25 February 2017 admin-Cheryl

How long should a work of fiction be?

Abraham Lincoln Quote, AZ Quotes

Abraham Lincoln, who was a very tall man, was once asked how long a man’s legs should be. His response was “Long enough to reach the ground”. If you ask “How long should a work of fiction be?” and apply the same logic, the answer would be “long enough to reach the end of the story”. But the internet has given many people short attention spans, and there’s no doubt that huge novels, while useful as doorstoppers, can be daunting to a reader.

A very long novel needs to be chosen with great care. Would you rather invest time in The Luminaries (800 pages) or read three other novels during that same period of time? The recent fashion in books has followed the idea that ‘bigger is better’ – we live in an age of literary obesity – although the advice from literary agents seems to be that anything much over 100,000 words is too long. Is it the fault of cut-and-paste options on computers? R.L. Stevenson once remarked that “the only art is to omit”, while Dr Johnson insisted that apart from a mere handful of books, no reader ever wished a book were longer, but many wish it were shorter. The Great Gatsby is only 60,000 words (172 pages) and I’ve never wished a word of it changed, while Persuasion is only 83,000, and of course is just perfect as it is. But then I wouldn’t want Middlemarch or Don Quixote cut by an editor and feel my life is better for having read them both more than once.

Ian McEwan has commented of long books that “very few long ones earn their length”. Are writers simply being self-indulgent, or are editors not wielding the red pen often enough? Are we put off enormous books because they are heavy to carry and awkward to hold? A very long novel is only likely to attract a serious reader, someone who wants to spend many days or weeks immersed in a particular imaginary world. If you love it, your addiction is fed for a long time. I am not especially partial to starting a new book – I’d prefer to be in the middle of a story, rather than just embarking on it, so very long books can suit me.

The Guinness Book of Records lists as the world’s longest novel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (also known as In Remembrance of Things Past), which is almost 1.3 million words long, and has over 3,000 pages. But it is usually published in 7 volumes, each with a separate title, so should it really count as 7 books? Other contenders are Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa (1,500 pages), Xavier Herbert’s Poor Fellow My Country (1,460 pages), Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1,360 pages) and War and Peace (1,400 pages).

book and coffee

Coffee and a good book

Which books have you found far too long and in need of editorial slashing? Do you prefer books to be the equivalent of a literary double espresso – short and concentrated – or would you rather have a super-size cappuccino of a book that will last far longer?

Please tell me by leaving a comment.


  Susannah Fullerton A Walking Tour in the Cévennes
  Susannah Fullerton Top Reads of 2016

   The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton
   The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
   Persuasion by Jane Austen
   Middlemarch by George Eliot
   In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust
   Clarissa; Or the History of a Lady by Samuel Richardson
   Poor Fellow My Country by Xavier Herbert
   A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth
   War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

I only recommend books I have read and know. Some of these links are my affiliate links. If you buy a book by clicking on one of these links I receive a small commission. It doesn’t cost you anything extra, but does help cover the cost of producing my free newsletter.


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Featured image credit- Abraham Lincoln Quote, AZ Quotes. http://www.azquotes.com/quote/1337740
Body image credit- Coffee and a book. https://pixabay.com

Comments (6)

  1. Paul Sanders

    Susannah, I remember my wife was taking an inordinately long time to plough through A Suitable Boy. Eventually I came to refer to it as A Suitable Grandfather

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Love it! Thanks for sharing, Paul. Did she ever finish it?

  2. Donald Nairn

    The other day I encountered a woman at the AGNSW staggering under the weight of the latest Paul Auster novel. She admitted that it was impossible to read in bed and difficult on the bus.
    In the past when novels were serialised and writers were paid by the word or line writers had an inducement to write long books.ie A. Trollope. I guess readers were less daunted because they read in digestible tranches.
    During the world wars when paper was rationed there was an inducement/compulsion to write more compactly.i eGraham Greene.
    Surely now when there is so much competition for our attention from entertainment media the long story is better told by TV/DVD.
    As one who loves reading a variety of genre I prefer a novel to be between 200 and 400 pages. I will probably read the Paul Auster book on line.
    Best wishes
    Donald Nairn

    • Susannah Fullerton

      The Paul Auster book is not for librocubicularists (I can see myself using that word often, now that I have learned it). Yes, novelists such as Trollope were paid by the number of pages, so there was great incentive to write long books. I would very rarely want a word of Trollope cut as he is one of my favourite novelists. I think the paper rationing you mention probably brought in shorter books and then the fashion stuck.

  3. I love reading long stories, and my family joke about my ‘doorstops’. Currently I’m reading book 3 of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Series and love how I’ve formed a deep relationship with the characters.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I have read the first and was not hugely inspired to keep reading the series, but you have persuaded me that I should go back to it.

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