Long Novels Are Painful

I have a confession: I hate long books, particularly long novels.

When I was in college, if you couldn’t stomach a long novel then you weren’t a true Literature student. Long live Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy! And some of those masterpieces (particularly Dostoyevsky’s) were compelling enough to keep my attention.

Most of them put me to sleep, though.

A quality novel can be defined as a good and complete story, rather than some 19th century concept of word count. When a long novel is a good story, it captivates you with a compelling plot and storyline. You don’t really care about how long it is, you just want to devour it! But before that ideal state of reading pleasure, a tome is prohibitive because of assumed time demands.

Sometimes a long book is necessary. I’m a big fan of breaking up lengthy works. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings was actually one novel that the publisher divided into a trilogy. That didn’t turn out too bad!

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Long Novels in a Digital World

Things haven’t changed in the publishing business even though media has evolved. Publishers frequently push long novels.

I cannot help but turn my nose up at these wares. Unless a long book has fantastic word of mouth, I am not reading it. A good story is a brisk one, at least to my tastes. I find most of today’s writers embellish their novels with back story and details that leave me bored and disenchanted.

I remember how good Neal Stephenson used to be before 1000 pages became his average. How I long for the Diamond Age.

Currently, I am reading Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep. Great prose, fantastic start, fluid and easy to read, but pages 50-120 were slow. In my mind, they could have been 20 pages instead of 70. I began wondering if the remaining 400+ pages would be worth it. And the book didn’t strike me as long. You get my point. Fortunately, things seem to be moving along again in Doctor Sleep.

In this digital age with so many other entertainment options besides reading, will people keep tolerating books greater than 100,000 words in length? Personally, the Kindle and other eReaders makes the experience of a long book more difficult.

Frankly, I think 50-75,000 is the ideal amount. Some call the shorter side of that a novella, I call it a reasonable risk.

One more thing about shorter lengths: Great writers deliver impact with each sentence. They focus on quality, and reveal their story in a meaningful captivating fashion. When I read Philip Roth, who often (but not always) clocks in under 300 pages, I am certain that every chapter will be great. He respects the reader with a tight well written novel (or novella) everytime.

What do you think?

Featured image via Devon Fredericksen. Lord of the Rings image by Abdulla Al Muhairi.

  • I’m probably biased, because even in my own writing, I tend to be brief. However, as long as I’m enjoying the read and finding value, entertainment, escape or education in it, length doesn’t matter. Cheers! Kaarina

    • geofflivingston

      A good read is a good read. And yes, I value brevity more than most I suppose. Oh well!

  • I think the story should dictate the length. If the story is tight and compelling, I don’t notice the page count. If it goes on and on forever and forever…well, you can be certain I had no part in editing the thing. ;-)

    • geofflivingston

      Damn straight. LOL!

  • Yes, I do love long works, especially if they’re well written. Just days ago I picked up “The Shining,” a book I haven’t read in decades, and read it across 2 days. I’m now in the last 3rd of Dr. Sleep, which I find to be a more mature and engrossing book.

    The “Game of Thrones” saga was inhaled in just a couple of weeks. I couldn’t help myself.

    One of the benefits of aging/maturity has been the joy of picking up older classics and reading them when I was ready. War and Peace, Don Quixote, Vanity Fair, and others were great fun without the pressure of having to dissect them or write a long report.

    • geofflivingston

      Good news on Doctor Sleep. On Game of Thrones, I couldn’t make it through the first 100 pages of Book One. My issue was less the length and more the soap opera-esque style.

  • I’d love to comment on this post, but I’m on page 743 of Hubbard’s Battlefield Earth and I still have 4,576 pages to go.

    • geofflivingston

      I am crying for you!

    • JustinBog

      I loved reading Battlefield Earth as a kid . . . thrilling space opera. Don’t think I could stomach reading it now though after knowing so much about the author.

      • Including the second half? The first 50% is brilliant sci-fi. The second half is a lesson in finance and banking.

  • Daniel

    Gasp! Neal Stephenson is a lot of fun. I agree that his recent foray into historical fiction is not up my alley. I want to like them, but they are just too MUCH. I loved Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and more recently, Anathem (despite the length).

    P.S. I’m Erin’s friend from Facebook.
    P.P.S.I have the exact same copy of LoTR. I *actually* wanted a copy that had the 3 books separate, though – smaller volumes are less likely in my experience to be damaged during use (or by being dropped accidentally!). But it’s still a nice printing.

    • geofflivingston

      I heard Reamde was very, very good, too. I just don’t have the heart after having head my eyeballs dried up by his post Crytponomicon stuff. See, trust is gone!!! LOL.

      • Daniel

        Is Cryptonomicon good? I’ve considered reading that, but I am currently on a foray into older literature.

        • geofflivingston

          I have to admit, I laughed my ass off.

  • laurirottmayer

    The last really big books I read were both by Stephen King, 11/22/63 and Under the Dome. Other than being physically difficult to read (UTD = super heavy) I loved them. I love getting all caught up in the story and the characters. Now, I have had a similar feeling while reading a book I didn’t really like. But if I like the book, the longer the better. Can’t wait to get Doctor Sleep! :-)

    • geofflivingston

      It’s getting much better! Really the hard part was 50-200.

      • laurirottmayer

        Awesome! The library has this ready for me to pick up. :-)

  • JustinBog

    I wrote a comment on Facebook too (mentioning Lord of the Rings before reading the article . . . long books that rock) . . . and I do love long books, the best of them, add The Stand and IT from Stephen King. A ton of his short fiction is clean, clear and mean too. anything up to 70,000+ words is a novella, and that is the high length most of the indie crowd is writing in of late, and, with the prolific rise of quantity over quality coming into play, most writers can’t churn out lengthy tomes in short amounts of time. Will people prefer reading shorter books because of the kindle? Perhaps, since this is already happening, but give me a book of any length that is stunning, with incredibly interesting characters, and thrilling plot lines, and the length doesn’t matter.

    • geofflivingston

      Funny, because I intentionally split The Fundamentalists into two books to meet this shorter book trend. I just don’t think people have the heart for the longer stuff anymore, at least not on readers. We’ll see. I’d love to see publishing data from Amazon, but for some reason they won’t give it to me ;)