Thursday, July 02, 2015

JUDGING BOOKS BY THEIR LENGTH


I’d finished a book the other day and only had one book going. Since I generally like reading at least two at a time, I started scanning my TBR shelves for my next read. A book that I’ve had for a couple of years caught my eye. I’d read other things by the author and liked them, and this one had an intriguing title. Then a thought struck me: “It’s awfully long.” I passed it by.

Something similar occurred a couple of months ago. One of my colleagues at Xavier was reading book three of A Song of Ice and Fire. That’s Game of Thrones for you TV viewers. I’d been watching the TV show myself and much enjoying it. I’d decided I wanted to read the books. But there stood my friend with a serious doorstop in his hands. It’s over 1200 pages. And that is one of a bunch in the series. I thought to myself, “I have not the strength.”

I’ve never been one to judge a book by its cover. In fact, I notice covers only in passing. But I’ve been aware for maybe a decade now that I’m becoming increasingly reluctant to start “big” books. Increasingly reluctant is the operative term. I used to read Stephen King novels. Not anymore. I used to read long-assed thrillers. Not anymore. Even if I love you, I’m just not going to read your 800 page opus. Or even your 600 page one. And probably not your 500 page one.

400 pages appears to be about my cutoff these days, but the book I rejected this morning for being too long was only around 380. My ideal length for a book that I’m about to invest my time in is between 185 and 250 pages. I’ll pretty readily go 300, especially for a thriller. But 350 is starting to push it.

I guess the question is, why am I becoming this way?  I have some thoughts, of course. First, I’m 56 and quite aware that I’m likely never to get all the books read I’d like to read. Five of my preferred size books would equal one Game of Thrones tome. Do I want to read a 1200 pager by George R. R. Martin, or would I rather read five other books by the likes of James Reasoner, E. C. Tubb, Joe Lansdale, Poul Anderson, and O’Neil De Noux? Five wins.

Second, I started out writing short stories mostly so I had very little idea how long novels needed to be. But I’ve written a number of novel length projects by now and I’ve never found the need to go beyond about 350 pages. I can’t even imagine how much padding I’d have to include to push one of my Taleran books to 1000 pages. They average a little over 200. And in almost every long book I’ve ever read, I’ve found what seemed to be padding. As a writer, I just don’t think one story in a million needs great length to be told effectively. In fact, padding a work is the opposite of being effective. Maybe once in a while a story really needs to be that long—once in a long, long while.

So what about you? Do you love big thick tomes heavily marbled with fat? Or would you prefer a leaner cut of meat? What is your ideal length for a novel?

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22 comments:

Bill Crider said...

I stopped (mostly) reading books over 400 pages some years ago. I make exceptions, but I prefer shorter works. Give me the old Gold Medal novels and writers. They got the job done in 144 pages a lot of the time.

Ty said...

I'm finding the older I get that I tend to prefer shorter works, but I'm still forcing myself to read some longer books. Really, it all depends upon my mood at any given time.

Cloudia said...

I think brevity is the soul of contemporary Art and writing, Charles.






"It's not what you gather,
but what you scatter
that tells what kind of life
you have lived."
Helen Walton



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James Reasoner said...

I have a 400 page rule as well and rarely break it. I have to be pretty sure I'm going to like the book to go beyond that length. But when I was young and had plenty of time to read I loved long books.

The Wasp said...

As I've gotten older I've developed a real aversion to the thousand-page fantasy novel. Maybe it's simplistic, but I can't believe anyone really has more to say the JRRT. Seriously, though, it's the rare book that long that isn't filled with filler.

Tom Doolan said...

As you noticed on my recent blog, my preferences pretty much mirror yours. Anything more than 300 pages makes me itch. My preference is around the 200-page threshold as well. However, I just realized that the book I am reading now, Blood and Iron by John Sprunk, is 424 pages. Assuming I make it through, it will be the longest book I've read since reading Without Remorse back in 1994 or so.

Angie said...

It depends on the book. Dune was pretty long (don't have a copy to hand to check) and as I recall from my old copy, the pages were tissue-thin. But there's a ton of meat in Dune, if you're the kind of reader who appreciates really wonderful worldbuilding.

Kate Elliot's Jaran is still a favorite, and it's almost two inches thick. Again, great worldbuilding, meaty plot, lots going on.

I can't bring any long books full of padding to mind, probably because if a book isn't appealing to me, I'll give it about four chapters max before I bail and go read something else. :P

Angie

sage said...

It's been a while since I read a Russian novel... I think I'm with you, I enjoy shorter books-under 400 pages.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Now that you mention it, that's been my trend as well. So much fantasy is epic and I just don't have time for a really long book. Especially as I am a slow reader. I am working on a Sanderson book right now, but the next one will be short.
As for my own books, they are around two hundred and fifty plus, so good to know that's an ideal number.

R.T. said...

I admit that long books intimidate me. I haven't thought about the true reasons for my aversion. Perhaps it has something to do with my OCD personality. And I am impatient. Nevertheless, I remember avidly devouring some of Micheners', Clavell's, Stephen King's, and Dan Simmons' door-stoppers. Perhaps some writers' skills hold my interest in longer works but other writers' styles turn me off quickly. And I have made a commitment to myself -- in spite of the odds against such commitments -- to read an assortment of canonical books (see my most recent Beyond Eastrod posting), and few giants lurk among the titles. Wish me luck!

pattinase (abbott) said...

As a kid, the longer the better. But now if it's more than 400 pages, I won't read it unless someone really makes its case. Or if my book club picks it. But I usually argue strenuously against a pick like that because most of them won't finish it either.

Steve Oerkfitz said...

Shorter is not always better. rereading some 60's SF paperbacks recently I noticed a few that seem abridged down from a longer length in the sense that they seemed skimpy on characterization and background detail. Poul Anderson's The High Crusade for one. Also I have read long books that fly by and shorter ones that drag. Just finished the new Lansdale Paradise Sky-close to 400 pages which is long for him. read it in 2 days. Whereas Ann Leckie's award winning Ancillary Justice took me a week to fight thru and it's rather short by todays standards.

Charles Gramlich said...

Bill, Yes, those Gold Medal books and the earlier paperbacks are ideal. A lot of the L’Amour’s I loved as a teenager were 175-185 pages.

Ty, I’m still reading some long nonfiction but not much fiction.

Cloudia, I agree.

James, In my teens and early twenties I certainly didn’t give any attention to length. I just read anything and everything that interested me. I started reading a lot of short story collections when I was in grad school and that may have started me down the road to reading shorter.

The Wasp, I feel precisely the same way.

Tom Doolan, I’m reading Four Past Midnight by Stephen King now. It’s over 700 pages, but it’s really one novel and three novellas so it doesn’t break my rule.

Angie, that brings up a point I worry about. I LOVED Dune and I sure don’t want to miss a Dune because of my aversion. I didn’t feel it was padded at all. We may have a different view on padding in part, though. I just finished reading Stephen King’s “The Langoliers,” 250 something pages. But it sure felt padded in places.

Sage, I think it’s this aversion that has kept me really from jumping in to some of the Russian classics.

Alex, I’m a slow reader just because I get relatively little time each day to read. I tend to read in bits and drabs around doing other things.

R.T., When I was in my teens and early 20s I didn’t mind those big books. I read Shogun, Dhalgren, plenty of King, Swan Song, etc. I do still plan to read some classics that I haven’t read and some of those are big so I can’t swear off big books at all.

Pattinase, I also have an aversion to quitting books that I’ve gotten a good start in, so I really don’t want to be stuck with another 3 or 400 pages of something I’m not loving.

Steve Oerkfitz, Thanks for dropping by. Subjective length versus objective length is certainly an important aspect. And true about some of the 60s SF paperbacks. I’ve found some of them, especially the series, to give short shrift to the ending of the story. I believe a lot of those publishers had very strict rules about keeping the length down, and it did hurt the writing sometimes.

Sphinx Ink said...

I agree with you and most of the commenters -- I prefer 400 pages or less. In my youth, I did read some mighty tomes -- from LORD OF THE RINGS to DUNE, from MOBY DICK to WAR AND PEACE -- but now I feel there are so many good shorter books waiting for me that those massive works are seldom worth the effort. The only doorstop-size novels I've read in the past 20 years are the now-ubiquitous installments of A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones). Those were worth the effort!

Sphinx Ink said...

I agree with you and most of the commenters -- I prefer 400 pages or less. In my youth, I did read some mighty tomes -- from LORD OF THE RINGS to DUNE, from MOBY DICK to WAR AND PEACE -- but now I feel there are so many good shorter books waiting for me that those massive works are seldom worth the effort. The only doorstop-size novels I've read in the past 20 years are the now-ubiquitous installments of A Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones). Those were worth the effort!

Bernard Lee DeLeo said...

Great post, my friend. Your insights into novel length becoming a key factor in your reading habits was very interesting. I liked the point you made about padding.

Charles Gramlich said...

Sphinx Ink, I managed Moby Dick a couple of years ago. It was quite the chore.

Bernard, padding is a dangerous business to get into.

Prashant C. Trikannad said...

Charles, I share your views on long books, and like you, I too prefer to read under 250-page novels now. I think, as age progresses I want to be able to read more books and authors though I'm aware that I'm also missing out on many great books, especially the classics and novels from the early to mid-20th century. Yes, I'd make an exception for thrillers and spy fiction as those are much easier to get out of the way, often in just two or three sittings.

Chris said...

I lean shorter for reading as well. There are some longer ones I wanted to get to, and I've actually been choosing to listen to them via audible.com. I've enjoyed that decision quite a bit.

Charles Gramlich said...

Prashant, I definitely feel the need to read more and varied books as I've gotten older.

Chris, I still haven't entered the audible age.

Riot Kitty said...

Well, I agree with you, size matters! ;)

Seriously, I'm put off my mammoth-sized books. Why not break it into a series? Easier on my wrists that way. Plus the fact that the longer the book, I tend to find the more pages that didn't really need to be in it. Like "Of Human Bondage." I love every one of Somerset Maugham's books except that one - probably because it was about 100 pages too long.

jodi said...

Charles-I don't mind a big, long book but the story must hold up. Too short tho, doesn't work for me-I get too invested in the characters!