12 September, 2014

How Long is Too Long?

How long should a book be?

Two articles on book length have recently come to my attention. There was 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.


10 comments:

  1. Big books make me less likely to tackle them. I've done a few, but tend to stay away. It'd really have to interest me to invest that time.

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    1. I'm the same. I'll tackle them only if I think it's going to be worth not reading two or three other books in the same length of time!

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  2. I agree absolutely with Ian McEwan. There are very few huge tomes that I haven't felt could be cut by a third without losing much of importance, although there are obviously exceptions as you point out. Although he was talking about films, it reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock's dictum that the length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder! (It's off-topic, but when I was looking the quotation up to make sure I'd got it right I came across another: "If it's a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what's going on." I was on a long flight, watching his brilliant film The Rear Window with no sound available - and he was absolutely right!)

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    1. Yeah, I can think of a few books that could've been cut by about a third too. Which is a shame if the rest is great as "long" is not the first word I'd want somebody to think of when it came to my book!

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  3. I must admit to regarding very long books with a sceptical eye. It's not that I've waded through a great number of disappointing 'epics', more that I love variety and unless a book is good enough to hold my interest throughout, I'll start to get anxious about all the different books I'm not reading.

    I've just embarked on David Mitchell's latest, which tips the scales at just over 600 pages and so is one of the longest books I've picked up for quite some time. So far so good, but it's had very mixed reviews so it'll be interesting to see whether I make it all the way to the end without looking longingly at all the alternatives on my bookshelves.

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    1. That's exactly my problem - there are too many books in the world already without taking up my reading time with a mammoth one. On the other hand, I don't want to miss out. I don't think I've read any David Mitchell, but I've been meaning to. What should I start with?

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    2. Ooh, now there's a tough question! I've really enjoyed them all - but which one you'd like most is hard to guess. It probably depends on how tricksy you like your structure. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Black Swan Green are the most straightforward in the sense that the story starts on page 1 and progresses through until the end. Number9Dream is a little more complex, with various flights of fancy contained in a mostly linear story. Cloud Atlas has its famous 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1 structure, while Ghostwritten and The Bone Clocks read more like a succession of linked novellas where characters from one appear in the next and the overall story moves forward in time.

      To be honest I'd recommend having a look at a few of them and seeing what takes your fancy. I really think you'll enjoy whatever you pick!

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    3. Well thanks for narrowing it down! ;) I think The Bone Clocks is about to be dramatised on Radio Four. Cloud Atlas intrigues me though. I might go for that one.

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  4. I think you put it succinctly, Chloe, when you said: an extremely long novel, has to be extremely good. I think 'epic' novels (in size and possibly content) are a class of their own, demanding both more commitment from a reader and bearing greater responsibility for satisfying them.

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    1. With great length comes great responsibility? I agree. If I wade through a huge long book and I didn't like it, then I'm annoyed. Except in the case of Ulysses. I don't know anybody who managed to finish Ulysses, so it made me feel satisfied just to reach the end of the last page!

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