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).
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.
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.
Comments are moderated, and will not appear until approved.