Writers shouldn’t really be thinking about word count, instead, they should be focused on producing the best story possible, and many books could benefit from a serious reduction in length. The Postman Always Rings Twice, one of my favourite books, is a novella of 38,000 or so words. James M Cain’s first draft was lengthy, over 110,000 words, before he cut the unnecessary. What’s left is enthralling. Sharp. Every word counts - and so do the missing ones. It’s easy to read, to race through to the end, but you find yourself slowing down, admiring the writing.
If books were invented today, they’d be shorter, surely? Our attention spans and limited leisure time wouldn’t entertain something we’d need to invest 12-16 hours of thought in. I’m not suggesting we re-invent the novel, only that there needs to be a good reason to make one 80,000 words when 40,000-50,000 could allow for a better result. When I read a novel by Ian McEwan I often think it runs out of steam too soon. It’s like he’s said what he wants to say and is killing time. Another fine writer that I would prefer novellas from is Howard Jacobson. I mention him because his recent books, and their protagonists, remind me of Alison Moore’s leading middle-aged men. The difference is that Moore’s men know when to leave the building.
Her novellas encourage the reader to slow down, breathe the words in, and have fun with the meaning. In real terms, there’s not enough plot for a novel. The Jacobsonian themes of identity and self-realisation are all present in the pages of He Wants, a book of 192 pages.
One of Moore’s talents is picking small actions and facts that are interesting, in the way a comedian might know what’s funny. Under another writer’s pen the everyday details would be mere condiments but Moore makes meat out of them. Writing is nothing more than selecting the right words and leaving out the wrong ones. Both are conscious decisions, and Moore is a master decision maker.
In He Wants Lewis Sullivan is approaching retirement. He’d taught RE at the local secondary school he’d attended as a boy, and where his father had also worked. He lives, as always, close to where he grew up. His daughter makes daily visits, bringing soup that he doesn’t want. It’s a life of routine. It’s safe. He Wants is a story of how life’s structures and expectations can come to define us. How we can drift through a life we didn’t want, consoling ourselves with what might have beens or living vicariously.
The ‘plot’ concerns the appearance of an old friend that kindles Lewis’s thoughts of freedom. Can courage be the route to getting what he wants?
Look out for the many references to D H Lawrence and his writing.