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Heavy Words: What People Are Saying About Novel Length

Heavy Words - What People Are Saying About Novel LengthThere has been some discussion recently about the appropriate length of a novel.  This rather odd topic became current following the selection of Eleanor Catton’s “The Luminaries” as this year’s winner of the Man Booker prize.  The fact that this book, at 832 pages, was the longest to have won the prize provoked much discussion about whether a book can be too long.

This whole discussion was continued at the recent Birmingham Literary Festival.  During one of the sessions, Paradise Lost, where 4 authors spoke and read from their work, one of the authors, Richard House, was questioned closely over his novel “The Kills”, and why it was so long.  He pointed that it was four books in one and the publisher thought it would be easier to market it that way.

However, the discussion continued and concluded on the note that the size of the book would discourage its purchase.  This left the author and to be honest me a little non-plussed.  I do understand that size is important, especially if you are packing for a holiday.  However, the assumption that there is a number of pages beyond which a novelist shouldn’t go if he/she doesn’t want to physically overwhelm the reader, regardless of what those pages contain, is a little depressing.  It almost seems to suggest that books should be weighed rather than read.

The whole argument seems a little bizarre, surely a good book has the right number of pages, whether it be 100 or 1000?  And are there really people out there who would simply not read a book, no matter how good, because it’s too heavy?  To be honest I have abandoned heavyweight books before, but only because they weren’t very good.

Thinking about it I did actually abandon “Les Miserables”; I was hitchhiking around Israel at the time, it was hot and the Glums were getting me down, and it was heavy.  I admit it, I left the book in the Negev Desert, next to the side of the road, maybe it made someone’s day, it certainly lifted my mood and eased the weight of the rucksack on my back.

I can honestly say that the length of a book is never my main consideration when deciding what to read, rather it is the possibility of where a story will take me.  In a way there is a certain pleasure in taking on a longer read because you know that if it’s really good you will become lost in it to the extent that it can replace the real world.

Ultimately, the number of pages is not a sensible way to judge a novel, I can think of many short novels or novellas that have defeated me.  The last was “Notes from the Underground” by that loveable scamp Dostoyevsky, it’s only around 100 pages long, but after 20 pages I got the drift that there was a little bit of paranoia at play and even if I did make it to the end there wasn’t going to be a surprise happy ending.

So here are my recommendations for a great long novel and a perfectly formed short story. Henry Fielding’s “Tom Jones” weighs in at a hefty 700 odd pages but flies by like a drunken winter’s evening in the company of your oldest friends.  Down at the other end is anything by Raymond Carver, but particularly “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” which packs more punch in 16 pages than most novels.

Ultimately that old saying has it –  ”never mind the width, feel the quality!”

What’s your view, do long novels discourage you or do you look forward to getting lost in all those pages? Does the weight of a book wear you down?

About Mark At The Word...

Once upon a time, when Mark was 8, he was asked to read a story he'd written about robots destroying the world to the whole school. He read that story, everyone laughed in the right places and a writer was born.

When not writing Mark reads to escape the many frustrations that life has created for him.

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  • Rod Griffiths December 5, 2013, 6:33 pm

    What would be fascinating to know is where the notion about novel length comes from and who generated it. Is it based on any decent research or was it dreamed up by agents or publishers? In my, albeit limited experience, people differ, some love those doorstop blockbusters, others wouldn’t pick one up if you paid them.

    J K Rowling obviously liked to play the field, each Harry Potter being longer than the one before. Was that because her readers were getting older or because she sold so many books that no one had the nerve to edit the later ones?

    • Mark at the Word December 7, 2013, 11:24 am

      Not sure where the concept of novel length comes from, for example an early English novel like “The Pilgrim’s Progress” is around 270 pages. I wonder whether it’s linked to the length of plays – I’m not really an expert on the history of novels, does anyone out there have any suggestions?

      Stephen King said somewhere that a short story was generally a piece of writing of less than 20,000 words, a novella 20,000 – 40,000 and above 40,000 is moving into the novel territory. I suppose there’s a perception, as with most things, that more pages or words represents better value for money if you’re spending £10 on a book.

      And certain books do retain an almost mythical quality because of their length, “War and Peace” for example, if you’ve read it you have some sort of intellectual cache, regardless of whether it was fun or not. I do wonder, like climbing Everest, whether reaching the summit is the thing rather than enjoying the journey. And to prove the point I’m proud to say that I have read “War and Peace” and it was OK but “Anna Karenina” was better.