Big Books

November 19, 2010

Am I imagining things or are novels getting longer and longer? I asked my agent this question because I don’t think the book I am working on will be more than 50-60,000 words. Are publishers insisting on very big books? She said, no, not that she was aware, even though I have recently read: the first two Stieg Larsson’s, Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone,” all three novels by the talented Irish mystery writer, Tana French, and Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom.” All of the above are TOMES, more than 80,000 words. Four are genre fiction, the Verghese and the Franzen are literary.

My favorite length to write is the novella and I am looking forward to writing the fifth in a new collection when I’m done with the bigger book I am currently revising. So I was stunned when I realized that I’d nearly finished Philip Roth’s new book, “Nemesis,” that I was zipping right along on my Kindle into the high percentiles. I went into the new NYU bookstore on Waverly Place—gorgeous—and took a look at the book: 280 large print pages. It’s a novella. So what is going on? Well, he’s Philip Roth and can write any length book he wants, I would think, and that book will be published. This one is good, luminous, carefully crafted, and though it’s a novella, it’s still a book.

I often think that long books are too long, that they go on and on, that they are self-indulgent, and that they could use heavy editing.

When I asked some reader friends—as opposed to reader/writer friends—if they like to read TOMES—they said they do. Once into a story they want it to go on and on, if it is good that is. And I suppose the marketing folks at publishing houses know this. Back in the 19th century long books were serialized in magazines, a sensible way to present a book to the reading public. No one expected the reader to digest the book in one gulp and sales were boosted by the anticipation of the next installment. I suppose the Stieg Larsson phenomena is similar, except that each installment is a TOME. Not to mention that the TOME is very heavy—hard to carry, hard to read in bed. But then again, I have my Kindle.

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