Are novels too long?

Ah, the Booker prize and its minor controversies. Every year someone swaggers up to tell us that the books entered need to more readable, or more challenging, or funnier, or more serious, or that they need to feature less llamas, or more llamas, or that all novels should be written by Joe Pasquale, or whatever. This year, some of the judges claimed a lot of the novels entered were too long. That inside every fat novel they read there was a thin novel fighting to get out. As somebody who used to review books, and who had his soul slowly eroded by reading six-hundred-page novels written by young white men with fuck all to say about anything, I can sympathise. A bad long novel is an unwelcome house guest. The relentlessness of it, the drudgery, gets under your skin, eats away at you. In a nutshell: bad big books suck.

When a big book is good though? Ooooooh, that’s a nice. To lose yourself in a huge one, all wordy and worldly and everything. A Belle de Seigneur or a Darkmans or a Wolf Hall, isn’t it? Smashing.

So are novels too big? Yes and no. Yes and no.

There is no ideal length for a novel. Every story needs its own amount of telling. However, dear reader, a lot of you, as your eyes drift along a bookshelf, are looking for something with a certain thickness, a certain heft. You want a minimum of 226 pages. You can’t help yourself. It’s just your way. 128 pages for £6.99 or 284 pages for £8.99? Do the maths. It’s a no-brainer mate. Take the big one. Even if it isn’t very good. Because the page-per-pound ratio is superb.

So if books are too long, it’s your fault, kind of.

OK, not you personally. You’re a good egg. You’ve read Grief is the Thing with Feathers, and The Beauty, and A Month in the Country. But you know what I mean. The adage that debut novelists should be looking at producing a manuscript of seventy thousand words or so if they want to get an agent, isn’t based on some magic formula for producing good literature. It’s what sells.

So, yeah, a few of those books on the Booker shortlist probably were a bit too long. A lot of books are. But if I think about books that I have found a bit too long over the years, if I made a list of them, that list would include a fair few Booker shortlisted novels. Which is to say, you reap what you sow, mate.

Maybe. I dunno. It’s probably just a subjective thing.

There is no simple way to avoid books that are thirty pages too long. You could try buying shorter books, but even a lot of novellas are little more than short stories that have been stretched out in an unhealthy manner. You can’t win. There will always be bloated novels floating around. Just don’t blame the editors. It is your eye for a bargain that has got us where we are.