I’ve read some pretty long books in the course of my life. Tolstoy’s War and Peace with the original French quotes included – 1,296 pages. The Far Pavillions by M. M. Kay which comes in at a mere 960 pages. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, another light book coming in at only 600 pages. The Twilight Saga books by Stephanie Meyer’s always surprise me because I tend to think of them as light reads but the books clock in at over five hundred pages each. Which brings me to an important point – size does not mean substance. I don’t think many would argue that the thick novels mentioned above are somehow better than John Steinbeck’s The Pearl or Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The simple truth is that in terms of quality it comes down to skill, not size.
I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve noticed a definite trend toward longer books. Last year I read a little over 150 books. Of those books, a good chunk were 400 or more pages. Here are just a few in no particular order:
- Flame Tree Road 400 pages B+/A-
- Dark Horse 468 pages A
- Vintage Tea Cup Club 407 B
- Blueprints 416 pages B
- Wildfire in His Arms 400 C+
- The Talon of the Hawk 438 B-
- Cress 550 pages C/C-
- Tiffany Girl 512 pages B+
- Be Afraid 416 C
- Circumstantial Evidence 475 A-
- The Sound of Glass 432 pages A-
- A Desperate Fortune 519 pages B-
- Obsession in Death 404 pages B-
- Exquisite Captive 480 pages C+/B-
- Closer Than You Think 544 C+
- Beyond Limits 400 pages B+
- Cold, Cold Heart 400 pages B
- Firefight 416 A
- Obsession 520 pages B
- A Week in Paris 464 pages B+
- Uprooted 465 pages A-
What fascinates me about the growing size of recent novels is that when I first started reading romance, long books were definitely “in”. The Flame and the Flower by Woodiwiss is 512 pages long and is credited with starting the current, more explicit, romance genre. The winner of the 1998 Top 100 Poll was A Knight in Shining Armor by Jude Devereux. It is 480 pages long. In contrast, the winner of the 2013 Poll, Lord of Scoundrels, clocks in at 100 pages less. Amanda Quick, sometimes credited with the start of the Regency craze, typically comes in at around 354 pages. I’m not sure when it happened but certainly in the last few decades, the books have grown shorter.
Part of that change in size might be accounted for by the fact that for a while there romance had carved a clear niche for itself, away from the long epics of the women’s fiction market and historical fiction markets. There were cross over books of course – Diane Gabaldon’s Outlander and The Bronze Horseman by Paulina Simmons come to mind– but for the most part they were distinct genres sold in different parts of bookstores and shelved in different parts of the library. Now I am seeing more and more of that cross over. Harlequin’s Mira label publishes epics like Shona Patel’s Flame Tree Road, which often get housed with romance. E-published authors like Lisa Clark O’Neil, R. Lee Smith and Michelle Diener, romance writers all, don’t feel constrained by page count or printing costs and write however long a story they want. Slowly, books upwards of 400 pages are making it back on to the romance market “shelves”.
I don’t know how I feel about that. In terms of personal enjoyment, size doesn’t matter to me. Again, it comes down to skill and quality. For example, my two favorite reads last year had close to a 200 page difference. Radiance by Grace Draven doesn’t appear on the list above. That’s because it clocked in at a mere 296 pages. The much longer Dark Horse by Michelle Diener, my other favorite, is a whopping 468 pages. So a good book can capture my love no matter what the size.
But in terms of picking a book, size definitely plays a role. I might take a chance on a short book I’ve heard nothing about but a long book has to have one of several things going for it:
An author I know, such as Susanna Kearsley, is more likely to get me to read a thick book. My first novel by her, Named of the Dragon, was a mere 295 pages. I loved it so gave her longer novels a try and I have been hooked ever since.
If it’s not by an author I know, the subject matter must be one that will have me picking up a book regardless of trepidation about its length. That was the case with Exquisite Captive and Dark Horse. Both of those books had covers which let me know they were about a subject I would enjoy. Each of them had a back blurb strong enough to overcome any hesitation I might have felt caused by size.
Continuation of a series plays a role as well. Both Cress and Obsession in Death are part of a series. I read them specifically for that reason.
It’s not that I don’t like long books. Obviously, I read quite a few of them. It’s just that I appreciate the fact that in the time it takes me to read a 400 page book, I could be done with a shorter novel and started on a new one already. From an addicts readers perspective that’s a powerful motive.
So how about for you – does a longer, fatter book capture your interest? Or does a small package, with excellent delivery, please you more? Or does size not matter to you at all?