107. Do Readers Prefer Long Novels?

I am cursed with brevity. It’s really hard for me to write a long book. My novel is currently a svelte 40,000 words. Yet the trend is against me. With long-haul holidays comes the “airport blockbuster”, a novel massive enough to last a flight across the world.

Blockbusters aren’t new. In the days when the reading classes tended to be the leisured classes, blockbusters were de rigeur. Think, for example, of what may be the longest novel in the English language, Samuel Richardson’s 1748 Clarissa, weighing in at 467,870 words. It’s a Sumo wrestler of a book.

braille_divine_tome_of_carim

Not that shorter books haven’t made the literary prize list. Thomas Love Peacock’s 1818 novel Nightmare Abbey is an anorexic 18,300 words and John Buchan’s 1915 The Thirty Nine Steps is a skinny 29,725 words.

Ian McEwan says “I do love this form, the idea that we are sitting down to a book that you could read at one sitting, or within three hours much as you might go to a movie or opera or long play.”

From the author’s perspective, a book should be “as long as the story needs”. But publishing is a business, and has to respond to market trends. So what are those trends?

Current advice is that fiction for adults should be somewhere in the 70,000 to 110,000 word range, a little longer for fantasy and sci-fi. (See for example Harry Bingham and Chuck Sambuchino)

I took a look at how the trend changed over time, using the Guardian 100 best books list and, for the twenty-first century, the winners of the Man Booker Prize.  The trend indicates that the heyday of shorter books was in the hundred years between 1851 and 1950.

novel lengths table

From Cervantes’ Don Quixote, published in 1615 (and arguably the first novel) to Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons at the end of the eighteenth century there are eight books, with an average length of 213,966 words. Only one book is less than 80,000.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, there are 11 books, averaging 130,228 words, with two below 80,000. In the second half of the nineteenth century (16 books) the average rises a little to 176,680 words. But, at the same time there are more books (six) below 80,000 words of which half are below 50,000 words. This may reflect growing literacy among the “lower” classes and tastes for stories like Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

1024px-dr_jekyll_and_mr_hyde_poster_edit2
1880s poster

Come the first half of the twentieth century, and the average of the 23 books falls to 104,189 words. Books below 80,000 words make up over half the list, and books shorter than 50,000 words are over a fifth. Oh that I were alive and writing then! The average length for the 39 books in the second half of the twentieth century doesn’t change much, but the proportion under 80,000 words falls to a third and under 50,000 to a tenth. The airport blockbuster had arrived.

In the twenty-first century, this trend seems to have continued. The average length of the 18 Man Booker winners shows a 13% increase compared with the previous half century, and the proportions below 80,000 and below 50,000 words have continued to drop.

This seems to be at odds with some claims that readers’ attention span has fallen and that there is a trend for shorter books. There is some indication of a rebirth of interest in short stories and other short-form styles, particularly in digital format. Agent Clare Alexander says that the marketing challenge may be that of selling middle-sized works.

However, few publishers are seeking novellas. A quick search unearthed:

So the idea of a growing market for short forms may be an urban myth rather than a reality. Agent Kristen Nelson in 2006 noted a trend for authors submitting shorter books, rather than a trend for publishers wanting them. In fact, other surveys have also noted a trend to increasing length. A study of 2,500 titles on the New York Times bestseller and notable book lists found that between 1999 and 2014, average length increased by a quarter, from 320 pages to 400.

Only in non-fiction is there evidence of a trend towards brevity. A study of 272 non-fiction bestsellers on the New York Times list between 2011 and 2017 found a downward trend in average length, from 467 pages to 273 pages.

 

Do you suffer the curse of brevity? What do you do about it? Do you enjoy short novels? Where do you find them?

11 thoughts on “107. Do Readers Prefer Long Novels?

  1. Where is the cutoff for a novella? I have works up to about 30K words that i call “novellas”. I think there is some market for novellas. 40K seems to be between the novella and short novel length.

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    1. There’s no agreed word count for a novella. Generally, the upper boundary of a short story is taken to be around 7,500 words. Some people make a distinction between a (shorter) novelette and a (longer) novella. The upper boundary of the novella is usually no longer than 40,00 words, though for some it can be 30,000 or even 20,000

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Much of my Twitter feed includes flash fiction writers, some of whom have produced novellas, so this topic of yours has been on my mind, too.

    I find the subject of preferred reading length fascinating and puzzling; I can’t even answer the question for myself, at least not simply. I have many reading adventures going on at any given time and of varying lengths. In my purse is an anthology of 100-word flash pieces, as well as a novella in flash. By my bed are the Sun, Creative Nonfiction, the New Yorker, Poets and Writers, and other magazines (the first two get read most often). Downstairs where I start my day, I’m reading two novels, Less and My Name is Lucy Barton. In the bathroom awaits an 800-page novel I love but am reading sporadically, and literary journals full of short stories that tend to inspire and wow me.

    What length do I prefer? Any, I think, as long as the story or piece interests me and is compellingly written. I enjoy stories for pure entertainment and others that make me work. I prefer real live pages, but own and use a Kindle, too.

    As for what the general public wants? Hmm, a bit of a mystery these days, me thinks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Having written more than 36,000 words of a novel and still not managed to get my two central characters to meet, this article’s very interesting. Although I optimistically predict my characters will meet before I get to 40,000 words, my story is going to take X?X words to tell. When I know how many it’s taken then I will know a bit more about what to do next. For the time being my focus is on keeping a chapter interesting so the reader or listener won’t become preoccupied with length. To this end I have widely varying chapter word counts. One is just 240. Of course this may change as the writing continues but I find that something important but fairly bland in the telling is better as a standalone chapter. It seems to have more impact.

    In line with Elmore Leonard I try to keep myself invisible and to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.

    Like Britt I have an eclectic mix of reading matter on the go i.e. Jessica’s Mitford’s “The American Way of Death”, “Great Parliamentary Scandals” by Matthew Parris and Kevin Maguire and several copies of Private Eye. Miranda Seymour’s biography of Lady Ottoline Morrell is always close at hand. My shelves are full of reference books and biographies. Only a handful of novels. I have a problem with novels. Short or long I can be lost to them by page three if they’re not careful and this is mainly because (a) they are not interesting enough and/or (b) I can sense the writer’s preoccupation with marketability. I also slip through the attention net if I spot an editing glitch. I am very unforgiving of other writers. If the sun was shining before your man went in the pub please don’t make the sun come out when he’s sat in the bar.

    I am therefore attempting to write the novel which is perfect for my own consumption. Well if you don’t have a dream, how you going to have a dream come true?

    I do keep a close eye on word count as I write but for now that is more about wanting to achieve a specific number of words every week. My main focus is to tell an interesting story with a point. Creating a bunch of characters and situations does not necessarily make an interesting or thought-provoking book. I have read novels that are well-written but the characters don’t resonate. Their stories don’t penetrate.

    Some do e.g. novels by Monica Dickens, Muriel Spark, Margaret Atwood and Jojo Moyes.

    Jojo Moyes is the most pertinent here since she’s a highly successful present-day novelist. I would say her books average around 90,000 words but that’s a guess. I never counted because I was enjoying them. And reading one book lead me to read another. Proof of the excellence of Jojo’s particular pudding.

    My fascination with the human condition and its anxious gritty truths can be amply demonstrated by a quick check through my biography collection. Truth is stranger, infinitely more horrific and endlessly interesting,

    So whatever its length, fiction must be really well done to get my vote. And whatever its purpose or point, whatever its fantasies of triumph and tragedy, maybe include a touch of funny? Then it will definitely mirror reality.

    Like

    1. We should write one together one day, Jilly. With my brevity and your meandering it would surely be a lovely and perfectly formed offspring. You’re absolutely right about how long a story should be – as long as it takes to get to the end. But the market is unforgiving of those with deviant looks

      Liked by 1 person

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