The Novel: Does Size Matter?

Louisa Ermelino -- November 11th, 2013


All the news this morning is the sale of Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel, City On Fire, for close to two million dollars. Every headline makes a point of pointing out that the novel is 900 pages. What’s that about? We seem to like everything else big… houses, cars, sandwiches, but when it comes to books, we get skittish.

Which made me think about long novels. I know they strike fear into the hearts of editors (even the binding is more complicated) and I know I’ve often thought that a book could have been edited, and that I’m not interested in “it’s great except for the middle hundred pages or “just get through the first ten chapters and it really takes off.” But what about a book that you never want to end? that you want to crawl off into a secret corner with and read until your eyes burn?

gonewiththewindIn 1936, were readers more willing to curl up with a 1037 page novel like Gone With the Wind (Warner Books got the paperback down to 1024)? I read that novel one summer at Camp Tekakwitha in New Jersey when I was ten (no, it was not in 1936) . We had one copy (it was a girl’s camp) and we sat in a circle and ripped the pages out one by one and passed them around.

John Dos Passos’s trilogy, U.S.A. (1937) at 1312 pages is another Depression novel that could go on forever without regret. Admittedly, I had to read that one for school but still it was worth every page.

Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1993), was a surprise bestseller, and at 1349 pages, one of the longest novels every pubished in the English language. Infinite Jest (1996), David Foster Wallace’s classic, clocks in at 1088 pages and the hardcover weighed 3.2 pounds. 1Q84 (2011) by Haruki Mrakami is a mere 944 pages.

I admit, 900 pages is a lot of book, but when it’s good, when every page counts, it’s unparalleled. I’m wishing Hallberg luck and if you’re still not convinced, don’t despair. You can always wait for the movie.

3 thoughts on “The Novel: Does Size Matter?

  1. Stephanie Moffitt

    One summer, 11 or 12 years ago, I went looking for a long read – I had been reading a novel a day, and frankly, the brevity was getting on my nerves. I walked into my local bookstore looking for something FAT. I found Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True and found a new favorite author.

  2. Richard Sutton

    PW’s announcement of the new debut mega-doorstop seemed odd to me because of how much the cost of printing and bulk returns have spiraled upwards since the earlier big books you mentioned. Of course, I have almost two feet of shelf space taken up with the hardbound books in GRR Martin’s A Game of Ice and Fire series, but I believe that the recent decision to publish a 900 page debut really flies in the face of not only reader attention span and printing costs, but it also questions margin and returns policy, let alone online discounting and WalMart. Of course, it may appeal to libraries that want to increase their shelf footage, but I just can’t imagine the reader who will want to struggle with this much weight and bulk for a recreational read. The author has been compared in the NY Times to Pynchon. I can handle Pynchon in doses of up to 500 pages or so happily, but twice that? I’d certainly be at odds with a Literature professor that made it a required read. So, yes, I think size does matter, in books and pizza.

  3. Chris Benson

    I’m about to finish the second thousand or so page novel in Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy.

    I’m torn between taking a break from this complex mess set in mid through late 17th-century Europe to read a couple of the quick and breezy nonfiction books that I more typically favor, but I’m afraid I’ll forget the details of the 150-odd characters I’ve been living with for the last 12 or 13 weeks!

    I love/hate Neal Stephenson.

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