How long should a book be?
a blog post by the excellent Writers' Workshop giving guidelines for the word counts found in different types of book, and there was this article in The Guardian about the comments Ian McEwan made on how "very few relly long novels earn their length".
The Writers' Workshop recommend most adult fiction books to be between 75 000 and 120 000 words. These are generous boundaries. When I was writing The Art of Letting Go, the guidelines I found suggested 80 000 to 100 000 for general fiction, with the top end of the range more usual for crime, and up to 120 000 for fantasy or history. (The Art of Letting Go is 87 000 words - 250 pages - if you were wondering).
There will always be exceptions, of course. Some of the most famous classics - War and Peace, Ulysses, The Pillars of the Earth - are much longer than this.* One of the top books of the last year, The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt is a whopping 880 pages. A few years ago I read the longest work of fiction ever written in the English language, A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, and I loved it. But here's the point - an extremely long novel, has to be extremely good. I think this was what Ian McEwan was saying.
I am willing to bet that most agents get regular submissions from people who have written either historical or fantasy books - probably "the first in The Moon Rider Trilogy" or something like that (because everybody seems to want to write a trilogy) - which run to 200 000 words or more. The trouble is they are unlikely to have earned their length. "Epic" should not be a synonym for "badly edited and undisciplined writing". Of course, if you are an amazing writer you will still get a contract, but agents and editors already get 99% more submissions than they are going to take on; they are looking for reasons to reject you.
I have enjoyed many long books, but in most there have been sections I could've done without - battle plans in War and Peace, parliamentary debates in A Suitable Boy. On the whole, if books are going to break the word count "rules", I prefer them to be shorter.
What do you think? Are big books going out of fashion except as The Great American Novel, as Ian McEwan says? Do they put you off? Or do you like to get your teeth into something epic?
*There are exceptions the other way too. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes won the Booker Prize despite being only 150 pages.