How long is a novel? Ali Bacon looks at the changing shape - and size - of some favourite reads

How long does a novel have to be to be worthy of the name? With In the Blink of an Eye currently coming in at around 60,000 words, i.e. somewhere short of the regulation 70 – 90,000, I’m developing an awareness of the size of books I’m picking up to read.

Compact but totally satisfying
On my recent trip to Fife, bereft of a car and encumbered with hand-luggage I became doubly aware of the volume of my volumes. In Toppings of St Andrews, I turned down the new Arundhati Roy precisely because it was massive and looked around for something more compact. Elizabeth Strout's  My Name is Lucy Barton with its 190 pages of well-spaced type and lots of good reviews, fitted the bill exactly. Later (yes, bit of a book-buying spree) I added Ali Smith’s Autumnchunkier but still nicely manageable. Come to think of it, I had really enjoyed her Hotel World, and although I read it as an e-book, that one struck me as a fairly slim volume too. Back home and picking something at random from my everlasting TBR pile, my eagle eye spotted straight away the modest proportions of The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan– yes, 156 pretty wonderful pages.

Short, sweet, forgettable?
I liked some of these books more than others, but none of them felt in anyway less than a novel. But wait a minute – what about the infamously short On Chesil Beach? I’m a McEwan fan but remember feeling slightly cheated: a  story beautifully told that didn’t quite seem to measure up.  Was it different in quality to those mentioned above or would I feel differently if I reread it now? I suspect not. The Spinning Heart may be relatively short, but with its multiple viewpoints it has a narrative and social complexity lacking in On Chesil Beach.

Re the particular issue of size or length, I think this is only one of the ways way in which we as readers are looking for a different approach to the traditional extended narrative. Of the books I’ve discussed above, Hotel World and The Spinning Heart conform more closely to the idea of linked short stories than to a conventional novel. They have episodes in the voices of different characters which combine to reveal the over-arching narrative. The televisual equivalent is something like the bleak but riveting Broken – a series in which a priest’s personal struggles were revealed through the stories of his parishioners’ problems and how he deals with them.

Maybe what surprised me most in this interlude was a bookish discussion with a friend, in which she said she had given up on an acclaimed novel (I have forgotten which one but it was something I’d liked a lot) because it was too big, referring not just to its physical size but to the bulk, as I understood it, of the narrative; the emergence of characters and sub-plots which made her feel bogged down. This lady had a traditional education and reads widely in more than one language, but I sensed an impatience with the accepted novel form which I remember also seeing some years ago in a column by Andrew Marr which questioned how much longer the novel had to live. At the time I was shocked but now I have an inkling of what he means. I can still loose myself in a conventional novel of any length, but I’m happy to take on something a bit different. If it’s not going to take me weeks to read, so much the better.  

Ali with some of the early photos that inspired her next book
Wait, I hear you say, isn't the size of a book irrelevant in a blog that champions e-publishing? Certainly the length of an e-book is maybe less significant when it isn't weighed in the hand. But in the case of Blink I'm hoping to make significant 'hand sales' at book events and talks like the one I did last week in Dunfermline. My audience will be expecting tree-books,tree-books that meet their expectations in terms of appearance and value for money. 

Still, it looks like it’s not just me with my hand-luggage  who's in search of  a less bulky read. Which gives me heart that In the Blink of an Eye (multiple viewpoints, not quite as long as a novel) might actually catch the wave.

In the Blink of an Eye
is a re-imagining of the life of Edinburgh artist and photographer David Octavius Hill.
It will be published in spring 2018 by Linen Press. 
(Tree-book and e-book!)
Click here for full information.


Chris Longmuir said…
Some chunky books I've read in the past left me feeling they were overwritten. I couldn't have pinpointed what made me think this in the past but I now have a firmer grasp on the revision and editing process and I suspect some publishers do as well although not all particularly with higher profile writers. Getting rid of weasel words and sections less important to the story can drastically trim a novel. Thousands of words can be lost and in this age of rising costs it's well worth doing.
Wendy H. Jones said…
In many ways I agree with what you are saying. Sometimes it feels like a novel has been padded out to get it to a regulation book length. However, I sometimes like a longer book as, like you, Infeel slightly short changed by shorter books.
Jenny Alexander said…
I heard a high profile author on Radio 4 talking about this a while back - he put it down to the trend towards less editing - either because of economies in publishing houses or because editors could be intimidated by the status or celebrity of some authors and therefore reluctant to suggest major cuts. I felt rather vindicated, because I've given up on novels I find over-complicated or flabby, and most of my favourites tend to be much shorter. Nice post - thank you!
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Ali. An interesting post. It reminded me of my first published novel, Material Evidence. When I got to the murder trial in it, I really enjoyed writing the exchanges between prosecution and defence, the sort of verbal games they play, the surprise moments and all the other things that typify (at least in fiction) courtroom dramas. My editor at Piatkus, the excellent Kate Callaghan, liked it but thought it unbalanced the novel and asked me to shorten it. I didn't do a word count but I know that, as a result, the novel was 71 pages shorter - and much better for it.
AliB said…
Thanks everyone - I doubt there's a hard and fast rule-- but good editing never goes amiss :)
Ann Turnbull said…
I love short books! Even more so now I am old and there is so much I want to read. And I agree with Jenny: there is a lack of editing nowadays. It's puzzling that, in a time when everyone seems so busy, books are bigger (and heavier) than ever.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Margery Allingham and ... knitting? Casting on a summer’s mystery -- by Julia Jones

A writer's guide to Christmas newsletters - Roz Morris

Irresistably Drawn to the Faustian Pact: Griselda Heppel Channels her Inner Witch for World Book Day 2024.

What's Your Angle--by Reb MacRath