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Friday 15 February 2019

Fifty-page 'bookeens' is novel idea

Visionary: Julian Gough
Visionary: Julian Gough

John Boland

Irish author Julian Gough has seen the future of books – and they're a mere 20,000 words in length.

Writing in the Guardian, the Galway-born and Berlin-based novelist praises Amazon's 2011 launch of the Kindle Single, which aimed to encourage "compelling ideas expressed at their natural length" – somewhere between 5,000 and 30,000 words, in the view of Amazon.

Gough regarded this as a "call to revolution" in a publishing world where only a couple of decreed lengths are deemed viable for books. Or as Gough put it: "Your perfect story is 50 pages long – or 70 or 100? Good luck getting that printed anywhere."

Well, Colm Tóibín succeeded with The Testament of Mary, but he's the exception to the general rule that traditional publishers like novellas even less than they like short stories. But writers, Gough insists, do like them and he cites Kindle Singles currently being written by Amy Tan, Chuck Palahniuk and Margaret Atwood – the latter's erotic science fiction novel to be issued in a series of Singles.

And among recent Singles are Niall Ferguson's Always Right, which is a short biography of Margaret Thatcher; and Stephen King's essay Guns which, at 8,000 words, was considered too long for publication in magazines and newspapers but which immediately found a home on Kindle.

Gough favours the encouragement of such shorter works of literature (he calls them "bookeens") and I do, too, whether they be long, short stories (Joyce's The Dead would have made an ideal Single), novellas (Tolstoy's great Hadji Murad or Maeve Brennan's The Visitor) or discursive essays in the manner of George Orwell, Ian Hamilton or Joan Didion.

Short, in other words, is good, especially in a world where you're confronted by 800-page novels, biographies and histories and you wonder how many of them warrant the time and effort you're being asked to expend on them.

Oh, and writers of such digital miniatures get a bigger share of the profits, too, which should give them further reason to demonstrate that less can be more.

Irish Independent

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