December 11, 2015
This year’s publishing trend—the remarkably lengthy novel
by Julia Fleischaker
You might have heard about a book that came out recently—a little thing called City on Fire (944 pages)? Or, maybe you read something about A Little Life (rather big, actually, at 736 pages)? Okay, how about A Brief History of Seven Killings (704 pages)?
These are just a few oversized novels that broke out this year, leading Richard Lea at The Guardian to ask: Are books getting longer?
Books are steadily increasing in size, according to a survey that has found the average number of pages has grown by 25% over the last 15 years.
A study of more than 2,500 books appearing on New York Times bestseller and notable books lists and Google’s annual survey of the most discussed books reveals that the average length has increased from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.
According to James Finlayson from Vervesearch, who carried out the survey for the interactive publisher Flipsnack, there’s a “relatively consistent pattern of growth year on year” that has added approximately 80 pages to the average size of the books surveyed since 1999.
A contributing factor to this embiggening of novels might just be publishing’s favorite scapegoat: the ebook. As Finlayson told The Guardian, “I always hold off buying really big books until I’m going on holiday, because I don’t want to lug them around in my bag. But if you have a big book on a Kindle, that’s not a consideration.”
Literary agent Clare Alexander disagrees with that reasoning, citing the e-popularity of genre books like crime, romance and erotica. “Despite all the talk of the death of the book because of competition from other media,” she says, “people who love to read appear to prefer a long and immersive narrative, the very opposite of a sound bite or snippets of information that we all spend our lives downloading from Google.”
Perhaps most optimistically, Max Porter, editor of Granta, cites the rise of the big novel as evidence of the form confidently asserting itself.
“A big book inhabits the space you’re in,” he argues, “it’s a physical embodiment of your intention to spend the time necessary to read it.” The contemporary novel’s increasing girth can instead be put down to a confident assertion of identity. “The novel has come into its own novel-ness. There so many demands on our attention, so many competing forms, that these novels have decided to relish being big and long, to demand that you sit in a chair, turn off your phone and devote some time to them.”
Julia Fleischaker is a former director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.