How Long Should a Novel Be?

There was an article in the 13th August 2017 Sunday Telegaph, written by Ysenda Maxtone Graham entitled “Have People Forgotten How to Write Short Books?”  She makes a number of interesting points which I will quote below.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham is the author of five books: The Church Hesitant: A Portrait of the Church of England TodayThe Real Mrs Miniver, which was shortlisted for the Whitbread Biography Award, 2002; Mr Tibbits’s Catholic SchoolAn Insomniac’s Guide to the Small Hours; and Terms & Conditions: Life in Girls’ Boarding Schools, 1939-1979.  She writes for The Spectator and is a columnist on Country Life.

Ysenda Maxtone Graham

“Stranded in the middle of a great fat brick of a biography recently, I wondered: do books, like films, plays, concerts, sermons, cricket matches and, indeed, life itself have a natural length.  My instinct is that they do and that it’s about 280 pages.  To open a book, particularly a non-fiction one, and see that it’s all going to be over before the 300 page mark makes me set out into it with a spring in my step.  If it goes up to the mid 500’s, as that fat brick did, I check the back section in fervent hope that the last centimeter of its thickness will be taken up by an index, bibliography, extensive footnotes, and at least three pages of acknowledgements.  While reading such a book, I’m forever measuring, comparing ‘amount already read’ to ‘amount still to read’.

“Many fiction addicts insist that, in the case of novels, the longer the better.  Why this hurry to say goodbye to characters you’ve made great friends with?  You’ll feel bereft. When it works it is indeed a delicious feeling to be in the middle of an enthralling fictional world, less like being stranded, more like being enveloped and carried away.

“I ask Richard Beswick, publishing director of Little Brown Book Group. what his thoughts on novel length were.  ‘I like the pleasure of a long absorbing book with lots of attention to psychologically convincing characters played out over time,’ he says.  There is talk of long novels becoming fashionable again, and this ‘may reflect TV tastes for long series’, but he thinks our perception has been skewed by a few, very successful, very long novels, ‘such as those by Donna Tartt and Hilary Mantel’.  From a publisher’s point of view, they are outliers: ‘Eighty thousand words seems to be the kind of length readers like.’  (That equates to my ideal length of about 280 pages.)”

She learned at her favourite bookstore in Chelsea that “some customers had baulked at Paul Auster’s 4321 (880 pages) and Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (772 pages), but had snapped up Robert Seehtalter’s A Whole Life (148 pages) and The Life of Rebecca Jones by Angharad Price (155 pages)”.  She makes the point that there was a craze in the 18th and 19th centuries for the ‘three-volume novel’, and that in the early 20th century, it became fashionable for novels, like skirts, to be short.  (Except Ulysses.)

“I’ve calculated the average length of books reviewed in a literary journal last week, and I’m pleased to announce that it comes in at 296.6 pages.”

As for me, my three thrillers are about 100,000 words, as is Seeking Father Khaliq, which I would classify as inspirational.  The other two inspirational novels: Sable Shadow & The Presence, and the novel I’m just finishing now are in the 120,000 word range.  In my case, what determines the length of a novel is the complexity of the plot.  I would agree with Ms Graham that long novels can be a chore to read.  I’m currently reading On Hundred Years of Solitude (review next week).  It is 417 pages, but not only that, the font is small and the text is tightly packed.  A long read!

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