Monday, 25 November 2013

Are James Bond novels getting longer?

In an interview by Sathnam Sanghera for the Times Magazine in September, William Boyd said that he thought his James Bond book, Solo, “might be the longest Bond novel at 336 pages” ('...pretending he doesn't know this for a fact', Sathnam Sanghera commented). Boyd admitted at the 'Boyd on Bond' event at the Southbank that he hadn't read any continuation Bond novels except Kingsley Amis' Colonel Sun and Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care, and so we can excuse the inaccuracy. In fact, the longest Bond novel is Jeffery Deaver's Carte Blanche, which at 432 pages is almost 100 pages longer than Solo.

Boyd's claim notwithstanding, his comment perhaps reflects a wider view that, certainly by modern standards, Ian Fleming's novels are rather on the short side, possibly even too short to be taken very seriously. Indeed, in his preview of the Designing Bond exhibition in London in July 2012, design critic Stephen Bayley, writing in the Times (2nd July 2012), dismissed the original novels as novellas. But is this fair? Are Fleming's books really so short? Are Bond books increasing in length over time? Let's have a look at some numbers.

I collected data for all of Fleming's books, except Octopussy (a statistical outlier), and all continuation novels, except the novelisations of Pierce Brosnan's Bond films. I chose to ignore several variables that might affect book length, such as font size, pages size, margins and spacing, simply taking instead the number of the last page in the UK first edition hardback. This gave me a dataset of 39 books.

Here are some basic statistics. As stated, the longest Bond book is Carte Blanche. The shortest is John Gardner's Nobody Lives Forever (1986), which is 192 pages long. In fairness to William Boyd, Solo is the second longest book (actually 322 pages). The longest Fleming novel is Goldfinger (1959) at 318 pages, only four fewer than Solo. The shortest Fleming novel is Casino Royale (1953) at 218 pages. Sebastian Faulks' Devil May Care (2008) is within the top quarter with 294 pages, while Kingsley Amis' effort (1968) is roughly in the middle with 255 pages. Raymond Benson's novels are generally on the higher end, his longest being The Man with the Red Tattoo (2002), Doubleshot (2000) and Never Dream of Dying (2001), all being 320 pages in length. The longest Gardner novel is The Man from Barborossa (1991) at 303 pages. The overall mean across the dataset is 262 pages.

The sequence of books produced by Fleming, Gardner and Benson allows some interesting comparison. The mean length of Fleming's novels is 253 pages. This is slightly more than the mean for Gardner's books (241 pages) but somewhat smaller than the value (301 pages) for Raymond Benson's novels. The standard deviations for the books of Fleming and Gardner are also quite similar (27 and 29 pages respectively), but more than that for Benson (25 pages). This suggests that Benson's novels are more consistent in terms of page length, while the books of Fleming and Gardner varied rather more. This is confirmed by the overall range (that of Fleming is 100 pages, compared with 61 for Benson), and the coefficient of variation (standard deviation divided by mean), which standardises groups of data of different size. That for Fleming and Gardner is 0.12, while that for Benson is 0.08.

These values suggested to me that Gardner's novels are practically the same sort of length as Ian Fleming's, but that Raymond Benson's are different; judging by the means, Benson's books are consistently longer. I tested this by first combining into a single list Fleming's and Gardner's books and ranking the books in size order. I could see that the novels were fairly evenly mixed. There was a Gardner, then a Fleming, then two Gardners, followed by two Flemings, four Gardners then a single Fleming, and so on, as if randomly intermixed. When I compared Fleming and Benson, again combining the lists and ranking the books by page length, most of Benson's books were at high end of the list. There were eleven Flemings (out of 13) ranked below the shortest Benson. Evidently Benson's books were generally longer than Fleming's (and no doubt Gardner's too), and a Mann-Whitney test confirmed there there was a significant statistical difference between the lengths of Fleming's and Benson's books.

So while there has been no steady rise during the time that Fleming and Gardner were writing (1953-1996) (it could even be suggested that Gardner deliberately copied the length of the original novels for greater authenticity – his Herbie Kruger novels, for example, are much longer than his Bonds), the continuation novels of Raymond Benson and subsequent authors have been generally longer than earlier novels.

Much of the explanation for this is likely to be cultural, with authors (Gardner excepted) matching, to some extent unwittingly, the length of their Bond books with that of their other works or other contemporary fiction. It is probably true to say that when Fleming was writing, contemporary novels were the same sort of length as his own. Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe books averaged about 250 pages per book. William Boyd's novels are more consistently over 300 pages long. In other words, book length has been driven upwards over time, and authors conform to that trend. Nevertheless, does it really matter? After all, it's not the size of the book that counts, but what's inside it.

10 comments:

  1. I'm happy to see you blog about this. Part of what keeps me from reading the new Bonds are the length. I feel the "Fleming sweep" and the length of his books were perfect as they were. If I want to read a 300-plus-paged book I'll read something like Moby Dick or The Last Temptation of Christ. There's a lot of classic literature out there and I'd rather read something containing characters written by the original creator rather than a franchise book by someone unrelated to the original works. Not to denigrate the Bond books, but they are pulp fiction, and I feel pulp fiction works best when it's a lightning blast, like a punk rock song. Short books, short chapters, I want to keep reading. Big books, long chapters, I've got other things to do.

    Actually, it's quite ironic that in this short-attention-span society in which we live, that movies, books, and television story-arcs get longer and more complex. Even the Mack Bolan books are fat these days, and when the first "Executioner" novel was published 40-plus years ago it was only 188 pages, whereas a 1999 Bolan book was twice this length.

    I have to wonder if society just needs all that excessive detail in order to feel full.


    But anyway, thanks for making this blog. It's my new favorite.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I really appreciate it. I agree with you about the pulp-fiction feel to the Bond books. Fleming himself saw the books as things to read on the plane, so they were never intended to be War and Peace. But still, there has been a general trend towards longer and longer novels. No doubt the rise has been largely imperceptible, but these days readers would feel short-changed with a 180-250 page novel. Thrillers the size of a Jack Reacher novel, or a Tom Clancy, are the now norm, whereas Fleming and Chandler-sized novels were standard in the 1950s and 60s. Mind you, with many people now reading novels digitally, I wonder whether size will cease to be an issue.

      Thanks for reading my blog. Hope you enjoy the other posts.

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  2. I'm enjoying all the articles. Though the movies of course reeled me in as a kid, I'm more of a literary Bond fan these days, so I really appreciate the minutiae you discuss about the books. I even made a "Vesper" once but admit that I didn't really like it until I added sugar. (VERY un-Bondian.)

    The only non-Fleming Bond novel I've read is "Colonel Sun", so which would you suggest be my next? I've had most of the books at one point but traded them in because I never thought I'd actually get around to reading them. I end up just re-reading the originals or the Titan Books reprints of the comic strips.

    I've been thinking of reading Pearson's Bond biography soon (it's been on the shelf for years), and am wading through Rankin's "Ian Fleming's Commandos" trying to find the Fleming parts (which seem to be frustratingly few).

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    1. The continuation novels are quite variable in quality. Icebreaker and Nobody Lives Forever are my favourite of the Gardner novels, and I like Jeffery Deaver's Carte Blanche, but actually I recommend Christopher Wood's novelisations of The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker. He captures the essence of the original novels pretty well.

      Pearson's biography's very good, though I find Andrew Lycett's biography more useful in terms of reference. I enjoyed Rankin's book. Not a lot of Fleming in it, but it's vastly better than Craig Cabell's two accounts of Fleming's war.

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  3. Yeah, I've read Pearson's Fleming biography, but I keep meaning to read his "James Bond: An Authorized Biography of 007". It's interesting that Christopher Wood's novelizations are good, since the movies are so-so (Spy Who Loved Me) and terrible (Moonraker). Even though Moonraker was the first Bond film I ever saw, it's pretty hard to watch these days.

    I enjoyed the Lycett biography, as well, and thanks for steering me clear of Cabell's books.

    Have you read "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier", which features a thinly disguised Bond as a terrible human being?

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    1. Meant to say, thanks for the tip about The Blac Dossier. I'll check it out.

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  4. Yes, even thrillers are longer these days, but surely it's all a case of larger print disguised by/causing higher page numbers and I think that Solo is no exception to that rule. Give me a Fleming any day!

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    1. Larger print and line spaces are definitely a factor, it's true. It's especially noticeable with paperbacks. I thought the Devil May Care paperback was appalling. It was like reading a children's book. Compare that to the old Fleming paperbacks (I'm thinking of the 'Girl on gun' series, but I think it's true for the Pans as well): tight line spacing, small print size, and chapters that start immediately below the end of the preceding one - on the same page! Very economical, and somehow more satisfying to read.

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  5. Yes, John Gardner's Role of Honour 1980s paperback is appallingly printed, too. Just like a children's book as you say.

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New 2014, Edward!

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    1. Sorry for the late reply. Hope you had a great Christmas, and all the best for 2014.

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