Sword and Sorcery: Short or Long?

The recent post on naked slave girls has generated a small but steady stream of traffic.  Some of Al Harron’s comments have got me to thinking about some things that I’ll probably address in a follow-up post.  In the meantime, I thought I’d ask a different question at the end of this post.

Much of the classic sword and sorcery, the stuff written by the likes of Leiber,  Howard, Moorcock, and to a lesser degree Kuttner, Wellman, Anderson, Saunders,Wagner, etc. was in the form of short fiction: short stories, novellettes, and some novellas.  Novels were rare in the early days.  By the 1980s, though, when I began reading S&S, it was the other way around.

I realize that was in large part driven by the market.  When pulps were the primary, if not only, source for S&S, then short fiction was what was written.  As the market changed over time, and paperback novels replaced pulps and digests, of course writers would switch to novels.  Some of the authors listed in the previous paragraph wrote equally well at all lengths.

What I’m interested in is the question of which fans of S&S prefer.  It should come as no surprise that Robert E. Howard is my go-to guy for S&S.  He was the first author I read who wrote the stuff.  I’d been reading science fiction for a number of years before I read Howard and was familiar with Kuttner, but his S&S wasn’t available at the time.   At least not to a teenager in semi-rural Texas.  (I started reading Anderson about the same time.)  With the exception of The Hour of the Dragon, Howard’s S&S was of the short variety.  As a result, I tend to prefer S&S novelettes and novellas to novels. 

There are a couple of other reasons as well.  One, I can read a story in one sitting, two at the most if it’s a novella.  This means if I have a block of time free, I can often read more than one.  Novelettes and novellas are, in my not so humble opinion, the ideal form for fiction in general.  They allow for character development, multiple plots, and detail in world building without much of the padding that often accompanies novels.  Given my time constraints these days, there’s another reason I like shorter works.  When it takes me a while to finish something, I tend to get frustrated with it, especially if the delay is due to interruptions or an uncooperative schedule.  That rarely happens with novellas and novelettes.

So, just to satisfy my own curiosity, and to hopefully gather some very unscientific data for a future post, do most of you prefer S&S at the shorter lengths or novels?  Or do you even care? 

19 thoughts on “Sword and Sorcery: Short or Long?

  1. David J. West

    I like it both ways. I enjoy a great short but sometimes I wouldn’t mind spending more time in that world-which is the biggest reason I read what I could get (Conan’s pastiche’s) unfortunately they usually suck-but there are some gems, I did like Wagner’s efforts and John Maddox Roberts had some good ones.

    1. Paul R. McNamee

      Good point. There are definitely s-&-s worlds and characters I would like to spend more time with – really wish Kuttner had done more and/or lengthier tales of Prince Raynor, for example.

  2. Paul R. McNamee

    Not surprisingly, I prefer shorter S&S works. That’s not to say they couldn’t work in novel length – but I am talking “old school” novels like all those yellow-spine DAW books of the 1960s – 1980s. 60-70K tops.

    I don’t think 100K will ever work for S&S. Heck, I don’t think it works, really, for most of the bloated fantasy either. It’s either padded with plot tangents that aren’t needed, or wordage that is superfluous. I enjoy David Drake, for instance. But it’s obvious how he wrote the Isles series. He doubled his output. What would be two tight sentences (which he is more than able to accomplish) become paragraphs. 50K S&S tale becomes 100K fantasy tale.

    I recall reading the original Black Company trilogy – fairly short books by today’s standards (before Cook himself starting writing fat books in that series) – and thinking Cook conveyed more with his villainous 10 Taken in than Robert Jordan managed in thousands (literally!) of pages with his (13?) Forsaken in the Wheel of Time series.

    I really hope e’books get us back to using the natural length of a story rather than publishers padding out to justify costs or let the reader believe they are getting money’s worth because there are more paper pages.

    1. David J. West

      I knew what you meant. While I enjoyed some of Jordan’s Wheel of Time, I found myself wishing he would cut the “dress shopping” as I call it and take all the good stuff from 6 books and just make it 1 novel.

  3. mooklepticon

    I don’t like short stories at all, no matter the content. I like good, long novels with lots of development.

    OTOH, I don’t like SUPER long novels. For example, I love anything written by Brandon Sanderson. However, The Way of Kings is really, really long. 1300 pages, I think? It’s too much. It should be two books, IMO. (Though I still like TWOK and am reading it again, for the 2nd time.)

    My sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. Something between 400 and 800 pages is usually enough. 30 pages just leaves me wanting more. 1300 pages gives too much time between development and resolution, between questions and answers.

  4. The Wasp

    While I’m notionally indifferent to S&S being novel or story length, I find too many of the older novels unsuccessful and too many of the newer ones bloated and overstuffed.
    For example, I like KEW’s Kane novels okay, but compared to the shorts they’re also rans. Same thing with Leiber and Moorcock’s S&S.
    Of course there are tremendous exceptions. Charles Saunders and James Enge leap to mind. Both have written taut, exciting novels that aren’t overburdened with supposed “character development”. I want real character development, not the sort that feels ladled on only to up the page count. And I totally agree with you that Cook did it beautifully in the earlier Black Co. books. I love Paul McNamee’s comment about stories’ natural length. Even Dicken’s “Bleak House” didn’t need to exceed 1000 pages.
    What’s really working for me these days are the shorts I’m finding in the on-line magazines and anthologies like “Return of the Sword”. I keep scanning the horizons for the great new S&S novel. One day it’s bound to appear.

  5. Charles Gramlich

    I believe the Novella is generally the single best length for fiction. I like my S & S a bit shorter in most cases, although it depends. But between a short story and a novella. I find most long novels in S & S to be too long and padded. David Gemmell has some good ones that aren’t.

  6. Keith

    Great discussion, guys. Thanks for your comments.

    Some of my thoughts in no particular order.

    Paul, you’re not the first person to mention electronic publishing heralding a return to the natural length of a story. A number of years ago I heard Neil Gaiman discuss editing an anthology; one of the things he said word processing technology had done was lead to story bloat. He saw a lot of 5K word stories in 8K word manuscripts. I recall a quote from James Gunn that the novelette was the perfect length for science fiction, and I think novelette to novella is best. At least that’s what I prefer.

    I read a huge number of paperbacks as a teen that were between 200 and 250 pages, not all of them published by DAW, but a good number. I still look for that length in second hand shops. They can provide an evening or two of entertainment without requiring a huge time commitment. Today’s writers can learn a lot by studying those authors.

    Like the Wasp, I’m also waiting for a great S&S novel. It may be out there, but so far I haven’t found it. Of course I can’t read everything. I still have the last 4 books in the Black Company series, as well as KEW’s Kane novels. I’ve read a number (but not all) of the shorter works, likewise Leiber’s Fafherd and the Gray Mouser tales. They are one the agenda for hopefully the next year.

    Good character development happens as the characters react to the situations they find themselves in rather than padding showing their inner emotional life. While that reaction can include thoughts and emotions, I think words and actions can say as much or more about a character than pages describing thought and emotions. I have to wonder if there is a gender bias at work in how men and women writers do character development. Do men show character development more through action and women through emotions, or is it about the same? (Not that I’m trying to generate controversy or anything.)

    I’ve not attempted Jordan, Erickson, or Drake’s Isle series because of length. I just don’t want to invest the time it would take to finish. I’m not sure I could stay interested with my time considerations. Too many other titles crying out for my attention. Maybe when I retire.

    As far as world building goes, one of the reasons the Hyborian Age feels so real is that we see bits and pieces of it up close in the Conan tales. Mooklepticon makes a point I knew someone would about the immersive aspect of novels, but Charles has a good counterpoint about padding. Howard, between his essay “The Hyborian Age” and the individual stories, gave us a wonderfully detailed world that only takes up three medium thick volumes.

    And Paul, I agree with you about wishing that Kuttner had written more Prince Raynor stories. (Links to my reviews of Prince Raynor and the Elak stories are on the sidebar.) The Elak stories have some wonderfully weird scenes in them, but the Prince Raynor stories are more mature and polished, with a bit more of a Howard tone to them.

  7. Chap O'Keefe

    Keith, Marvin Kaye is planning an S&S issue of his revived Weird Tales, but it won’t be appearing until next year. How do I know? He has accepted two longish stories from me. One is set in Clark Ashton Smith’s Averoigne and the other reminded Marv of Fritz Leiber: “a hint of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, though just a little.” Unfortunately, the new WT is not accepting any more submissions: “the inventory is groaningly full.” That seems to be the case for most conventional publishers of pro fiction these days. Yesterday I read the following comment, made anonymously to another fiction blog: “The bottom line to this argument, far as I can see, as a humble novice writer, is that far too many people regard writing as a vanity activity, a need for self-validation, where being published at – literally – any price, is deemed the end goal in itself.”

    1. Keith

      Congratulations on the double sale! I wasn’t aware that WT was going to be publishing a sword and sorcery special issue; I’ll be looking forward to it. I’ve noticed that most pro markets are hard to get into. It would be nice if someone with deeper pockets than me could start a new pro market or two.

    2. Chap O'Keefe

      Wouldn’t it just? At one time I was hoping to develop Black Horse Extra Books into a properly set up paperback line for the western authors as an adjunct to the online Extra magazine run as a promotional exercise for the Hale-published library hardbacks. Then along came the Kindle explosion and that ambition had to be shelved. It looks like the format for all genres of fiction is now going to be the ebook. And as everybody has quickly found out most readers assume that the “food” for their ereader, unlike the device itself, should come free or for 99c only. This bargain price for novels with several hours reading in them is expected to buy not only the occasional, special promotion or an introductory title, but to be the norm for every book in a writer’s list! BTW, the best way to hurry along that WT S&S issue is to let the publishers know there are buyers out there itching to get their hands on it. They have a website with contact details.

  8. Joshua

    When it comes to S&S, I lean a bit toward the shorter side since as you mentioned, so many of the classics wrote in that format (Howard, Moorcock). It’s just what I’m accustomed to.

    However, a good S&S novel is very possible. Cook (my personal fav) proved that with the Black Company. Also, Erikson, Abercrombie, and several others write huge epic fantasy novels that contain very strong elements of S&S. Who doesn’t think that Karsa Orlong is the modern version of Conan?

  9. thedarkman

    I love the short story format; it gives me that old S&S fix hard and fast. I feel a S&S novella or novel should run 150-250 pages and fit in the back pocket of your Levis as God and REH intended. Try that with the latest Game of Thrones home bodybuilding set! I don’t care much for e-books; they don’t yellow and get all musty-smelling after 30 years in a box in the cellar. Give me a beat-up old paperback made out of dead trees, and get the hell outta my way (and yes, I am closer to 50 years old than I am to 45, nowadays).

    1. Keith

      Good points. While I have an addiction to musty-smelling paperbacks, and am only a few years younger than you, I must say that being able to pull up any book or story on an ereader when the urge hits while traveling has a lot to be said for it.

    2. thedarkman

      Well… I must admit that I have a few hundred ebooks and short stories on my I-pod touch, and when I am waiting at the dentist office, or some such hell hole, they are so handy. It is pretty damn convenient, no doubt about it. Just don’t tell anyone, I got a reputation ya know…


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