Bloat: threat or menace?

In the Neal Stephenson thread, the talk has turned to the excessive length of some books. Sandikal says:

I wish more writers would be more concise. I’m weary of multi-volume epics and 700 page novels that have 300 pages worth of story. Sometimes, I think we’d be better off if writers would have to use pens and typewriters again so it wouldn’t be so easy to have these huge volumes.

As a matter of fact, Neal Stephenson always drafts in longhand and wrote the immense Baroque Cycle with a quill pen.

Now I think this is practically insane—but then I have practically forgotten how to write longhand. (I can in fact still do it. But it is no longer fluent and automatic. I probably can’t remember how to ride a bicycle either.) Nevertheless, it does demonstrate that when writing something long, word processors are not the problem when it comes to bloat. Not that anyone who has read Our Mutual Friend would suspect that it was.

This leads to the interesting question of what bloat is. It’s not equivalent to length. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is as long as anything Dickens ever wrote, and without a wasted word. Cyteen is that long too and A Fire Upon the Deep. (“That long” is being defined here as “more than two inches thick in trade paperback”.) It’s easy to think of other examples of long books that aren’t bloated. Come to that, you certainly could have a bloated short story.

PatrickG said:

you don’t feel the need to stretch a story longer than it need be

which I think hits the nail on the head. “longer than it need be” is a flexible length. It isn’t how many words. It’s how necessary the words are. “A 300 page story in 700 pages” is bloated. But who’s to say it’s a 300 page story? And what’s on the other four hunded pages? You can sum up any story in a paragraph, but reading that paragraph certainly doesn’t give the same satisfaction as reading the story.

I believe, as I said in my Stephenson post, that Stephenson’s words are all necessary for the story he’s telling. But the stories he’s telling are quite different from the plot summaries of his novels.

In the Re-reading long series thread I said:

In Diane Duane’s Door Into… books, when people are going to tell a story they begin, where we’d start “Once upon a time,” with the formula “This is the story of /whatever/ and this is the way I tell it.” I find it quite useful myself to think of that as the unwritten first line of any novel, because knowing what story it is and how I tell it is a very useful thing. The Iliad starts off with “Sing Goddess, of the wrath of Achilles” and the story you get is the wrath of Achilles, not the whole saga of the Trojan war—it begins ten years into the war, with the reasons for Achilles’s wrath, and ends when he stops being angry, with Troy still unfallen.

The problem, for me, with bloated books is that they’re not sure what story they are telling, so they throw in all sorts of things because they know them and they’re interesting. They illuminate minor characters, or they’re cool, or whatever. There’s a great temptation to keep on throwing in things like that, which leads to endless digressions and sometimes to losing track of what is important. That’s when it becomes bloat, in my opinion—when it loses track of the story it’s telling to make room for all of this other stuff. These days this is what the story tends to get lost in, not Hardy-esque descriptive passages.

However, there’s also a danger for readers complaining that something is bloated when it just isn’t doing what you want it to. H.D.F. Kitto complains about Shakespeare throwing in extraneous material in Antony and Cleopatra. He thinks the episode of Menas tempting Sextus Pompey doesn’t belong. But Kitto is wrong in this instance, because he imagines the story Shakespeare wanted to tell was the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra’s romance. In fact it’s the story of Octavian and Antony’s competing visions of how to be a Roman. In the love tragedy, Kitto’s right, Sextus Pompey doesn’t belong. But in the competing visions story Shakespeare (after Plutarch) was actually telling, the episode neatly illuminates Roman honour and what is acceptable. Octavian would have agreed and Antony wouldn’t, you think.

If you’re a writer and you’re worred about bloat in your own work, it’s as well to consider the saying that every scene ought to do three things. (C.J. Cherryh is rumoured to have cut out all the scenes in a novel that didn’t.)  What the three things are varies with who’s telling you, but that doesn’t matter. If a scene is doing three things, any three things, you’re probably fine.

I don’t mind how long books are, but I do like books that, as Lewis Carroll put it, begin in the beginning, go on until they get to the end, and then stop.


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