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.