How long is too long when it comes to a book? If you’re an avid reader, you might protest there’s no such thing, but if we’re honest we all have an “ideal" book length in mind.
As a professional reader and as someone who reads a lot for pleasure, I love a fiction book that comes in at around 300 to 350 pages. And discussions with friends and colleagues - both big readers and not - show that bracket comes up a lot.
That’s not to say I don’t read longer or shorter books or that I automatically dislike books that don’t match my “ideal” book length. But it does mean that I, like many other readers, am obsessed with commenting on a book’s size. You know how it goes: “I’ve got this book on my to be read pile but it’s 800 pages so I don’t know when I’ll find the time.” Or perhaps: “You need to read this book, the characters are great and guess what? It’s only 220 pages.”
But where did this obsession with book length - particularly when it comes to long novels - come from? And is there really such a thing as an ideal length for a book?
Finding the 'sweet spot'
On first exploration, the answer to the latter question seems to be ‘yes’. Ask Google ‘how long should a book be’ and the most popular search results nearly all say there’s a maximum of 100,000 words, with minimums varying from 60,000 to 90,000. Those figures (dependent on font and font size of course) give us that oft-cited length of 300 to 350 pages.
Literary agent Juliet Mushens of Mushens Entertainment says that 80,000 to 100,000 words is often given as the standard for adult novels, and much of what authors are trying to do can be done within that word count.
"I do think one of the reasons we get hung up on this word count is because it's almost where there's a sweet spot, in terms of giving us enough world building, but also making sure that the pace doesn't slow at any point,” says Mushens.
"So in a crime novel, you can kind of pull all the twists and turns, the suspense, the kind of red herrings, together in around 90,000 words. In 150,000 words, on the other hand, it often could read like, 'Okay, well, we've got so many subplots or you know, I've kind of forgotten about this red herring, because 50,000 words happened without them being featured’.”
The emergence of leisure reading
Thinking and talking about the length of a book isn’t a new thing; in the early days of printing there were some very big books, such as collection of sermons, says Helen Smith, professor at the University of York. Moving into the 18th century, the novel became popular among the middle class.
“One of the stories that's been told about [that period] is that there was an emergence of leisure reading as a really self conscious and increasingly middle class pursuit,” says Smith. “So there’s a sense, with big long [novels] like Henry Fielding, that these are people who conspicuously have the time to read, have the ability to just not be working, not be doing all those things that make it hard sometimes to embrace a long book.”
Smith’s colleague Dr Alexandra Kingston-Reese says that our reactions to long novels now are precisely because we might not have the time to embrace them the way our 18th century counterparts had.
“For myself, it does come down to time,” she says. "I suppose the long novels that we're talking about are kind of quite complex, quite literary long novels. It isn't necessarily the kind of novel that ticks along in terms of plot. It's the kind of novel that tends to spend a lot of time on description, it tends to spend a lot of time on interiorisation.
“And so it does require a different kind of attention from us and and when we're time poor, actually sitting down and really concentrating for long periods of time in order to get into something like that can be really challenging.”
“Reading fulfils many needs, but generally I think it should be pleasurable and entertaining,” says author Sarra Manning, who is also literary editor at Red Magazine. “I really can understand why big books can put off certain types of readers. I’m a really quick reader and love reading, but it is a bit of a leap of faith if it’s a writer that you haven’t heard of or it’s been up for some literary prizes and it’s 700 pages. It’s a big commitment. People shouldn’t be put off by big books, but I can understand why they would be."
Big books may require a bigger time commitment, but if the pacing is spot on a book flies by regardless of size.
"Marian Keyes’ last book was 650 pages, and when I get a Jilly Cooper in , I know that's going to be big, but they’re so readable that I don't get tense and think 'oh, my gosh, this is gonna take me ages’, because they’re quick reads,” Manning says.
“It’s that thing of readability. You can have a Jilly Cooper book and you’ll read it quickly and enjoy it, but then you can have a 200 page book that’s quite a challenging read, it can feel longer and it can take you more time because you’ve got to read it in a very different way.”
Narratives grand in scale
But it’s not just in commercial or literary fiction where we find big books; fantasy and science fiction are full of novels that pass the 500 page mark. And I’m not the only one that admits to being far more forgiving of a 900-page fantasy novel than I am of a 900-page literary novel.
“You can go longer in fantasy, I think because there's more world building expected there's a bit more leeway given,” says Mushens. “In contemporary fiction you don't have to have the same word count dedicated to world building and it’s not so epic in breadth.
“But in fantasy it’s normally like 'the fate of the empire!’ or a huge massive quest, so you almost are allowed those extra words.
"So in Game of Thrones, you've got to introduce us to all the intricacies, the history, the backdrop, how magic works, where the dragons come from, kind of all of this stuff. But also it's so epic in scope that it's literally 'the fate of kingdoms, but also the fate of the world, that I think it feels bigger, which means that the plot needs to have more space."
It’s not just the expectation of world building that prepares us for a bigger book when it comes to certain genres, it’s also the way we refer to them.
“In genres like science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction, people are prepared for big narratives,” says author and academic J.A. Mensah. "We have terms like 'historical saga' and 'space opera' which prepare readers for narratives that are grand in scale.”
Mensah says that length can be a good thing when it comes to characters you follow "along a vast story arc, often over multiple books”.
"There is something very satisfying about following a character and discovering in book two or three something about them which illuminates everything that has come before,” she says.
"I'm thinking of NK Jemisin's Broken Earth series and an extended metaphor she uses concerning unconscious bias within minority communities; the conceit only becomes clear towards the end of the second book. I don't want to give any spoilers away, but when I first read it, it absolutely floored me. I don't know if it could have had the same impact if I hadn't already followed certain characters over so many pages.”
Just a fiction?
But, after all the discussion, does finding out a book is huge really put us off reading it? Although there is a “standard” length for adult fiction books, statistics show that we’re definitely buying books that are both far longer and far shorter than that 300 to 350 page length many of us have in mind.
Of the 1,000 bestselling books in 2019, according to Nielsen, there were 348 adult fiction books. The largest of these was 5,264 pages - thankfully it wasn’t a single book, but a box set of all seven novels from George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Just 29 of the 348 books came in between 301 and 350 pages; 92 were between 351 and 400 pages. And a whopping 202 were over 401 pages.
We might like talking about book length, but the numbers don’t lie: we’re clearly buying and reading very long books. As Mensah says: "We consume books, regardless of their size, because they captivate us and compel us to read on. The idea of the 'perfect length' itself is a work of fiction."
Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin
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