Why are books so long nowadays?

Here’s a whimsical column on book lengths, also to tie in with Friday’s publication of Even Flow (note: my book is quite short!). With thanks to the Irish Independent’s Weekend magazine…

 

The following is, almost literally, a never-ending story.

A while back I read this book called The Historian, and jolly good it was, too. Sorry, let me rephrase that: a while back I read this book called The Historian over a period of no less than ten weeks, and it may have even stretched to 12 or 14.

Why, you may ask, was this fellow labouring through one book for the bones of three months? Why did he not simply finish it and move onto that new Rutger Hauer biography, like everyone else was doing? Is it just that he’s a painfully slow reader, or was there something else – something darker, one might almost say – at work here?

Well, there were a few reasons. One is that my attention would get called away, from time to time, by other attractions. It’s just so hard to pass the video shelf at home, for instance, and for my eye to catch the cover of Point Break, without putting the damned thing on one more time. Oh Bodhi, you lovable bank-robbing surfer-dude Zen-master little scamp.

But the main reason this infernal book was a weight in my bag for so many weeks is this: it’s incredibly long. The thing comes in at about 700 pages, and these are bigger than normal pages with smaller than normal text.

I did a very rough estimate of the word count, and reckon it’s somewhere in the region of 280,000 words. The average book, by contrast, is somewhere between 60,000 and 100,000, depending on genre etc.

As a consequence, it took me two months to crawl past the 500-page mark. By that stage I was thoroughly sick of the sight of The Historian, and only finished it out of a sense of duty. This is not to say it’s bad – au contraire, it’s a reasonably well-written, evocative, gothic-horror sort of thing, which I normally love.

But it’s not natural to spend this long in the company of one book. My ideal runs to about 200 pages – roughly of a length that you’d finish in three or three-and-a-half hours of solid reading.

Metered out into ten-minute snatches here and there, and maybe a half-hour in bed over a few nights, this means the deed is done in about a week, which is perfect. Just long enough so you feel that sense of satisfaction on completing the job, but not too long that you start to forget how the book began in the first place.

This became a major problem with The Historian: after a while I could barely remember what it was about, where it started and who any of the characters were, because it had been so long since I was introduced to any of them.

(Though this may have been as much my fault as the book’s, because I have a notoriously feeble memory. Things just leak away or something.)

But as I was saying before being rudely interrupted by myself, The Historian is far too long. And it’s not alone: way too many books are now way too long, so much so that I can barely muster the energy to finish them.

John Lanchester’s Capital, for instance, released last year, was one such: I did read the whole thing, just about collapsing over the finishing line that is the final page, but that was probably only because I was being paid to review it. Otherwise, not a hope – I’d have given up somewhere between page 7,123 and page 11,994.

I exaggerate, yes, but that’s what it felt like. And the funny thing was, the book was fine; actually pretty good. But man oh man, so looooooong it hurt.

What’s the reason for this? Do publishers feel they must give value for money? Do they believe that quantity (of pages) is equal to quality (of material)? Are they afraid that a literary version of Eddie Hobbs or someone will descend on them, ranting about rip-offs, for publishing short books?

(I’ll also tangentially note the amount of arse-numbingly lengthy movies in cinemas over the last few years. Keep it short, Hollywood! You only have the one good idea for this movie, don’t do the dog on it!)

I disagree with all this, I must say. For me, the words and ideas on those pages is what makes a great book, not how many pages there are. In books, as in so many things, less is more, folks, less is more.

 

  • Darragh McManus’ crime novel Even Flow, out on September 28, is available in bookshops and online, as a print edition or e-book. And it’s relatively short!
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