A very interesting post by science fiction writer Charles Stross (you can read his account of his background here, and here‘s the requisite Wikipedia article) about why the length of a typical novel has doubled since the ’60s. Here’s the heart of the explanation he got from one of his editors:

Until the early 1990s, mass market SF/F paperbacks in the US were primarily sold via grocery store racks, supplied by local distributors (400+ of them). The standard wire rack held books face-out, either against a wall or on a rotating stand. And that’s where the short form factor novel became established. Thinner books meant you could shove more of them into a rack that was, say, three inches deep. Go over half an inch thick, and you could no longer fit six paperbacks in a 3″ rack. And there was only so much rack space to go around.
During the inflationary 1970s and early 1980s, prices of just about everything soared. The publishers needed to increase their cover prices to compensate. But the grocery wholesalers who sold the books insisted “the product’s gotta weigh more if you want to charge more”. They weren’t in the book business, after all, so just as buffalo tomatoes got bigger, so did paperbacks. (Even though this meant there was less room to go round in the wire racks.) You can only get so much milage by using thicker paper and a bigger typeface; so they began looking for longer novels.

(Via MetaFilter; there’s much more detail, and discussion of why mystery novels haven’t similarly ballooned, at Charlie’s post.) How I hate that kind of economic pressure that has nothing to do with the quality of the work! And how fondly I remember those wire racks!


  1. I was going to take issue with the comment that German is 40% more verbose than English. I figured that was an illusion created by the fact that translators often throw in extra words to cover shades of meaning instead of searching for just the right mot juste. So I decided to prove that out by comparing various translations from 3rd languages into both German and English. No word count, but pages as a proxy seem to demonstrate that German really is about 40% more verbose:
    El amor en los tiempos de cólera – German 509 pp, English – 368 pp
    Master i Margarita – German 510 pp English 384 pp
    Les Particules Elementaires – German 384 English 272 pp
    Fairly consistent, and unfortunate ammunition for efficiency experts who will continue to push English on us all.

  2. marie-lucie says

    Is is just that German is more verbose (uses more words), or could it be that on the average German words are longer than their English counterparts (even discounting that the components of German compounds are written all together, but English often separates them)?

  3. A.J.P. Crown says

    Do you really read science fiction, Language? Why?

  4. Is is just that German is more verbose (uses more words), or could it be that on the average German words are longer than their English counterparts (even discounting that the components of German compounds are written all together, but English often separates them)?

    Or are the pages just smaller? Does Germany have Trade Paperbacks?

  5. Do you really read science fiction, Language? Why?
    For the same reason (I presume) that you read things: because I enjoy it.

  6. Maybe that’s why I stopped reading Sci Fi back in the 80’s. I want stock characters that don’t have to be explained, an interesting science concept taken to the next level in the future, female characters that have adventures instead of spending all their time cleaning, and lots of action and chase scenes from one planet to another. None of this tedious character development and pages of mind-numbing conversation that doesn’t advance the plot. If magazine used to have great SF short stories–that’s how a lot of the greats got their start.

  7. Yes, I used to by If regularly. And I too haven’t read much sf over the last couple of decades.

  8. komfo,amonan says

    My brother (a rocket scientist, literally) has always been a big SF fan, & has said that one change in recent science-fiction is that the science part is significantly harder. Advancement in scientific understanding has constrained plausible futures.
    He also complains that current SF that doesn’t take the technological singularity into account is flawed for that reason. But not everyone is a singularitarian.

  9. It might also be the Herbert effect. (In fantasy, the proper term would be the Tolkein effect.)
    Not being a sci-fi fan, I’m not going to say this started with Dune, but Dune is one of the earlier example. Sci-fi authors are expected to be, like fantasy writers, sub-creators: they’re supposed to supply not just a basic story but include as much as possible detail on the universe they’ve constructed for this novel. It’s not enough just to land on Planet Zed and tell us what happened; one must also (hopefully with good literary techniques) describe the fauna, flora, and prior history of intelligent races on Planet Zed).

  10. A.J.P. Crown says

    Is it something specific to sf that you enjoy?

  11. Occasional Visitor says

    So the size of a book rack defines the ‘proper length’ of a novel. I am reminded of some luxury apartments that I came across whose market appeal lay in the quality of the architecture. The apartments were actually sized so that the columns supporting them suited three cars parked side by side two floors below. It was good design but a similar mix of art accommodating geometry.
    Across town a friend had some empty redundant factory buildings of little value. She rented them out occasionally to TV companies to make some meagre return. It then struck me how many crime series on TV had chases that ended in cavernous industrial sheds, places no sane person would run to, in order to hide. It was of course the cheapness, (and availability) of the location that drove the story.
    All art is influence by commerce and context (look at the revolution synthetic pigments caused in painting). Perhaps there is a thesis to be written, ranking art forms according to their independence of the material world.
    Poetry would come out pretty high for independence I would think.
    Perhaps this is why some poets cleave to the metaphorical geometry of syllable counts, rhythm patterns and rhyming schemes, protecting themselves from the vertigo of total freedom.

  12. AJP: As another SF reader – although like Hat I haven’t read too much lately – I love the idea of space travel and advanced technology, and I’m not too worried about character development. So for me the golden age of SF was the 60s-70s-early80s in magazines such as Analog, of which I have somewhat of a collection.
    I don’t much care for stories of survival on Earth after nuclear holocaust/meteor strike etc [with the exceptiuon of Earth Abides for some reason].
    For light reading, I find it much more enjoyable than contemporary novels which seem to be mostly about anguish, despair, dysfunctional people and families, etc, about which we hear enough on the news anyway.

  13. Is it something specific to sf that you enjoy?
    Very much so, but there’s not much point trying to explain it to someone who doesn’t read it, any more than one can explain the appeal of cats to someone who doesn’t like cats.

  14. Two Boston used bookstores (Brookline Booksmith basement and Diskovery) have some wire racks, which they both populate appropriately.

  15. but pages as a proxy seem to demonstrate that German really is about 40% more verbose:

      Les Particules Elementaires – German 384 English 272 pp

    This argument would let us prove that English is more verbose than English:

           Ulysses English hardcover 600 pp – English paperback 300 pp

    Pages cannot be “used as a proxy” without further qualification, because the word density (word per page) may be different in different editions of different books in different languages.

  16. A.J.P. Crown says

    Just cos I don’t have a cat doesn’t mean I don’t like them. I really like elephants. Though it’s true I don’t read it I never said I didn’t like it.

  17. I didn’t say you didn’t like it, but if you don’t read it (assuming you never have, which you didn’t say) there’s no way to explain what’s appealing about it, other than waving my hands and muttering about “sense of wonder.”

  18. Stu, I realize my “Study” is very imperfect – I did compare paperback vs. paperback though. It may just demonstrate that Germans prefer smaller thicker paperbacks than English speakers. Honestly I was too lazy to do a real analysis, just throwing it out there. I was just struck by how consistently in that (admittedly small) sample the German really was around 40% longer in every book I looked at.

  19. I don’t think it’s that hard to explain the appeal of science fiction – it’s easier than trying to explain poetry or jazz. “Hard core” scifi, as opposed to say “1984”, “A Clockwork Orange” “Infinite Jest”, which are all really SciFi in every way, appeals to people who like conceptual thinking. There’s an escapist element, sure, but a lot of Scifi is about taking a premise – what if FTL space travel were possible, what if humanity met an alien race, what if Bolsheviks took over the UK, etc. and extrapolating the consequences. “Hard core” SciFi tends to focus more on the concept than the characters. If you don’t enjoy “what if” games there’s a good chance SciFi won’t appeal to you as a genre.

  20. A.J.P. Crown, A.I.A. says

    I am reminded of some luxury apartments that I came across whose market appeal lay in the quality of the architecture. The apartments were actually sized so that the columns supporting them suited three cars parked side by side two floors below.
    Un-fucking-believable. But let me tell you something. Nearly all buildings that have parking below are, if they’re out of concrete, laid out on a roughly seven fifty to eight metre column grid. Any architect will tell you — luxury or no luxury — this is because clients are reluctant to have columns in the middle of the parking spots. It’s one of those things. Believe me, they start coming out with stuff like ‘Well that space doesn’t count’. I’ll tell you something: these bastards are lucky to have parking spots at all, let alone ones that work. Then they stop paying their bills and we have to call up this guy. I don’t want to know how he gets the money. To think I went to school for this.

  21. A.J.P. Crown says

    Oh, “sense of wonder”, right then. Say no more, I’ll try reading one.

  22. Though it’s true I don’t read it I never said I didn’t like it.
    Most hard core sf aficionados started out with Robert Heinlein. His future histories were classic, although now I find him a bit sophomoric. He had been an electronics type I think in the navy, so his technical stuff was plausible.
    Isaac Asimov I think stands up under the test of time pretty well. He had an excellent series about robots–how would a robot have to be designed to interact with humans?–so he developed the laws of robotics. His foundation trilogy was also excellent, again a sort of future history of the universe. Again Asimov was a real scientist, which is part of why his stories were believable. There was also a bit about the chemical Thiotimoline that I found amusing.
    Ray Bradbury I enjoyed for his mellowness/wistfulness. There was a series of Martian chronicles. He did some other short stories about carnivals and such that were odd but maybe not so much science fiction.
    Larry Niven my husband introduced me to and I would wait for him to finish one and then read it. Niven’s creatures were excellent. What would an extraterrestrial species with three sexes look like?
    There are other authors I read for the ideas, who were widely read, but I didn’t enjoy them.
    There is also Andre Norton, who did some passable sf about a trade ship that met up with various species, but also did a Witch World series that was more in the fantasy/alternate universe vein. I don’t usually read fantasy at all, but at the time enjoyed these almost as much as Tolkien. Norton’s earlier novels were the better ones.

  23. SnowLeopard says

    Although I love SF in concept, I more or less abandoned it many years ago because I had grown dissatisfied with what I felt was authorial laziness — both in terms of the psychology and behavior of the characters and in terms of failing to take ideas to their logical conclusions. I’m only starting to return to it now. Gene Wolfe’s short stories and Book of the New Sun series have been enjoyable and seem to have a curious inner logic even if they don’t bother themselves with much psychological depth. (He famously has a short story in “Strange Travelers” about someone who stumbles upon a phrasebook for an unknown language.) The science fiction website io9.com regularly reviews or recommends contemporary publications, which you can easily find by typing “novels” in their search box. The site’s mix of science fiction, science, futuristic architecture, and so on may also give you a taste of what people like about the genre.

  24. A.J.P. Crown says

    I read some essays about science by Isaac Asimov when I was about twelve and really enjoyed them. I liked that science fiction story where everybody goes blind after watching a brilliant display of falling stars and the world is then ruled by cactuses from outer space. I like JG Ballard, but not so much his science fiction — if that’s what it is, actually.

  25. michael farris says

    I tend to like Science Fiction in theory more than practice. I really don’t like is ‘hard’ science fiction since a. I usually can’t understand it (I’m proud of my limitations) b. one generation’s hard science is another generations ‘silly things people used to believe’ (these may seem to be contradictory concerns but that’s how I roll).
    What I do like is science fiction that explores the limits of human experience but the humans in much of science fiction are so boring (to me) that it can be hard slagging (except as bubble gum disposable public transport reads).
    I also like science fiction that explores alien concepts, realities etc. but too often the aliens are just thinly disguised two-dimensional humans. I loved Octavia Butler’s exogenesis trilogy at least partly because the secrets and character and history of the Oankali are dribbled out throughout the course of the books in a way that made it clear that it had all been thought out before she finished the first book (and in a way that makes them more interesting if not appealing).
    I also liked the idea of the obsessive compulsive aliens hunting over the universe for a species they lost contact with in Ian Watson’s the Embedding (one of the few novels to treat linguistics and language concepts realistically).

  26. Isaac Asimov I think stands up under the test of time pretty well.
    Except that he was a terrible, terrible writer (in the sense in which non-genre readers understand that word). I would never recommend him to anyone over the early-adolescence age when most of us fell in love with the field.
    I’d start with short stories by people who could actually write, like C.M. Kornbluth, Damon Knight, Theodore Sturgeon, Cordwainer Smith, Avram Davidson, R.A. Lafferty, Ted Chiang, Terry Bisson, and the great James Tiptree Jr. (actually a woman named Alice Bradley Sheldon; she had a fascinating and ultimately tragic life). SF is basically a short-story/novelette field anyway (though it has produced wonderful novels), and reading a few stories is a small investment in time and effort. If you find you have a taste for it, I’ll be delighted to provide further recommendations.

  27. Oh, and Gene Wolfe, as SnowLeopard said; he’s one of the finest writers (in the standard sense) the field has produced.

  28. A.J.P. Crown says

    What about Philip K. Dick? He was very popular with a couple of the cruise -ship architects I used to work with, but I’ve never read him myself.
    “Your comment could not be submitted due to questionable content: cruise -ship”
    Ha ha. First I thought they meant ‘dick’. But I agree, cruise -ships are pretty questionable content.

  29. Philip K. Dick was an amazing writer, and if you like him you’ll really like him, but he’s not to everyone’s taste, and I hesitate to recommend him to someone who’s looking to dip a toe into the field for fear they’ll react badly and write off sf in general. But by all means try him out; there are zillions of short stories, and his novels The Man in the High Castle and Martian Time-Slip are classics.

  30. A.J.P. Crown says

    I’ll try James Tiptree, Jr. I don’t regard a suicide pact with your 84 year-old spouse to be tragic, but perhaps you meant something else.

  31. Also Asimov’s science is unfortunately dated and fairly ludicrous at this point. The whole premise of the Foundation Trilogy strikes me as absurd now. I have fond memories of Asimov from childhood but I could not recommend him. LH’s list is a good place to start. I would add Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg for their short stories, as well as David Foster Wallace and Michel Houellebecq.

  32. Houellebecq: Nijma, here’s a good old Viking-derived Norman name for you.

  33. A.J.P. Crown says

    All I remember from Asimov’s book is that there was a chapter explaining the idea of the half life that I could just about grasp and was very exciting. I think you really need to be older than twelve to understand abstract concepts properly.

  34. occasional vistor says

    In case I have inadvertently offended AJP. What I found irritating about the columns and the car park was the the difference between the rhetoric and critiques being in terms of Art and culture, and the reality the homes being boxes, sized to suite your car. So it was a kind of foppish deceit and that irritated. (It was, as I said, however, truly intelligent design buy the architects and engineers. For those who might know, it saved the cost of a transfer structure.)
    As I also said I have no problem at all with, art being influenced by commerce and context, it is the pretence that it isn’t that jars; the head in the clouds that is dismissive of the feet that support it.
    But maybe that is enough of theology and geometry.

  35. I’m pretty sure you didn’t offend AJP, he just enjoys sounding dyspeptic.

  36. A.J.P. Crown says

    Oh, no, far from it! I’m just a bit nuts and I enjoy this sort of thing, as he says. Thanks for giving me the opportunity. And, yes, you’re quite right.

  37. AJP : I’ll throw in James Blish, Randall Garrett, Spider Robinson, Poul Anderson, Alfred Bester – try “The Demolished Man” or “The Stars My Destination”.
    More contemporary are William Gibson’s novels – try “Neuromancer” for cyberpunk, also Greg Bear, and the sometimes extremely bleak Iain M. Banks (you may know his non-SF work as Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory, The Business). His Sf starts with Consider Phlebas.

  38. when it comes to diabolical schemes, AJP’s torturous parking space signs with the pole in the middle of the parking space are just the tip of the iceburg. He is also responsible for cruise ships not having enough powder rooms.

  39. A.J.P. Crown says

    Oh, yes, Paul, I loved one book I read by Iain Banks. I should really try his.

  40. A.J.P. Crown says

    Nij, you may not be aware that I designed the toilets in the ‘adult area’ of the first Disney ship, I think it’s called ‘Disney Magic’ — I can’t remember, it’s so long ago now. They were legendary in their wonderfulness. The ‘concept’, if that’s the right word for a toilet design, was a courtyard at night, where men go and pee against a wall on their way home from a bar. I even put a bronze, circular SPQR Roman manhole on the stone-paved floor (the ship was built in Trieste). There was a pink satin love seat outside the doors that ended up getting cut, but otherwise it was built as designed, the only bit of the whole ship that didn’t get cut to bring the price down, because Disney liked it so much.

  41. marie-lucie says

    There you are, AJP, as a man, you designed for the men. What were the women supposed to do? Perhaps you did not have a wife and daughter at the time.

  42. That was a shot in the dark, a teasing poke at Kron, but it found its mark! Some architecture is transformational and some is lowest human denominator. AJP’s concept of toilets is appalling–reminds me of the smell around the exit turnstiles of our CTA stations–and does not speak well of Disney hierarchy that he was able to read their minds so well.
    There are only two toilets in the world that I know of that have a design awe-inspiring enough to deserve the appellation “sacred space”. One is a pit toilet with only a roof–no walls– overlooking a valley at a Wisconsin commune. Privacy is achieved by distance from any habitations and by a few low bushes that screen the occupant from anyone approaching on the path at a distance.
    The other is Um Quais in northern Jordan overlooking the Sea of Gallilee. The top picture is the powder room, the lower one is the terrace of the restaurant with the hills of Syria on the right and the Sea of Gallilee in the far distance. The counter is a piece of marble supported on steel beams. The plant area against the ancient wall is open to the sky.

  43. As someone who works in localization, I can confirm that German is not only more verbose than English (measurement: number of characters), it is notoriously so, the very worst of the FIGS languages in that regard. Translating something with strict width requirements from Japanese to English to German is hell twice over.

  44. A.J.P. Crown says

    AJP’s concept of toilets is appalling–reminds me of the smell around the exit turnstiles
    I did the women’s toilets too. They were exactly the same, except no urinals. i can’t remember how many stalls, though it wasn’t such a huge deal: if you wanted, you could always nip back to your cabin. I thought of them as being more like a place to hang out, like at a nightclub, that’s why I wanted the sofa. You wouldn’t believe how many Disney people congratulated me on those toilets, they’d say things like ‘Was it really you who designed them?’

  45. A.J.P. Crown says

    Here, check this out. Here’s a woman who still loves my Disney toilets! You have to scroll down to the photo with the yellow crescent moon in it. I’d forgotten the moon and stars. It’s really peculiar how enthusiastic people get about them, I don’t understand it.

  46. David Marjanović says

    Just let me confirm the greater length of German words and sentences.
    (It may, BTW, be an artefact of the fact that Standard German is so conservative phonologically. Most dialects have undergone lots of syn- and apocope.)

    He also complains that current SF that doesn’t take the technological singularity into account is flawed for that reason.

    The technological singularity is the most glaring example ever of how to lie to yourself with statistics. Really, the stupid, it burns!

  47. The singularity has been licensed by Microsoft and we’re going to alpha-test it in real time. I’m really looking forward to this!
    If anyone’s still alive, Singularity 1.1 might be sort of OK. Once we get to Singularity 3.0 Gates will introduce a completely new Singularity Operating System for us to alpha-test.

  48. marie-lucie says

    I am not sure I quite understand the Singularity, but it reminds me of a work I had to read for a course once: Mount St Michel and Chartres, by Henry Adams (the one who did not become president of the US after the revolution). In it he developed the theory that history had been revving up and accelerating since the Middle Ages, so he thought it would end soon (I seem to remember that history would not go beyond 1922).

  49. The Education of Henry Adams is one of the weirdest books ever. It’s in the third persons and completely without affect. I’ll excuse that in Marcus Aurelius, but who is Henry Adams for Christ’s sake? Just some guy, not a Roman Emperor.
    He portrays his younger self as having been an utterly ingenuous, clueless sucker, and this goes on for several years and 100+ pages. It’s like one of those movies where the killer is lurking in the closet and you want to scream at the victim “WATCH OUT!” But what you want to scream at young Henry Adams (who gets NO help from old Henry Adams, who tells the story flatly, without any comment) is “HENRY! DON’T TRUST GLADSTONE! HE’S MESSING WITH YOUR HEAD!”

  50. Actually, The Education of Henry Adams was the book which was required reading, but I also read the other book because I was such a dedicated student. The Education was one of the most boring books, perhaps even the most boring one, I have ever read. The first two chapters were not too bad because he talks about his childhood and youth and the early White House (in the third person), but afterwards it was awful. I don’t think I finished the book. The previous year this book had been on the exam and students had failed in droves because they had not read it (there was no choice of topic). Fortunately I had better luck as my exam topic was much more interesting.
    Henry Adams was the grandson of John Adams and the nephew of John Quincy Adams, so being president was in the family and he grew up expecting he would be president, but he seems to have been rather nerdy (and repressed) and of course did not get anywhere near being president, and never quite got over it. He became a history professor instead, with a bizarre understanding of the course of history (see above).

  51. Excellent toilets, AJP, all is forgiven. I love those efficient little European bathroom toys, especially the hose thingies on the shower head. And the designs–a combination of Deco and contemporary. I’ve been really bummed about architecture lately, what with the sterility of Millennium Park and the new Soldier Field, and new aluminum and glass and concrete high rise buildings in general, but you, Kron, have renewed my faith in architecture as an honorable profession.
    I don’t really look like Lauren Bacall either.

  52. [DM] Just let me confirm the greater length of German words and sentences.

    The original claim was that German is more verbose than English and French. That is not a claim about the greater length of German words and sentences. The latter might be true, if it could be made clear what is longer than what.
    It is not the case that any German word is longer than any English word. So there apparently is an assumption that only certain German words are to be compared with certain English words. What might be the criteria for selecting what is to be compared with what? Something like “the meaning”, or what the words “refer to”? What do adverbs and verbs refer to? Does someone seriously intend to use “reality” as a common unit for comparing languages with each other? Or do we have to pop UG to see the truth here?
    Whatever the verbosity and length claims “mean”, if they are supposed to be “scientific” or “objective”, they should predict something testable. Do they imply, for instance, that I should run out of breath or time when speaking German instead of English? But that doesn’t happen.
    Note that I am not saying that the opposites of these claims are true. Rather, I am saying that the claims, as they have been put forward, make little sense, and are playthings of an idle hour. The crude epistemological and ontological scaffolding around these claims does take my breath away.
    Is any linguist here unaware of the phenomena which notions like speech registers, genre, code-switching are intended to address?

    Just let me confirm the greater length of German words and sentences.
    Ich bestätige mal die größere Länge deutscher Wörter und Sätze.
    (It may, BTW, be an artefact of the fact that Standard German is so conservative phonologically. Most dialects have undergone lots of syn- and apocope.)
    (Nebenbei könnte das daran liegen, daß Standard German phonologisch so konservativ ist. Die meisten Dialekte haben viel Syn- und Apokope erlitten.)
    He also complains that current SF that doesn’t take the technological singularity into account is flawed for that reason.
    Er beklagt auch, daß neuere SF, die die technologische Singularität nicht berücksichtigt, deshalb mangelhaft ist.

    Notice the misuse of “flawed” to mean “not up-to-date” or “inferior in quality”. I’ve tried to misuse “mangelhaft” in a similar way. Both “flawed” and “mangelhaft” are being misused – so what is the significance of “flawed” having fewer letters than “mangelhaft”?

  53. A.J.P. Crown says

    Don’t thank me, Nij, thank Walt Disney. I don’t normally do stuff like that. Plus I only did the original idea drawings, I didn’t supervise the construction or choose the (not very nice) material colours.
    Verbose means using more words than necessary, so I don’t think German is verbose, exactly, but I’m sure it requires on average more words than English does to say the same thing — so does Spanish. But SO WHAT? WHO CARES? What, are you going to run out of scrabble letters? I think not.

  54. Maybe “The Education of Henry Adams” was being used as a screening book to decide who was responsible to go on to the next level. That would be an excellent use for it. I found the experience of reading the book unique, sort of like watching someone trying to start his car for forty minutes. I’ve seen no other book like it in that respect. But I didn’t finish it either. I had the feeling that the car still wouldn’t have started by the end. Once you figure out the plot of a book, it becomes less interesting. In a way it’s sort of an anti-book, something that Oulipo might be proud of: “watch young Henry Adams be baffled by an elementary paradox of worldliness repeatedly and continuously for many years of his life.

  55. I’d like to thank marie-lucie and John Emerson for crossing one item off my lifetime reading list.

  56. marie-lucie says

    The book was among four required readings (there were some other recommended readings) for Littérature et civilisation américaines and it must have been assigned for the history it contained, not the literary merit. I don’t remember the others except Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. I read a lot more American literature of all periods than just the four required books and enjoyed most of what I read, but what a bore Henry Adams was. An anti-book indeed! if you were not already a voracious reader it would make you disgusted with reading forever. In an Amazon type list it would probably drop off the bottom of the list.

  57. I would like to echo Mr. Hat’s expression of thanks to John Emerson and marie-lucie. The Education of Henry Adams had been on my lifetime reading list as well. It sounds like the book has far less nutritive value than is advertised.

  58. A.J.P. Crown says

    Me too. We actually own the thing. It was a Folio Editions xmas present from my wife’s uncle. I couldn’t get into it. Now I’ll just toss it.

  59. I should add that to my masthead: “Saving people from reading The Education of Henry Adams since 2009.”

  60. I suppose the only readers who would have a use for the book would be specialists in the early days of the American republic looking for snippets of information about the Adams family and other historical characters, but for the general reader the tone is so flat that you can’t remember anything about those people. Talk about a missed opportunity!

  61. A coupla years ago I read the claim that modern novels (and in particular subsmissions to publishers) are getting longer and longer due to the advent of computers and wordprocessors.
    Suddenly people aren’t ‘constrained’ by having to write by hand and then type up three copies with carbon paper on a manual typewriter.
    Who was it said the only reason, he was considered a better writer than his contemporaries, was that he wrote his first draft in pencil rather than biro* (that, then, being the second draught). Hemmingway?
    *or so Lynneguist tells me it’s called.

  62. Wait — I overdid it! I think that everyone interested in American studies should read about 40-60 pages of TEOHA, just for the “OMFG! Who is this guy! How could any living human being think this way?” experience.
    He is, as it were, blood of my blood and flesh of my flesh, my Yankee forebear born only 108 years before me (albeit infinitely more eminent than anyone in the Emerson line to which I belong). But to me he seems as bizarre as an Amazonian witch doctor or a Hindu fakir.

  63. I’m VERY surprised that nobody has said anything so far about the *excellent* science-fiction produced in Eastern Europe: I’m a huge admirer of the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, who to my mind deserves a (posthumous, alas!) Nobel prize in literature: his novels on first contact between humans and aliens (THE INVINCIBLE, SOLARIS, HIS MASTER’S VOICE and FIASCO), and his short stories on robots, especially, stand head and shoulders above any other fiction I’ve read on the topic (indeed, I believe FIASCO is the greatest science-fiction novel ever written, with HIS MASTER’S VOICE and SOLARIS being the contenders for second and third place). I know little of Russian science-fiction, but tremendously enjoyed reading the Strugatskii Brothers’ PIKNIK NA OBOCHINE, also a story on first contact between humans and aliens, and also far better than any other science-fiction (except Lem’s) which I’ve ever encountered.

  64. Alas, I have never been able to stand Lem. I know, I know, I’m a barbarian.

  65. I loved his story about the stupid, short-tempered, violent computer.

  66. Stupid, stubborn, shortempered, and violent.

  67. Among Lem’s short stories involving robots I’ve always liked THE DRAGONS OF PROBABILITY (its opening paragraphs, wherein INTER ALIA mention is made of a “school of higher neantical nihility”, an institution which, as its name suggests, only studies phenomena which do not exist, always makes me smile). Hat: if you like science-fiction in general I would suggest the best Lem novel for you would be THE INVINCIBLE: his short stories of Pirx the Pilot are also much closer, thematically, to typical science-fiction than most of the rest of his work.
    Another science-fiction novel I’m surprised hasn’t been brought up: Walter Miller’s A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ, which many consider the finest work of post-apocalyptic science-fiction ever written (it’s certainly the best such work I’ve ever read).

  68. Philip K. Dick was an amazing writer
    Hrm, I thought the consensus was that he’s actually kind of a crap writer, or at best workmanlike? I like his books a lot but his writing itself is pretty drab.

  69. A.J.P. Klo says

    Workmanlike implies well-crafted, crap implies badly-crafted. How can the consensus be that he’s crap when everyone who has discussed his work here (including you) likes it?
    Are you related to ‘Big’ Ben, of the Wolfson Foundation? If so, do give him my regards.

  70. michael farris says

    My understanding of Philip K. Dick (haven’t read any that I remember) was that the ideas behind his work are really compelling as are the basic story arcs (which is why so many movies have been made from them).
    On the other hand, his actual prose style is nothing special and/or kind of sloppy.

  71. Hrm, I thought the consensus was that he’s actually kind of a crap writer, or at best workmanlike?
    I don’t think “crap” is fair, but in any case I wasn’t talking about his prose, I meant he was an amazing science fiction writer. (It should be borne in mind that he had to write very quickly to pay the bills and didn’t have time to polish his prose.)

  72. A.J.P. Klone says

    I didn’t know you could pay the bills if you write very quickly. Thanks for the tip.

  73. Nijma: They’ve certainly poshed up Um Qais. Last (only) time I saw it, there was a certain amount of noisy and incandescent activity going on across the valley, but then that was in October 1973. I do vaguely remember a good meal there, however.

  74. I believe Philip K. Dick suffered from acute paranoia, possibly drug-induced, and did much of his writing while in the grips of extreme psychosis, so that it is unsurprising that, whereas the ideas and concepts behind his stories and novels were typically quite new and original (and typically involved altered reality, illusion and misperception), the stories and novels themselves often give the impression of being rough drafts that need to be smoothed over and polished.

  75. Um Qais/Gadara–only the resthouse and museum have been restored. They started renovating it but ran into a snag because the locals who had been living in the buildings were not happy with the way they had been moved out of the Ottoman village. I think a French firm was doing the work. When I was there a big crane was sitting unused beside that incredible black basalt theater.

  76. David Marjanović says

    Ah, this is the thread. (With all the thread drift it becomes very difficult to remember which thread any topic was discussed on.) I disagree with the translations (way) above and will try to supply better ones, and other examples, tomorrow or something.
    I do agree, though, that it’s not obvious whether German “is more verbose” = uses more words than English to express the same things.

  77. michael farris says

    If I wanted to actually explore the question my hypothesis would be that German “is more verbose” but that _German speakers_ are more verbose with a cultural preference to use more rather than fewer words in most writing.
    Interestingly (or not). Sometimes I have cause to mention the general Anglophone idea that brevity is a function of efficiency and Polish students have mostly never heard this before and reject it immediately.
    Maybe related? When students translate from English to Polish the results almost always take up more space on the paper even when the word and space counts are less than the original. I’m thinking this has something to do with word length (Polish words are on average longer than English ones).
    Anyone who’s spent time in Europe will notice that in multilingual printed material, different languages use diffrent amounts of space. Spanish German and French seem to take up the most space while English and the German Scandinavian languages seem to take up the least.
    Interestingly this correlates fairly well with both measures of Uncertainty Avoidance and the distinction between Low and High Context cultures.
    Both High Context and a high level of Uncertainty Avoidance tend to correlate with using more space in writing (for different reasons that tend to reinforce each other.

  78. michael farris says

    By “my hypothesis would be that German “is more verbose”” I mean, of course that “my hypothesis would _not_ be that German “is more verbose””.
    Thank you all for being so understanding.

  79. A.J. P. Cheeky says

    I remember noticing on the subway in New York that the advertising, which is often in both Spanish and English on the same piece of cardboard, is always longer in the Spanish version.
    It also struck me that except for graphic designers this is totally without significance.

  80. I was involved in the ’80s with a magazine that published in five separate langauge editions. As it ran the same pictures in all editions, it was a lay-out nightmare. The English was always shorter than the French, German, Spanish though similar for the Dutch.

  81. If I may submit my humble opinion, I believe science fiction is the only realm of unexplored literature left to us. It is the final frontier if you will, only it extends as far as we want it to go. I personally am a big fan of Dan Abnett and his Warhammer 40k novels. Not only are his books superbly written, but he manages to offer a great story as well, all while exploring the dark times that loom in the future. And can anyone deny that Ender’s Game was a masterpiece of science fiction? My point is that SF is extraordinarily relevant because it allows us to think about the future in the grander context of humanity and the direction of our race, rather than the pithy daydreaming of an individual life.

  82. A.J. P. Crown says

    But seriously, why stop at humanity? What about the other animals (fish/birds/insects/spiders)?
    Philosophy is always going to do a better job than SF for figuring out the possibilities for earthlings. I don’t think you really need a pragmatic reason for SF’s existence and there’s nothing more soporific than a piece of fiction that’s pushing some agenda like ‘save the race’.

  83. Marilyn Stasio, who reviews mysteries for the New York Times, commented recently in her column that mysteries seem to have nearly doubled in size since she started reviewing. It’s certainly true that in the six decades or so that I’ve been reading fiction, the average length of just about all kinds and genres of novels has increased considerably. Some of the trade paperbacks are so heavy now that they’re indistinguishable from the hardcovers. If I get much feebler as I age, soon I won’t be able to lift them.

  84. marie-lucie says

    Perhaps that is because crime novels have been getting more and more like regular novels. No longer the cut and dried, cardboard characters and predictable social milieux of Agatha Christie’s works, but interesting characters and situations that reflect current changing conditions. (I can’t compare with regular novels, as I almost never read recent ones).

  85. marie-lucie says

    (I mean: compare in terms of length).

  86. michael farris says

    Compare PD James’s first novel (Cover here face) with her most recent works that seem to be about three times as long.
    I do seem to recall an interview a few years ago (with a mystery author, maybe James but I can’t recall for sure) who said the most difficult thing about writing mysteries now is establishing a believable motivation for murder (since some of the old standbys no longer apply).

  87. marie-lucie says

    Also, with present forensic lab techniques it seems practically impossible for a murderer to avoid detection, so there have to be other things in the book to keep the reader interested.

  88. marie-lucie says

    Although, of course, that does not necessarily mean the book will be longer.

  89. A.J. P. Crown says

    One of the ways murder mysteries have reflected the changes of contemporary life is the development of the (American?) murder novel with the lawyer as the main character. These are also written by lawyers: John Grisham is the best known. A FAR better one is Scott Turow. There’s John Mortimer from England, but the ‘Rumpole’ books aren’t mysteries, exactly.

  90. I’ll add Edgar Pangborn (I already know that Hat agrees) to the list of SF writers who are excellent writers. I’ll also note that when I introduced my wife (a lifelong fantasy reader) to Asimov, she found his characterization excellent, a judgement I’ve rarely heard elsewhere. On the other hand, she did marry a nerd.

    The main thing I notice about English/Spanish bilingual signs is how much less bureaucratic the Spanish version generally is.

  91. John Cowan says

    As Northrop Frye said, “Most defenses of science fiction are intelligible only to those well within the defenses.” (Actually he said “poetry”, but no matter.)

  92. I liked that science fiction story where everybody goes blind after watching a brilliant display of falling stars and the world is then ruled by cactuses from outer space.

    Is that The Day of the Triffids?

  93. John Cowan says

    Is that The Day of the Triffids?

    It is.

    Except that [Asimov] was a terrible, terrible writer (in the sense in which non-genre readers understand that word).

    As the literary critic James Gunn pointed out, the plain unornamented style is also a style. Here’s a passage (from The Caves of Steel, 1957) that Gunn particularly singled out as an exemplar of effective use of the plain style: nightfall over a future New York that is completely covered by a series of domes.

    On the uppermost levels of some of the wealthiest subsections of the City are the natural Solariums, where a partition of quartz with a movable metal shield excludes the air but lets in the sunlight. There the wives and daughters of the City’s highest administrators and executives may tan themselves [1957, remember]. There a unique thing happens every evening.

    Night falls.

    In the rest of the City (including the UV-Solariums, where the millions, in strict sequence of allotted time, may occasionally expose themselves to the artificial wavelengths of arc lights) there are only the arbitrary cycles of hours.

    The business of the City might easily continue in three eight-hour or four six-hour shifts, by “day” and “night” alike. Light and work could easily proceed endlessly. There are always civic reformers who periodically suggest such a thing in the interests of economy and efficiency.

    The notion is never accepted.

    Much of the earlier habits of Earthly society have been given up in the interests of that same economy and efficiency: space, privacy, even much of free will. They are the products of civilization, however, and not more than ten thousand years old.

    The adjustment of sleep to night, however, is as old as man: a million years. The habit is not easy to give up. Although the evening is unseen, apartment lights dim as the hours of darkness pass and the City’s pulse sinks. Though no one can tell noon from midnight by any cosmic phenomenon along the enclosed avenues of the City, mankind follows the mute partitionings of the hour hand.

    The expressways empty, the noise of life sinks, the moving mob among the colossal alleys melts away; New York City lies in Earth’s unnoticed shadow, and its population sleeps.

    Other than a desire to consolidate paragraphs (Rex Stout pointed out that paragraphing is the most distinctive and least imitable single feature of a writer’s style), I tend to agree with Gunn.

    Gunn also points out: “[Asimov’s] words do not easily lend themselves to traditional literary criticism because he has the habit of centering his fiction on plot and clearly stating to his reader, in rather direct terms, what is happening in his stories and why it is happening. […] Stories that clearly state what they mean in unambiguous language are the most difficult for a scholar to deal with because there is little to be interpreted.” (I’m reasonably sure that words is a typo for works, but my attempts to verify this have failed.) I am not a literary critic, much less a professor of English, but I am again inclined to think this is right.

  94. the world is then ruled by cactuses from outer space.

    In a version I’ve read, the Triffids were actually created by that genius of Michurin biology – academician Trofim Lysenko.

  95. As the literary critic James Gunn pointed out, the plain unornamented style is also a style

    So it is, and English is a language, and Asimov was not a master of either. I’ll quote myself from an AskMetaFilter thread (and one very relevant to this discussion):

    I’m at a loss to understand how an English major can think Asimov writes good English. I happen to have a number of old issues of Astounding near my desk; let’s find one with an Asimov story… Ah, here we go; the September 1946 issue has “Evidence.” Opening it at random to page 133, I find:

    Harroway, his forehead shining with considerably more than mere enthusiasm, passed it over a second time.

    Bryerly said evenly, “I read here as the description of what you’re to search; I quote: ‘the dwelling place belonging to Stephen Allan Byerley, located at 355 Willow Grove, Evanstron, together with any garage, storehouse, or other structures or buildings thereto appertaining, together with all grounds thereto appertaining’ … um … and so on. Quite in order. But, my good man, it doesn’t say anything about searching my interior. I’m not part of the premises. You may search my clothes if you think I’ve got a robot hidden in my pocket.”

    Harroway had no doubts on the point of to whom he owed his job. He did not propose to be backward, given a chance to earn a much better—i.e., more highly paid—job.

    He said, in a faint echo of bluster…

    I’m sorry, I can’t type any more of that crap. It has all the verbal fire and verve of Agatha Christie on an off day. “Harroway had no doubts on the point of to whom he owed his job”—you want to offer this to someone who reads books written by actual writers? I don’t want to be unkind to Asimov, who was a fine fellow and came up with some brilliant ideas, but a writer (in the sense in which blahblahblah’s wife, grumblebee, and myself understand the word) he was not.

  96. And here is a great quote which for some reason was deleted from American edition of The Day of the Triffids:

    Russia, who shared with the rest of the world the problem of increasing food supplies, was known to have been intensively concerned with attempts to reclaim desert, steppe, and the northern tundra. In the days when information was still exchanged, she had reported some successes. Later, however, under a cleavage of methods and views caused biology there, under a man called Lysenko, to take a different course. It, too, then succumbed to the endemic secrecy. The lines it had taken were unknown, and thought to be unsound—but it was anybody’s guess whether very successful, very silly, or very queer things were happening there—if not all three at once.

  97. John Cowan says

    To be fair, neither Gunn nor I praise all of Asimov’s work. Even the redoubtable Jenkins can’t possibly praise everything Asimovian, and sometimes his criticisms are far more pointed and severe. But really, quoting a passage that quotes a (fictional) search warrant written in Essence of Legalese is tacking the deck some.

  98. It was the first page I happened to turn to at the time. I submit that it’s reasonably representative of his native style; I further submit that samples (like yours) that read better were probably heavily edited by people with a better sense of English prose than John W. Campbell.

  99. John Cowan says

    The original editor was H. L. Gold of Galaxy, who was well-known for tampering with authors’ material: he introduced the “Constitution” subplot into The Stars, Like Dust when it was serialized. So it’s possible you’re right.

  100. Yeah, Gold infuriated authors but he knew good prose. (Although according to Anthony Boucher, Gold’s own stories “are simply not up to the standards of craftsmanship” that he set as an editor.)

  101. The stuff with the Constitution is, in my view, the worst part of The Stars, Like Dust. I figured it was a product if Asimov’s famously intense immigrant patriotism.

  102. John Cowan says

    Still, Asimov had a bully pulpit for complaining, and he never denounced interference with The Caves of Steel as he did with TSLD and “Nightfall”; the latter had only one sentence added by John Campbell, but it was notable. “Not Earth’s feeble thirty-six hundred Stars visible to the eye; Lagash was in the center of a giant cluster.” This is completely perspective-breaking, and Asimov hated it and said so.

  103. I read some essays about science by Isaac Asimov when I was about twelve and really enjoyed them. I liked that science fiction story where everybody goes blind after watching a brilliant display of falling stars and the world is then ruled by cactuses from outer space.

    Shouldn’t that be “cactodes”?

    I didn’t say you didn’t like it, but if you don’t read it (assuming you never have, which you didn’t say) there’s no way to explain what’s appealing about it, other than waving my hands and muttering about “sense of wonder.”

    I would never recommend him to anyone over the early-adolescence age when most of us fell in love with the field.

    Years ago, I had a strong desire to experience the majesty of the infinity of outer space. Sadly, I couldn’t do this by looking up at the local night sky because it was blotted out by light pollution, so I decided to turn to science fiction. The first book I picked up was Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, but I was disappointed to find that outer space was not a crucial part of the book, and it seemed to me that the entire book could be rewritten to take place on a single planet without fundamental changes. Was it an enjoyable read? I suppose. But I did not really feel the “sense of wonder” I had been looking for.

  104. I don’t want to be unkind to Asimov, who was a fine fellow

    I withdraw this; having read Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, I now know that Asimov was an appalling fellow who molested women unrepentantly over the entirety of his adult life. I’d heard rumors about his behavior at conventions but to see it all spelled out was appalling. He grabbed women by the breast instead of shaking hands. “When Pohl questioned his actions, Asimov replied, ‘It’s like the old saying. You get slapped a lot, but you get laid a lot too.'”

  105. OK, I didn’t expect Isaac Asimov to quote Poruchik Rzhevsky joke


  106. Well, he was Russian, after all.

  107. John Cowan says

    Well, Russian-born at any rate. But he didn’t become Russian, as I was just saying, until he moved to the U.S. at age three.

    The jokes on the WP page linked above are great (though certainly more so because I haven’t heard most of them before).

  108. David Marjanović says

    Shouldn’t that be “cactodes”?

    Or you could just make shit up, as we do in German, and call them Kakteen

  109. Latinate plurals in Standard German are just weird.

  110. David Marjanović says

    Many are formed by taking the original stem and adding a German plural ending to it: Atlas – Atlanten; Forum – Foren; Datum – Daten. But in this case…

  111. Stu Clayton says

    Both Latinate and Greecey.

    Indiz -> Indizien
    Datum -> Daten, Datümer, Datums, Datumse
    Archiv -> Archive
    Haruspizium -> Haruspizien
    Katafalk -> Katafalke
    Akronym -> Akronyme
    Kaktus -> Kakteen
    Plektrum -> Plektren, Plektra
    Skriptum -> Skripten

  112. Datümer

    Now that’s just silly.

  113. Stu Clayton says

    I snuck that in there to tease, on the analogy of Reichtümer. What about Datumse ?

  114. John Cowan says

    And as for the Foundation Trilogy, it’s actual history futurized to sell to a science-fiction magazine editor, as Asimov himself told us in “The Foundation of S.F. Success (with apologies to W.S. Gilbert)”:

    If you ask me how to shine in the science-fiction line as a pro of luster bright,
    I say practice up the lingo of the sciences, by jingo (never mind if not quite right).
    You must talk of Space and Galaxies and tesseractic fallacies in slick and mystic style,
    Though the fans won’t understand it, they will all the same demand it with a softly hopeful smile.

    And all the fans will say,
    As you walk your spatial way,
    If that young man indulges in flights through all the Galaxy,
    Why, what a most imaginative type of man that type of man must be.

    So success is not a mystery, just brush up on your history, and borrow day by day.
    Take an Empire that was Roman and you’ll find it is at home in all the starry Milky Way.
    With a drive that’s hyperspatial, through the parsecs you will race, you’ll find that plotting is a breeze,
    With a tiny bit of cribbin’ from the works of Edward Gibbon and that Greek, Thucydides.

    And all the fans will say,
    As you walk your thoughtful way,
    If that young man involves himself in authentic history,
    Why, what a very learned kind of high IQ, his high IQ must be.

    Then eschew all thoughts of passion of a man-and-woman fashion from your hero’s thoughtful mind.
    He must spend his time on politics, and thinking up his shady tricks, and outside that he’s blind.
    It’s enough he’s had a mother, other females are a bother, though they’re jeweled and glistery.
    They will just distract his dreaming and his necessary scheming with that psychohistory.

    And all the fans will say,
    As you walk your narrow way,
    If all his yarns restrict themselves to masculinity,
    Why, what a most particularly pure young man that pure young man must be.

    (I couldn’t find a YouTube clip of “If you’re anxious for to shine in the high aesthetic line” from Patience, dammit.)

  115. David Marjanović says

    Now that’s just silly.

    It is, but deliberately so, as Stu has explained previously: to keep the plural of “date” separate from “data” in a computer context.

    I can’t remember ever reading about Datums, but that’s probably another (more northerly?) attempt at the same thing.

    What about Datumse ?


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