How long is too long when it comes to a book? If you're an avid reader, you might protest that there isn't such a thing, but if we're being honest we all have an "ideal" book length in mind.
As a professional reader and someone who reads a lot for pleasure, I love a fiction book that's around 300 to 350 pages. And discussions with friends and colleagues—both big readers and lesser ones—show that parentheses are often brought up.
That's not to say that I don't read longer or shorter books, or that I automatically dislike books that aren't my "ideal" book length. But it does mean that I, like many other readers, am obsessed with commenting on the greatness of a book. You know, "I have this book on my stack to read, but it's 800 pages, so I don't know when I'll find the time." Or maybe, "You have to read this book, the characters are great and you know." you what It's only 220 pages.”
But where does this obsession with book length come from – especially when it comes to long novels? And is there really such a thing as an ideal length for a book?
Find the “Sweet Spot”.
Upon initial exploration, the answer to the latter question appears to be yes. Ask Google “how long should a book be” and the most popular search results almost all state that the word limit is 100,000, with minimum values ranging from 60,000 to 90,000. These numbers (depending on the font and font size, of course) give us the often quoted length of 300 to 350 pages.
Literary agent Juliet Mushens of Mushens Entertainment says that 80,000 to 100,000 words is often cited as the standard for adult novels, and much of what writers attempt can be done within that word count.
"I think one of the reasons we're stuck on that word count is that it's almost a sweet spot in terms of building us enough worlds but also making sure the pace doesn't slow down at any point. says Mushens.
"So in a crime novel, you can sum up all the twists and turns, the suspense, the kind of distractions in about 90,000 words. On the other hand, in 150,000 words it could often be, 'Okay, well, we have so many subplots or you know I kind of forgot about those diversionary tactics because 50,000 words happened without them being mentioned.
The emergence of recreational reading
Thinking about and talking about the length of a book is nothing new; In the early days of printing, there were some very large books, such as collections of sermons, says Helen Smith, a professor at the University of York. In the 18th century, the novel became popular among the middle class.
"One of the stories that's been told about [that time] is that recreational reading became a really self-conscious and increasingly middle-class pursuit," says Smith. "So with big, long [novels] like Henry Fielding, you get the sense that these are people who conspicuously have the time to read, the ability to just not work, not to do all the things that are sometimes difficult make to take on a long book.”
Smith's colleague Dr. Alexandra Kingston-Reese says that we respond to long novels today precisely because we may not have the time to embrace them the way our eighteenth-century peers did.
"For me, time is of the essence," she says. "I suppose the long novels we're talking about are fairly complex, fairly literary long novels. It's not necessarily the kind of novel that progresses plot-wise - it tends to spend a lot of time on description, it tends to take a lot of time to internalize.
"And so it requires a different kind of attention from us, and when we're short on time, it can be really challenging to sit down and really focus for a long time to get into something like that."
"Reading fills many needs, but in general I think it should be enjoyable and entertaining," says author Sarra Manning, who is also literary editor at Red Magazine. "I can really understand why great books can turn off certain types of readers. I'm a really fast reader and I really enjoy reading, but it's a bit of a leap of faith if it's from an author you haven't heard of or if it's for some literary awards and it's 700 pages. It's a big commitment. People shouldn't be put off by big books, but I can see why they would."
Large books may require a greater investment of time, but if the pacing is just right, a book will fly by no matter the size.
"Marian KeyThe last book was 650 pages, and if I'm going to get a Jilly Cooper, I know it's going to be big, but they're so readable that I don't tense up and think, 'Oh my god, this is going to overwhelm me Dude' because they're a quick read,” says Manning.
"That's the legibility thing. You can have a Jilly Cooper book and you will read it quickly and enjoy it, but then you can have a 200 page book that is quite a challenging read, it can feel longer and it can take you more time, because you have to read it in a very different way.”
Tales on a grand scale
But it is not only in commercial or literary fiction that we find great books; Fantasy and science fiction are full of novels that exceed the 500 page mark. And I'm not the only one who admits to being far more forgiving of a 900-page fantasy novel than a 900-page literary novel.
"Fantasy can be longer, I think because more world building is expected, there's a little bit more wiggle room," says Mushens. “In contemporary fiction, you don't have to have the same word count for world building, and it's not as epic in breadth.
"But in fantasy, it's usually like 'The Fate of the Empire!' or a huge, massive quest, so you're almost allowed those extra words.
"So in Game of Thrones you have to introduce us to all the intricacies, the story, the background, how magic works, where the dragons come from, all those things. But it's also of such an epic scope that it's literally "the fate of kingdoms, but also the fate of the world, that I think it feels bigger, which means the storyline needs to have more space."
It's not just the anticipation of world building that prepares us for a bigger book in terms of certain genres, but also the way we relate to them.
"In genres like sci-fi, fantasy, and historical novels, people are primed for grand narratives," says author and academic J.A. Canteen. "We have terms like 'historical saga' and 'space opera' that prepare readers for narratives on a large scale."
Mensah says length can be a good thing when it comes to characters that you follow "through a huge story arc, often spanning multiple books."
"It's very satisfying to follow a character and discover something about them in book two or three that sheds light on everything that came before," she says.
“I'm thinking of NK Jemisin's Broken Earth series and an expanded metaphor she uses in relation to unconscious bias within minority communities; the conceit only becomes clear towards the end of the second book. I don't want to give away any spoilers, but when I first read it, I was absolutely blown away. I don't know if it could have had the same impact if I hadn't already followed certain characters for so many pages."
Just a fiction?
But after all the discussion, does the fact that a book is huge really stop us from reading it? Although there is a "standard" length for adult fiction books, statistics show that we definitely buy books that are both much longer and much shorter than the 300 to 350 pages that many of us have in mind.
Of the 1,000 best sellers in 2019, 348 were adult fiction books, according to Nielsen. The largest of these was 5,264 pages - luckily it wasn't a single book but a box containing all seven of George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Only 29 of the 348 books had between 301 and 350 pages; 92 were between 351 and 400 pages. And whopping 202 were over 401 pages.
We might like to talk about book length, but the numbers don't lie: we clearly buy and read very long books. As Mensah says, "We consume books, regardless of size, because they engage us and compel us to read on. The idea of 'perfect length' itself is a fiction."
Bild: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin
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