Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Two good questions

"And word count is obviously important. For a work of literary fiction," he said, "you need at least, I'd say, eighty thousand words. Really, it probably needs to be somewhere between ninety and a hundred thousand. One hundred ten thousand is too many, but if the book is really good, you might get away with it."

"I can think of a hundred exceptions," I said. "What the hell does word count have to do with quality? Shouldn't the story dictate the word count?"
Phillip Lewis, The Barrowfields

Twice in the past week I have happened across discussions of word counts in novels, especially serious novels. One of these is the one I've quoted above from The Barrowfields, the soon-to-be-published novel by Phillip Lewis. The speakers are two law students with literary aspirations. One of them thinks "literary fiction" must fall between 80,000 and 100,000 words. The other, our narrator, asks, "Shouldn't the story dictate the word count?" Good question. Both The Old Man and the Sea and War and Peace fall outside the 80,000-to-100,000 limit, yet both qualify as literary fiction. Stories do dictate word count. Yet there is more to be said.

Colin Firth and Jude Law in Genius.
The second discussion of the topic can be found in the 2016 movie Genius, which is about the relationship of wordy novelist Thomas Wolfe with his editor at Scribner's, Maxwell Perkins. Wolfe wrote mountains of prose, each word priceless to him, yet Perkins convinced him to cut out enough words, about 60,000 according to estimates, to make Look Homeward, Angel, something the public might actually be willing to read. The novel became a best seller, as did a second huge novel, Of Time and the River, yet Wolfe always resented the cuts he felt Perkins forced on him. Never mind that other publishers had rejected Wolfe's first novel, and only Perkins saw its literary potential.

At a key moment in the film, Perkins, played by Colin Firth, says about book editors, "Are we making books better, or just making them different?" That's another good question, one that editors of all kinds should sometimes ask themselves. Are they really making the work better?  It is the writers, not the editors, who get their names printed on book covers and in bylines on magazine and newspaper articles. How much input by editors is too much? And, for that matter, how much is too little?

No doubt there are Thomas Wolfe fans who, like the man himself, wish his mountains of prose had been left intact so they could savor every word. Others of us may wish thousands more words had been cut out.

For most of this movie, I assumed Thomas Wolfe was the title character. He is even referred to as a genius at one point. By the end, however, I realized the film was really about Maxwell Perkins. He was the genius, or at least as much a genius as Wolfe. And it wasn't just Wolfe that Perkins helped turn into a literary giant. Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald also feature prominently in the movie. Perkins was also influential on the careers of such writers as Erskine Caldwell, Alan Paton, James Jones, J.P. Marquand, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Ring Lardner. That's a lot of literary influence by someone who was not himself a writer.

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