Books just keep getting longer

What’s behind literary inflation? Authors get more verbose as they garner success, but prestige TV has also changed readers’ habits

Comically thick book

(Photo illustration by Stephen Gregory and Gerrit de Jonge)

When Ben Blatt succumbed to Pottermania, he was in Grade 3, and the third book—1999’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban—had just come out. “At that age, I considered a 300-page book to be rather imposing,” he recalls of a summer spent catching up on past events at Hogwarts while eagerly awaiting the next instalment. “But then each new book that came out was longer and longer. It got crazy.” The fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, ballooned to more than 800 pages. “Of course,” he adds, “I would have read them all even if they were 4,000 pages long.”

Fast-forward 18 years and Blatt can now prove what his nine-year-old self only felt. More than just wizard tales are getting longer these days. Blatt’s recently released book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, takes a big-data approach to literature. Just as complicated statistical analysis can reveal hidden truths for investors and sports teams, Blatt runs the numbers on books to uncover such things as characteristics of famous opening lines and, in one of his more intriguing sections, how authors appear to get more verbose with success. “Harry Potter was my jumping-off point, but it quickly became apparent the same thing happens to a lot of other series, like Fifty Shades of Grey or Twilight,” Blatt says. “Book inflation is real.”

This expansionary trend holds for literary works as well as popular potboilers. Going back to 1980, Blatt examined the word count of authors whose first book was a big hit or won a major prize. Among this collection of successful rookies, 72 per cent wrote a longer novel their second time out. Most were quite a bit longer. Blatt suspects the twin temptations of ego and ambition explain much of this phenomenon. “If your first book is well-received, your publisher is going to be happy,” he says. “And so you figure it’s time to write the great American novel.” Amy Tan could be considered a cautionary tale in this regard. While she scored a major success with her compact first novel, The Joy Luck Club, in 1989, everything she’s written since has been much longer and much less successful.

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Blatt admits book inflation doesn’t hold for all authors. Some stick religiously to a proven formula. Every book in The Hunger Games trilogy, for example, has the same number of chapters and sections, and almost identical word counts. But there’s plenty of evidence to support the inflationary trend across fiction as a whole. A recent study of New York Times bestsellers reveals their average length has grown from 320 pages in 1999 to 407 in 2014. A more casual survey by a book blogger found that popular novels appear to have doubled in length between the early 1900s and today. The same thing holds for non-fiction: biographies of U.S. presidents and other important figures now routinely exceed 1,000 pages.

Amy Tan notwithstanding, going longer doesn’t seem to be a barrier to success. Stephen King’s first book, Carrie, could actually fit in your back pocket. Today the horrormeister’s books often require their own satchel: Sleeping Beauties, coming in September, is listed at 720 pages. Everything romance writer Nicholas Sparks has written since his much-loved debut, The Notebook, has been substantially larger, but with no apparent impact on tears shed or books bought.

“People aren’t intimidated by huge books anymore,” says Melanie Kindrachuk, a librarian at the Stratford Public Library in Ontario and chair of the provincial library association’s Readers’ Advisory Council. “If it’s a big book by a popular author, they’re prepared to give it a try.” This may be partly due to technology: a 1,000-page epic weighs no more than a limerick when on an e-reader. But it also reflects changing habits. “If someone comes into our library asking for a book suggestion, I’ll start by asking them what they’re watching on TV,” Kindrachuk says. “If they’ve just finished binge-watching Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones, I know they’ll have the patience for a bigger book.” With television training readers to prefer longer stories, writers and publishers are happy to oblige. But is more always better?

“Books getting longer is often a failure of quality or planning,” advises Erin Bow, an award-winning Canadian novelist whose two-book young-adult series, The Scorpion Rules and The Swan Rider, is set on a goat farm in post-apocalyptic Saskatchewan. “If my books started to sprawl, it would be because I’m doing something wrong.” Stories have a natural length that writers must learn to respect, she says. In fact, author J.K. Rowling later admitted The Order of the Phoenix should have been much shorter. And the ever-expanding girth of Stephen King’s recent oeuvre has earned him the derisive title of “King Bloat” within the publishing industry. “If some banks are too big to fail, I guess some authors are too big to edit,” observes Bow.



Books just keep getting longer

  1. It’s quite simple really – too many editors are intimidated by their star authors … afraid to edit them properly and without the gumption to stand up to them. No editor or publisher is going to take the chance of losing their star bread winner. And too many new editors don’t actually have the training to properly edit something… they’ve come from some other area of expertise that has nothing to do with the literary field.

  2. What a curious complaint. It’s a personal decision whether you crack the covers or not and/or how many pages you read; if the author can engage enough to get at least some readers to the end, kudos to them. How long the author takes is pretty much their decision, no doubt with input from their editors and publishers, and there are not, contrary to what this article suggests, any particular rules. I read ‘War and Peace’ (~1200 pages) and though I sometimes struggled to recall which character with the same name was which, found myself dragged into a few too many drawing rooms where comedies of manners dragged on, more than a few times I was rewarded by places where the fog dissolved into brilliant images which in places could only exist after being thoroughly indoctrinated: suddenly, having plodded through a stuffy and leaden place, one finds themselves with a panoramic view of the brutality and nonsense of war laid out before them then being lead through ultimately futile attempts to explain or justify it – perhaps exactly the point. I’ve also read ‘Connecticut Yankee’ (only 450 pages) in spite of my aversion to Mr Twain’s frequent rising to the bully pulpit, something that Mr Tolstoy managed with far greater subtlety, but I don’t hold it against him; after all, when I was young and several times since he took me on a long physical and metaphorical trip down a river through the heart of America – 366 pages but one could argue that such a trip couldn’t have been done any faster – perhaps when you turn the last page it even ended too soon.