Friday, March 21, 2008

Form and Function

Reading COMMUNIPATH WORLDS, the omnibus edition of Suzette Haden Elgin's Coyote Jones novels, reminded me of how short mass market SF books used to be. Three full-length novels fit into one average-size paperback! Reflecting on the phenomenon of how the typical mass market novel has lengthened since the 1960s and early 70s led me to speculate about the influence of a book's format on its content. Think of the “triple-decker” novels of the nineteenth century, heavy on long descriptions and exposition. Nowadays, for instance, greater length allows for more complex plots and additional subplots. And might publishers' expectation of longer books in SF and fantasy lead or contribute to greater focus on character development? E-publishing accommodates books of widely varying lengths, from stand-alone short stories and novellas (thus offering markets for short works independent of traditional periodicals and anthologies) to novels of much higher word count than a paperbound book could economically comprise. How have these variations in length affected plot and characterization? Moreover, e-publishers from the beginning have embraced types of fiction major publishers eschewed as too unconventional, unclassifiable, or simply belonging to a currently "unpopular" genre. (Before paranormal romance soared in popularity, its fans knew they could find the desired books online. Recently, Regency romance fans are discovering the same source for their fiction fix.) Hence, e-pubs pioneered the cross-genre fiction trend that has triggered the explosion of new subgenres such as paranormal romance and urban fantasy.

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