I’ve read books of behemoth lengths: The Executioner’s Song, the seminal American novel (more on that to come in a future post), Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (a flawed but overall enjoyable Harry Potter alternative), and East of Eden (on par with The Executioner’s Song as being the quintessential American novel, as well as Steinbeck’s finest).
These latter two are about 600-700 pages while The Executioner’s Song is a mammoth 1,100 pages.
These and others are fine—even great novels—that would be significantly lessened in quality had they not been the lengths they are.
I do not argue that no novels should be long, should be more than, say, 60,000, 70,000, 80,000 words.
I do argue that too many novels are needlessly long.
Take Twilight: I’ve never read it but I’ve seen the movies and understand the gist. There’s no doubt in my mind that that four books that make up that series could have been condensed into one 100,000-word book instead of a four-book 2,800-page(?) series.
I won’t be so trite as to make fun of Twilight or condemn it as lacking any literary merit—plenty of other writers and websites will do that for me. I’m merely saying that the core of Twilight could have been grasped in a shorter overall product, saving the reader time and money.
And that’s one of the reasons I choose to write novellas.
Another important reason is I don’t force my books to be anything they’re not. Like a father forcing his daughter to be a tomboy because he always wanted a son, I’m of the opinion that if I forced myself to expand my novels from novella lengths to novel lengths, my books—bits and pieces of my soul—would become corrupted and in the end, I would be dissatisfied with the result, regardless of whether a publisher would then buy it.
Bear in mind, however, that I, as I also think other writers in the past have done, let the story guide me in terms of how long the book should be: Take my novel Regression:
It’s my longest book to date, at about 118,000 words, I believe.
In writing it I found that I had a lot to say, wanted my characters to do and undergo. I wasn’t keeping track of my word count on the Word document (first of all, I write everything by hand first, then type it up).
It was mere happenstance that it turned out to be longer than the rest of my works.
My other books, I’ve acted in the same way: I’ve written the characters to do what I need them to do, what I think they should do, then when it’s all over and I feel confident that the overall product is significant and fully resolved, I’m finished.
I won’t waste your time nor your money with fluff, with fat.
I read for what I also write for: A search for truths in life as told through art, a search for beauty, a search for connection.
If these descriptions don’t make sense to you, then we read for different reasons. If you read for the same reasons, then you’ll understand they’re difficult reasons to articulate, even for a writer.
I’m very discriminating in determining when a novel is wasting my time. The Executioner’s Song was 1,100 pages and each page had some vital piece of information to contribute to the overall story.
Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot, while entertaining, I found vapid and pointless, which may account for why it took me longer to read than The Executioner’s Song.
I do not give more value to one book over another simply on the merits of its length and nor should you.
When reading ask yourself, do you care about the characters? Are their interactions, thought processes, relevant to you? Do you identify with anything in the novel?
Look for those aspects. Think of quality of product rather than quantity.
I once went out to dinner with a friend and we ordered dessert. I was torn between getting the Key lime pie and the carrot cake (my absolute favorite desserts). Finally I decided on the carrot cake because it was bigger.
“I get more bang for my buck,” I told my friend, which nearly made her shit her pants.
Quantity-over-quality is a good mentality to have when it comes to dessert at a restaurant you know doesn’t make anything that isn’t delicious.
But it’s a terrible mentality to have when it comes to literature because, I assure you, there is no shortage of horrible rambling literature out in the world.
Rare are The Executioner’s Songs, The Grapes of Wraths, and the Moby-Dicks (which honestly could have been cut in half but is still a fine novel).
Even rarer are the exceptional novellas finding audiences—namely Paul Harding’s Tinkers.
Novellas, while often unsuccessful initially, gradually find their audiences, just as The Great Gatsby did.
I encourage you to look more at novellas, give them consideration, evaluate their merits. Even though they’re smaller, they have the ability to be infinitely more fulfilling than the longest of novels.
Comment with any novellas you feel need more kudos!