Are Modern Books Too Long?

You may have noticed that books have become longer in the last few years. Fellow crime fiction connoisseur Margot Kinberg recently did a strawpoll of crime novels and found that since 2000 more and more of them fall in the 300+ pages category. Others have noticed the reappareance of ‘chunksters’ across all genres – and they seem to be walking away with quite a few literary prizes too (The Luminaries, Wolf Hall, Au-revoir là-haut, The Goldfinch). Does that fly in the face of the much-vaunted evidence that our attention spans are getting shorter and that we spend far too much time online? Are people perhaps reading fewer books per year, but then committing more time to the ones that they do buy and read? I’ve read four doorstoppers this month. Well, we had 2 weeks of rainy school holidays, so I couldn’t get much else done. Plus I’ve had no Internet/phone/TV for the last day and a half (that’s what happens when everything is tied up in a single provider), so there was nothing I could do but read. I’ve already given my unvarnished opinion of ‘The Secret History’, but the other three chunky books never felt too long. Because I am so far behind on my reviews, I will discuss all three of them in this post, but they each deserve a far more detailed review.

farfromtreeAndrew Solomon: Far from the Tree

We’ve all done it as parents: wondered ‘where on earth does my child get that from?’ or ‘what changeling has been put into my cradle?’  Some families go far beyond that: they have children who are exceptional in all sorts of ways – they may be dafe or autistic or  child prodigies, they may be severely disabled or dwarfs or trapped in the wrong kind of gender. They may be difficult to love, like children who are the result of rape, or who are schizophrenic and violent, or who turn to crime.  There is a chapter for each of these situations in this monumental non-fiction book, a labour of love arising from Solomon’s own experience of clashes with his parents about being gay, and based on 10 years of interviews with families all over the United States. About a third of the book are footnotes and references, so it’s not quite as long as it looks, but I could not get my fill of all the personal stories shared here. It is well-documented, yet very readable, because it is all about real people and their very moving, often very difficult stories. Let me give you just one example. After meeting the Klebold family, whose son Dylan was one of the teenagers responsible for the Columbine High School killings, the author says:

The better I came to know the Klebolds, the more deeply mystified I became. Sue Klebold’s kindness would be the answered prayer of many a neglected or abused child, and Tom’s bullish enthusiasm would lift anyone’s tired spirits. Among the many families I’ve met in writing this book, the Klebolds are among those I would be most game to join.

And this is what I love about the book – it doesn’t preach or give solutions. It admits bafflement when confronted with human behaviour and with the enduring power of love.

I’ve heard some criticism that the research is not quite so thorough in parts, that the author sides with one school of thought or another (for instance, there is quite a bit of conflict within the deaf-mute community whether signing or learning spoken language is the way to go, or within the dwarf community whether limb-lengthening is an acceptable surgical procedure). Yet for a reader like me who is new to most of these conditions, it was an eye-opening introduction. It is a popular science book, but one brimming over with emotions and lovely quotes. It will open up your mind and heart, and will make you question your own tolerance of difference and your own power of acceptance. My favourite non-fiction book of the year, no question!

HitlerTimur Vermes: Er ist wieder da  (translated as ‘Look Who’s Back’ & published by MacLehose Press).

The instant I saw that sober black and white cover with the proverbial moustache, I was intrigued. This is actually the shortest of my chunksters: about 400 pages in the original German hardback, and I think it’s just about the perfect length. Too short and it would have been superficial, longer and the satire would have started to feel tired and overblown. As it is, it’s a very funny book, and you keep reading on to see just how far the author will go with his conceit.

Just imagine that Hitler had not died in his bunker in 1945, but had instead gone into some kind of cryogenic coma and woken up in 2011. How would he cope with present-day society? Surprisingly well. In this hard-hitting satire and rather brave book, the author can be quite savage in his criticism of many of the political and social trends in today’s Germany, including day-time television, the cult of celebrities, personal branding, party in-fighting and well-meaning liberalism. Of course, this is perhaps a more humane and less obsessive fictional Hitler, but the implications are chilling. Especially when he agrees (or you agree) with many of the things being said about the euro, certain EU countries needing to pull their weight, rampant consumerism and paying lip-service to ecology.

truenovelMinae Mizumura: A True Novel

To say this is ‘Wuthering Heights’ transposed into a Japanese landscape is not quite doing the book full justice. The story is, indeed, very closely based on the characters, the plot and even the narrative devices (story within a story) of the original, but there are many other influences at work here too.  Tanizaki’s ‘The Makioka Sisters’, ‘The Great Gatsby’, Dazai Osamu’s ‘The Setting Sun, and Chekhov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ are all invoked here, whether directly or not.
The leisurely pace and many digressions bring to mind a Russian or Victorian novel (unlike the brevity of the original Brontë novel), and there may be a little bit of sagging in the middle. The story within a story can feel a bit artificial at times (I was puzzled why there was an additional layer beyond the Lockwood/Nelly equivalent), but it does provide us with even more questions about whose account of events we can trust, just how reliable each narrator is, or just how much we can know of the truth. Above all, I enjoyed the sense of place: the faded beauty of a resort like Karuizawa, the spookiness of the foggy lake, pampas grass and abandoned cottages, in contrast with the onslaught of modern developments and tourists.

Traditional Western villa, Karuizawa, from
Traditional Western villa, Karuizawa, from

It’s this contrast between old and new, between tradition and modernity, between affluence and poverty, which makes this much more of a social fresco than the original work. This is also a panorama of post-war Japan, the initial crushing defeat, followed by the Japanese economic miracle, and then the burst of the bubble and the lost decade of stagnation (just one decade at the time the book was written). There is also quite a bit in the prologue about the perception of Japanese people in the United States and the often troubled relationship between the two countries.

Impeccably translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter (and believe me, it is not easy to convey Fumiko’s quaint, old-fashioned style of speaking in English) and presented in a beautiful 2 volume box set with atmospheric pictures of the locations, this edition is a work of art. I am still floating in the world created by the author, because, of course, we all dream of a Heathcliff and of a love that defies all conventions.


29 thoughts on “Are Modern Books Too Long?”

  1. Marina Sofia – First, thanks very much for the kind mention. And you do raise an interesting point about our reduced attention spans. You’d think books would be shorter, but as your recent reading shows, they aren’t. What I like about these books is that they aren’t ‘cookie cutter’ books. The first raises some fascinating questions and I’m pleased that no pat answers are offered. To me that makes a book more honest, especially when it deals with the complicated subject of what our children are and where it comes from.
    Oh, and there’s nothing like a chunkster to get you through an ISP outage…

  2. Thanks for the pointers toward the three books.

    In answer to the question of your header: Yes. I’ve nothing in principle against long books, but I do get fed up that just about everything these days seems to be 100,000 words at a minimum, and more often 125,000 or 150,000. Back in the day (insert phthisic cough here), a genre novel was more likely to be in the 60,000-70,000 words range, and an 80,000-worder was a long one. Obviously many of those old, shorter genre novels were potboilers bereft of psychological or other depth, but if we’re honest the same’s true of plenty of their modern, much longer counterparts.

    In between yelling at teenagers to get off my lawn, I also get p.o.ed about the modern tendency to call any novel under about 200 pages a novella.

    1. Well, let me join you in the rant! I quite agree – longer does not necessarily mean better, it often just means poorly edited.
      To be honest, probably all 3 of these books could have cut a few passages here and there (but then I used to be an English teacher and cut through everything with red ink), but they never felt over-long or repetitive. Unlike some others I might mention!

      1. As I say, I don’t mind long books in principle: I’m currently reading Henning Mankell’s The Man from Beijing at 450+ pages and loving every minute of it. I just get fed up that these days the standard length is now 50% or more higher than when many of the genre classics were written — with the dictate that everything has to be long (300+ pages).

        Next up on my reading list is probably Sjowall & Wahloo’s The Man on the Balcony, at 192 pages. A novella!

  3. I think reading is becoming popular again, and as such books can be that bit longer, especially with the popularity of Game of Thrones and such things. But it’s also nice to know that novellas are making a come back.

    There is so much choice nowadays, you can pick and choose whether you’re in the mood for a short read one weekend, or a marathon read wit a bigger one 😀 That is the beauty of today, I think.

    1. I agree, it is nice to have the choice. I just wish that we could count on the quality of the long books. Of course, quality matters in the short ones too, but at least, if they are bad, the pain is soon over.

  4. I tend to switch between long and short crime novels because some scenes in the longer books (like the latest Nesbo I just read) seem repetitive. On the nonfiction side, there are some absolutely massive books I adore that don’t feel long to me at all: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson was fabulous. I tend not to read huge biographies though.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    1. I quite like switching between long and short, between darker and lighter fiction. It’s like dinner – you don’t want lots of heavy courses, do you?

  5. Depends on the book. Just finished the Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair which was bloated and someone should have axed about 100 pages.

    1. Mmm, you’re not the first to say this. I felt I should support the writer, because he is from Geneva, where I now live. But I found the book was nothing outstanding… and too many pages of nothing outstanding at that!

  6. I think one of the most egregious examples of the effect can be found by comparing the later novels of Isaac Asimov with the earlier ones. The earlier ones, many/most of which are now regarded as sf classics, generally ran to somewhere around 200 pages. When he returned to fiction writing after a long break (I think it was after The Gods Themselves) he started to produce instead, perhaps in response to publisher urgings, these great bloated, flaccid monstrosities that seemed often more padding than narrative. Who could forget all those interminable scenes set in restrooms? (Well, okay, most of us, except for their interminability.)

  7. Like most of your other commenters, I don’t object to long books on principle, but it’s the tendency to have books stuffed with extraneous padding that’s driving me mad recently. Even that might not be too bad if it was beautifully written padding, but as often as not it’s mediocre, flat and repetitive. I recently read a crime novel where we got reams and reams of stuff about all the characters suffering from some kind of stomach flu, replete with descriptions of the effects on…er…toilet habits, shall we say! I blame the editors/publishers more than the authors though – what are they for if not to tell authors that the bits they think are profound and essential, or incredibly amusing, really aren’t…

    1. Hear, hear, very well put! And yes, that is most certainly the editor’s job. I wonder, though, if publishers themselves feel they get more ‘mileage’ and can charge higher prices or are more likely to win prizes or whatever with a more hefty volume. Fashion, fads and bandwagon come to mind…

      1. It’s more to do with price-points. The amount of paper in a book makes, these days, almost no difference to the production cost; and, of course, typesetting is done directly from the (hopefully edited) author’s digital file, so again there’s little cost difference between a short and a long book.

        However, the book trade long ago hit on the notion of price points. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the price point for a hardback novel is $25.00. (There are all sorts of exceptions, but the vast majority of new hardback novels will be at this price point.)

        The punter in the bookshop, given a choice between a 400-page novel and a 200-page novel, both costing $25.00, is very likely to . . .

        So publishers ask for novels to have more words and, in cases where the wordcount alone is deemed insufficient, use what book designers sometimes call “dynamic use of white space”; i.e., big margins, extra blank pages, extra leading, etc., anything to bump up the page count.

        That’s how the bigger publishers work, anyway. The small/specialist presses are a bit saner.

  8. I don’t know if they are getting longer. I don’t think they are. Well, books by established authors, yeah, but established writers have that power.

    1. Very good point: debut authors need to stick to the word limit, but established authors can get away with waffling. It’s almost as though people cannot get enough of them: pay per word…

  9. I also like to flit between long and short books, and between different styles/moods, just for a bit of variety. I probably end up reading 4 or 5 chunksters per year, but I’m getting increasingly choosy when it comes to picking those doorstops. I tend to do a bit more research and read more bloggers’ reviews before embarking on a big book. If it’s 400+ pages, I want to feel reasonably confident that I’m going to ‘click’ with it.

    1. Absolutely – it’s a huge commitment of your time, energy, money…I’m the same when it comes to something bigger, unless I’m utterly sure of the author!

  10. Last year I shied away from long books, over 450 pages. They just seemed too much for me. This year I am making a conscious effort to read some long ones … both new ones and ones from my TBR pile. So far it is going well, but I definitely balance the long ones with shorter ones.

    1. Like you and Jacqui, I shy away a little from very long books – it’s like a marriage, isn’t it? If you know it’s for years and years rather than just a couple of days, you take it all a bit more seriously, right? Of course, what some writers are doing is then writing a trilogy, tetralogy or even more, each book ending on a cliff-hanger. To my mind, that’s just a long book disguised as several shorter ones.

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.