything against doorstoppers or stories in parts, if the story is strong and actually needs a longer form.”

      Agreed.

      Also, sometimes I’m wary of getting into a new series where the first book or two are massive, because I don’t always trust the author to finish.

      • A great short story is Pirates of the Electronic Waves by Fenton Wood. It took me just shy of 3 hours to read. It is somewhat in the vein of the Mad Scientist Club stories from the 1960s.

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