Monday, October 10, 2011

The Growing Length of Novels

Is it just me, or do books seem to be getting inordinately long, these days?

Time was, people would joke about the fantasy-novel doorstoppers that Robert Jordan and the like put out, as if the girth of their text was somehow indicative of a stretched-out, poorer quality story. When the Wheel of Time series grew to eight, then nine, then ten volumes, it turned into a kind of self-parody, mocking itself just by sitting there on the shelves. (It’s still not complete, although Jordan has passed on.)

George R.R. Martin has been producing similarly sized volumes, and who knows how big Game of Thrones is going to turn out to be before the final tome takes its march across the bestseller lists. The difference is, these books are actually pretty good, and they’re making their way into the mainstream with a little help from HBO. Then there’s Patrick Rothfuss, whose Name of the Wind was perhaps the most beautifully written book I’ve read in the last decade, and who followed it up with Wise Men’s Fear, promising more of the same exquisite storytelling spread across 1,200 pages. I haven’t cracked that one yet, because I needed a break from fantasy.

Instead, I turned to my other great reading pleasure, Science Fiction, and turned to Neal Stephenson’s latest, Reamde, which title references to a computer virus within the book whose name ironically refers to the brief “readme.txt” files which have accompanied software installations since the dawn of DOS. Now, Stephenson has always written big bricks of books – for a more extreme example check out his System of the World saga – and to make his own process even more masochistic he does his first drafts in fountain pen. But I’m losing interest in Reamde about halfway through, and I’m stuck wondering if, having invested so many hours into the first half, it’s more of a waste of time to abandon the story and forget about it, or whether the greater waste would be forcing myself through to the end of a book that I have lost pleasure in reading. (This is an especially Puritanical dilemma and I wonder if anyone besides a New Englander could truly understand it.)

Then I heard that one of my favorite “literary” writers is coming out with a new novel: Haruki Murakami. His early books were spare little gems, perplexing and fascinating, inviting repeated readings and careful reflection. But it turns out his new book, 1Q84, is going to clock in at – you guessed it – over 1,000 pages. I’m not sure I can wrap my head around that much Murakami, and I’m not sure that I want to.

It’s as if someone told me they were going to bring me a fine, single-malt whiskey, and then they delivered a keg of the stuff, and then told me that, to really appreciate it, I’d have to drink the whole thing. Whiskey just isn’t supposed to come in kegs. Some things are meant to be sipped and savored, and when you see that much Murakami in one barrel, well, it makes you wonder just what you’re getting.

David Foster Wallace came out with Infinite Jest in the mid 90s, and at the time that was an anomaly in the literary world: 1,300 pages including 300 pages of rather self-indulgent footnotes. Passages of Infinite Jest were lovely, though, and heartbreaking, and brilliant. I’m wondering if my experience with Murakami will be the same as the experience I had with Wallace. I enjoyed it for about 400 tightly packed pages (including time for those footnotes) before realizing I’d been reading the same book for an entire season without getting halfway through, and so I put it down and never came back.  Still, I kept a lot of those characters and situations present in my head in a way that just hasn’t happened with many books, since. Hal, the tennis academy, the AA meetings, the league of wheelchair assassins, the VHS tape that kills you if you watch it…they’ve all stayed safely tucked away in my noggin for the past 15 years, and I didn’t even finish the damn book.

Maybe I can sip my way through half a keg of Murakami and that will be enough.

So what’s behind this trend towards freakishly long books? Did the publication of Infinite Jest win support for a format that had previously been mocked as appropriate only for low-rent fantasy literature? If so, then why the sudden increase in book-girth now, fifteen years later? Have paper and printing costs been dropping? Hardly, paper and ink is more expensive now that it has been in quite some time, and books have to be deeply discounted to become affordable.

Are editors just getting lazy? Or are authors becoming divas, unwilling to compromise and have their words cut? It does seem that, as a writer finds a measure of success, their books grow and grow as editors and publishers seem afraid to ruffle the feathers of their proven cash cows. Which is too bad, because a lot of these books would be better if they were shorter. And these editors should realize that cows don’t have feathers.

There do seem to be several factors that may contribute to this publishing trend:

  • e-books have no printing costs, and as more and more of a book’s sales go digital, buyers may actually feel they are getting more of a bargain when they download a bigger file. So I wonder, do the increased sales of a digital book offset the increased paper and ink costs of printing a huge doorstopper volume?
  • The bargain effect probably applies to physical books too. This is the age of Wal-Mart and the wholesale club. When it comes time to buying a book people really want to stock up. The difference between a 300 page paperback and a 700 page paperback is usually just a dollar or two, so it feels like you’re getting ripped off when you buy the smaller one.
  • People have become accustomed to long serial formats, and this taste has grown beyond fantasy trilogies and those mystery series themed with numbers and letters and gotten right down into the fabric of the single book. Those Game of Thrones books are like trilogies within trilogies.
  • The rest of our culture is increasingly short and fragmented. We want to set aside our Youtube clips and our Twitter feeds and have something familiar to pick up and read, night after night. People who still read might not be looking to books for an escape into something different, but rather for the comfortable feeling of returning to the familiar.
  • Computers make it easier to write at length. Authors can ramble on at a PC with words per minute unseen in the days of flowing ink and mechanical type-bars. Computers make it easier to edit, too, but they seem to have the opposite effect. Writers will let it all pour out, confident they can go back and cut and re-arrange. I suspect that, when words seemed more indelible, that more thought was taken in putting them down in the first place.

Stephen King blames the decline of the short story on people’s laziness. Once you’ve invested the mental energy it takes to enter the world of a story, it just seems like an awful lot of work to start from scratch, again, 30 pages later. And while I rather agree with him, that’s not why I’ve never been a fan of the short story. I just find that, after I’ve read a book of short stories, I can only remember a couple of them, and my memory of those is usually gone within a week.

Novels really have time to work their way into your mind and stay with you, to remind you of things you’ve long forgotten, and to even change you if you need changing. They have always seemed, to me, to be the form of art most effective at repaying the investment of my attention.

But 1,000 freakin’ pages? You’ve got to be kidding me. I just don’t have that kind of time to invest.


  1. I find it telling that NaNoWriMo aims for a 50,000 word draft, which is roughly the length of The Great Gatsby. That's a slim little book compared to some of the monsters you cited. Does that make it any less of a book? I certainly don't think so (though I did enjoy Infinite Jest quite a bit, once I got through it.)

    I personally think editors aren't as brutal as they once were, or writers are more unnecessarily verbose, or both. Even the Harry Potter series -- which I admire and enjoy tremendously -- got very saggy midway through the last book. It's as if nobody could work up the nerve to chop things down a bit.

  2. Murakami's "Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" was pretty beefy, too, and a fantastic read. No, it wasn't 1,000+ pages (I don't think), but it was a substantial book.
    I read Infinite Jest several times - it's still numero uno on my all-time novel list. I like how a big, massive book keeps you locked into a world - of course, naturally, it needs to be a world you actually want to be inhabiting for the duration.

  3. I'm surprised that Neal Stephenson uses a fountain pen -- after having waded through Cryptonomicon, my guess was that your Factor No. 5 was at work.

    On a recent two-hour flight I read Ben Loory's "Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day." 210 pages, containing 40 microshort stories. This is the other extreme of the problem you're describing. The stories were fun, but they were more like plot outlines or quick jokes than actual fiction.

  4. mpclemens: 50,000 does seem like a reasonable length -- both for reading and for writing -- doesn't it? Enough to tell a real story with some depth but not so much as to be an imposition.

    Duffy: You read Infinite Jest several times? How did the experience change for you on subsequent reads? And have you delved into his other works? I actually enjoyed his essays a great deal more than Infinite Jest.

    Richard: There's a fun blog post at

    about Neal Stephenson's writing process for System of the World. Key Quote:

    "I’ve written every word of it so far with fountain pen on paper. Part of the theory was that it would make me less long-winded, but it hasn’t actually worked."

    There's also a great rented-typewriter story over there, well worth checking out!

  5. Winston: How did my experience change on repeated IJ re-readings? Well, for starters, I'd given up on the expectation that Wallace would complete it with some Seinfeldian wrap-it-up-nicely ending. And, because the story shifts backward-and-forward in time so rapidly, I had a much better sense of the story arc the second (and third and fourth) times through.

    If you like Wallace's essays (and I love them, too), you should definitely read his commencement address from several years back at Kenyon College. If you find a transcription online, most likely it is de moi - I attended the commencement and transcribed the whole thing (to the best of my ability) and posted it on a Wallace site. It got spread around from there and ended up as an overpriced, enormous, hard-cover chapbook. Weird.