There’s a Long, Hard Book That Needs Reading*

One of the trends we’ve been seeing in the last few decades is the movement towards longer novels. For instance, Louise Penny’s forthcoming Armand Gamache novel is listed at 488 pages. Michael Connelly’s forthcoming The Dark Hour clocks in at 400 pages – certainly not a record-setter for length, but still, quite long. I’m sure you could all list many other books you’ve read lately (or that are on your TBR) that are at least that long and probably much longer. The examples I’ve just given aren’t at all unusually long anymore.

An interesting post from Bill at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan has got me thinking about why this trend is happening. What’s behind the movement towards longer books? Bill was discussing William Deverell’s Stung, the latest in his series of legal thrillers featuring Arthur Beauchamp. That new release is listed at 592 pages. Interestingly, Deverall’s first Beauchamp novel, Trial of Passion, was also a little long, at 425 pages. But that said, his latest is over 100 pages longer.

One thing that occurred to me is that there used to be a time when long books were the order of the day. The hardcover version of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, for instance, is 996 pages. William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair is 720 pages (I know, that’s not a crime novel per se, but it does, I think, make the point). The hardcover version of Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is 626 pages. When those books were published, of course, there weren’t televisions, radios or other modern electronics. It wasn’t uncommon for people to read aloud to family and friends for entertainment. And people would follow along with a story for weeks as they heard a chapter or two a day.

Another thing to consider is that some of those older stories were originally published in serial form, so that fans would eagerly buy up copies of whatever magazine was publishing the novel. Bleak House, to give just one example, was originally a 20-episode serial. And Collins’ The Moonstone was originally a serial in Dickens’ magazine All the Year Round. So, there’s an argument that these books are longer because they were intended to be digested in smaller doses, much like today’s television series. And the magazine publishers were happy with longer stories because it meant more sales for a longer period of time.

But times changed. There are certainly plenty of longer novels among Golden Age crime fiction. But in the main, they were arguably not as long. Many of Agatha Christie’s novels have fewer than 300 pages. Ellery Queen’s Calamity Town is 286 Pages. The hardcover version of John Dickson Carr’s Hag’s Nook comes to 161 pages. There are, of course, hundreds of other examples as well.

There could be any number of reasons for this change to shorter novels. I don’t have data to support this possibility, but perhaps the advent of radio (later television), more mobility (because of autos), and other entertainment (like the cinema) meant that people didn’t spend as many hours at a time reading. It could also be that many (by no means all!) Golden Age novels had more of a focus on the mystery – the puzzle – than on the development of characters. So, it’s possible that books didn’t need to be as long to tell the story. I’m sure you have your own thoughts on this, and I’d love to hear them.

In the last years, it seems books have been getting longer again. One possible explanation is that readers want to feel that they’re getting their money’s worth when they buy a book. So, they want more substance in their books, and there’s pressure for authors to provide that substance.

There’s another possibility, too. Today’s readers want books with richly developed characters, solid sub-plots, and a strong sense of place. All of that requires detail, and, therefore, greater length. Editors and publishers are, of course, aware of what the public is buying. They see that novels with more details are selling, so they look for more detail/character development/sub-plots from authors. Of course, that has to be balanced with the need to keep a story going at a solid pace, and focus on the plot and characters. Even readers who enjoy longer books don’t want that length to be just ‘padding.’

I don’t have definitive answers on why books have gotten longer (or, longer again, if you like). It is most likely a combination of factors that have all worked together to make for this trend. But those are just my thoughts. I’d love to know yours. Have you noticed this trend? What do you think is behind it? If you’re a writer, do you feel an obligation to make your books longer?

Thanks very much, Bill, for the inspiration. It’s a fascinating topic, and I’m glad that you brought it up in your post. Now, folks, may I suggest your next blog stop be Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan? Fine reviews, interesting commentary, and some fascinating insights from Bill’s communication with authors await you there.

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks’ Long Hard Book.

 


20 thoughts on “There’s a Long, Hard Book That Needs Reading*

  1. An excellent question, and yes, I have thoughts.

    Even in Dickens’ time, his books were unusually long. Most of the time, only the publishers of the very best-selling authors would bear the expense of printing and binding such large books, and the small percentage of the public who bought books had to consider price, so for a publisher to profit, either a large print run or high unit price was necessary. For the big names such as Dickens, both were possible. Also in those earlier times less total books were printed, for a smaller audience, and as luxury items, books could be substantial in page count and price.

    As printing technology got sophisticated, it became cheaper to print a book. This meant more pages for about the same cost, and greater sales of smaller books, especially when a lot of genre fiction began being published in pocketbook format. Paperbacks we’re cheaper had less pages, and except for blockbuster novels that only came as hardcovers, the book buying public became used to the price-value-page count formula of softcover books. Thus came the expectation that more pages, and thus higher price, needed to be justified by the content. That’s where your character & setting argument comes in.

    The book buyers became used to an approximate cost for an average-sized book, that average being most often between 225 and 300 pages. As the cost of paper and ink rose, publishers began to deal with expectations of higher price needed to be justified by higher page count.

    I’m not convinced that bigger, fatter books are better books, but it does seem these days they’re how publishers justify the price. I’ve read many 400+ page books that needed editing and would have been better for it at 350 pages instead. And indeed, it seems editing for length and leanness is becoming a lost art.

    And, don’t even get me started on ebooks, their cost, quality and value. I recently bought a trade paperback because it was cheaper than the ebook!

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    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Richard. Thanks also for putting this in the context of the development of the printing business. Those changes have absolutely had an impact, as you point out, And, yes, changes in the cost of printing materials have affected the length of books, too.

      You make a solid point that publishers justify the cost of books by producing longer books. But that doesn’t always mean that a longer book is a better-written book. Like you, I’ve read plenty of long books that would have been so much better if they’d been trimmed down, and there were more of a focus on the story. For me, a 450-page novel is not more enjoyable than a 300-page novel just by dint of its length. In fact, I usually prefer the shorter novel unless there is a compelling need for the length (and there is in some few cases).

      And about e-books? I’ve noticed, too, how expensive they’ve gotten! It’s getting to be a real issue, and it’s making me wonder if people will stop thinking they’re the best value for the money. If they do, then I wonder what that will do to the e-book market.

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  2. I enjoyed this post, Margot. I think the serialization of many novels in the 19th century had a lot to do with them turning out to be so long when compiled. I’m not sure what the reason for longer novels would be in our own era, except perhaps that the Harry Potter books started this trend.

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    1. Thanks, Natori. I’m glad you enjoyed the post. You make an interesting point about the length of the Harry Potter series. Interestingly enough, Rowling’s Cormoran Strike novels, which she wrote as Robert Galbraith, are also long. The first one, The Cuckoo’s Calling, is 464 pages. They’ve gotten longer, with the forthcoming Troubled Blood at 933 pages.

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  3. I much prefer shorter crime novels, all things being equal. Some long novels are wonderful, of course: Middlemarch, Mansfield Park – you really inhabit the world of those novels – but my feeling is that it’s not so good for crime. There I like novels I can read in a few hours with plenty of pace and tightly plotted. And as for my own novels – they always come out at 75,000 words! It seems to be my natural length and luckily it is what my publisher has asked for.

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    1. You make a really interesting point, Christine! Perhaps part of whether longer novels are enjoyable or not has to do with the genre. I’ve read some excellent long novels, and I’ve found that longer historical novels (if they’re done well!) are more enjoyable than very long crime novels, as a rule. Hmm…. that’s good ‘food for thought.’ I think it’s interesting, too, that you’ve hit on a length that works for your own writing. I’m glad you and your publisher have worked that out. And 75,000 words is a good length; long enough to tell the story with some solid character development, but not overburdened.

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  4. Ha, well, you know my views on the longer crime novels of today! It’s not the length of the book per se that bothers me – it’s whether or not they’re too long for their content, and I’m afraid in my view most of them are. Dickens would have a zillion characters, several settings, various sub-plots, etc. Too often now what we get is a focus on a tiny group of characters with a ton of repetition, both within the book or within the series, and padding about not very interesting stuff, often relationship issues of the detective, or worse, descriptions of their drinking or drug abuse. I just finished one that ran to over 500 pages, and if the repetition within it had been cut even by half, it would have removed 100 pages, and another 50 to remove the tedious descriptions of what taking drugs feels like (and yet another 50 if all the foul language had been edited out 😉 ). The likes of Sansom on the other hand – interesting setting and characters, lots of historical background and detail – I’m quite happy that they’re as long as they are, because there’s enough content to fill the space. It always worries me, to be honest, when I hear authors focusing on word count, since I feel this is part of the problem. The story should be as long as it needs to be and then stop. If that’s Maigret/novella length, fine – if it’s Sansom/doorstop length, also fine. But the ones that should be 300 pages and are stretched out to 400 or even 500, no thanks. I assume the publishers must know what they’re doing (or ought to), but I often wonder if the huge upsurge in vintage re-releases is a response to many readers, like myself, being heartily tired of the contemporary style of over-padded crime novel.

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    1. I do, indeed, know your views on the length of many of today’s crime novels, FictionFan! And you really do make a strong point about what is actually in those pages. For an author such as Dickens (or Sansom, or some others), that extra length includes character development , sub-plots, etc. that further the story. I like Rutherfurd’s historical novels in that way, too. It’s when a story repeats itself, or goes into exhaustive detail, that the length becomes a problem. I can only imagine the novel you just finished reading; I’ve read stories like that, too…

      I’m glad you mentioned word count, actually. On the one hand, it can be helpful if you’re an author. For instance, some publishers will not accept manuscripts with fewer than/more than a certain number of words. On the other hand, as you point out, some stories need to be longer; some need to be shorter. it really does depend on the story the author is creating. I like the idea of letting the story itself determine just how long it will be, rather than some preconceived notion that 500 pages is the right length for a novel. I don’t think there is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ story length.

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  5. Another thing about the long novels, especially in hardcover, is the size and weight. They’re not comfortable to hold and read! But then we get back to ebooks… and that conversation. Sigh.

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    1. You make a solid point, Richard. The size and weight of longer books is an issue, especially when one’s on the road. But, as you say, ebooks have their own challenges, don’t they?

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  6. Margot: Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate them. Your post and the comments have been interesting. I had not thought about the length of Victorian novels. For those who think of the past as a simpler time such novels establish life was just as complicated decades and centuries ago. I agree that historical novels can sustain length. Your comment brought to mind my recent re-reading of Tai-Pan by James Clavell. While over 1,000 pages it was a grand saga with intricate interlocking stories. I am with Christine that crime fiction is best done in shorter lengths. Solving a mystery rather than creating an epic is the purpose of crime fiction. Authors with lots to say can create series in which they build characters and settings better than is possible in even a Tai-Pan length book. I do think best selling authors can pick their length and too many choose long and longer.

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    1. It’s my pleasure, Bill, to mention your blog, and I appreciate the inspiration. I think you’re right about earlier times. We may think of them as simpler, but all one need do is read a novel of the day to see just how complicated life was in the past. And it is interesting how historical novels can be much longer than other novels, and still be engaging all the way through. Everyone’s different, but I’ve found Edward Rutherfurd’s and James Michener’s work to be good examples of how that can work. As you say, Clavell’s written some excellent long novels, too. It is different with crime fiction, where the aim is different. Like you, I generally prefer my crime fiction to be shorter and more focused. And as for best-selling authors, I’ve noticed, too, that many are choosing longer and longer books. As far as crime novels go, I’m not sure that’s the best choice.

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  7. Interesting post, Margot! I used to devour long books when I was younger, and I must admit I think the reading stamina can flag a little when you age. I still love them though, particularly the Russian classics, but the timing has to be right for me to immerse myself. I think, too, it does depend on the kind of book – I’m not sure that crime always works well over a really long book, and I personally prefer 200-250 pages for a crime story. As you say, the focus can go on a mystery novel if it’s too long. But for an involving classic I’m all for chunksters!

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    1. Thanks, KBR! You may very well have a point about the reading stamina. I used to immerse myself in chunksters, too, when I was younger. I do that less often now, although I still do like to revisit some old ‘friends’ at times. It’s interesting that there’s a sort of consensus here about crime novels. In the main, they don’t do well as long books. They’re more effective as shorter novels. Perhaps the pacing and focus needed for a good crime novel is better suited for a shorter book? Whatever the truth, there are definitely times when chunkster length is right for a novel. I think it’s down to what sort of length works best to tell a particular story.

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  8. Definitely a subject to ponder, Margot. Maybe it did have something to do with people reading aloud and sharing the story with the family. While I enjoy shorter length books, I also love books that give me hours and hours of reading pleasure. I’m delighted both are available to us to suit our reading mood. Your post also made me think about movies, a few of those are beginning to get longer too.

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    1. I agree, Mason, that it’s very nice to have books that are shorter and books that are longer, so that we can find books that suit our moods. And after all, every story is different and needs a different sort of length. You make an interesting point, too, about films. There, too, some films are best kept to a shorter length, and some work well as epics.

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  9. I’ve noticed this with books and movies. I hadn’t thought about why until I read your post. I never think about length when I write.The story is the story, and I feel if I have to go back to make it longer, it can only be filler. I recently read an Oprah Book Club pick and although the writer is undeniably talented and writes beautifully, after a while I found myself thinking – there are just too many darn words in this book, get on with it! Blasphemy, I know.

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    1. I don’t think it’s blasphemy at all, Anthony. As you say, the story is the story. Sometimes a story needs a lot of words to tell it; sometimes it doesn’t. So I can see why you focus mostly on telling the story when you write. Number of words isn’t as important – at least, not if the story is to be engaging the whole way through.

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  10. A lot of the time for me Margot, less is more. Anything under 200 pages is perfect. I will read longer books and enjoy them, but I kind of think I could read 2 shorter in the same time and often choose that route. I have avoided buying some books because of length, probably anything over 400 pages needs serious thought. I did read a house brick earlier this year, Robert Littell’s The Company at about 1280 pages, but I took a leisurely approach to that one.
    I suppose the authors will take the time necessary to develop and tell their stories.

    I did see a post on Facebook with a reader complaining about an intro at the back of a Michael Connelly book for another of his which ran to 76 pages. Who even needs that much of a preview? Different issue, but it does add to a books overall length. I’m a bit OCD and have to read extracts and acknowledgements, pretty much everything except the copyright page!

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    1. You’re not alone, Col. I think a lot of people prefer shorter books. I know I think carefully before I invest in a really long book. It’s got to be a book I’m almost 100% sure I’ll love. I remember your great review of The Company. I thought at the time that I wasn’t sure I’d want to invest in that long a book, but it does seem good. I may look for it…

      You make an interesting point about added material, too. I’ve seen ‘sneak peaks’ at the end of many books, but never one that was 76 pages long! I think that would make me wonder, too… And as for reading the other things like Forewards, Introductions and so on, I do that, too. It gives me more of a sense of a book. But as you say, it does add to the story’s length.

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