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February 06, 2019


Marcia Talley

I don't think any of Agatha Christie's novels were more than 60,000 words; most of the Golden Age mysteries, in fact, seem to run around 180-200 pages max. When I bought the latest Galbraith for my Kindle, I wasn't aware until I saw it in a bookstore that it was 670-some pages. No wonder it was such a slog.

Aimee Hix

About 350 is my sweet spot, I'd say. Every once in a while Ill pick up an epic that's longer but for my day-to-day reading, which is almost always a mystery, I prefer the get-in, get-out whodunit.

Art Taylor

Great post, Elaine. I always point to Gatsby, which is barely 47,000 words--what some people might terms a novella really and yet what's been championed so many times as THE Great American Novel. I've said with short stories that a story will find its right length (sometimes over a lot of drafts, a lot of cutting, a lot of mistakes) and I think that's true of a novel too. An arbitrary length may be useful for publishing but for craft.... maybe not always.

Storyteller Mary

You raise an interesting question, and while I wouldn't set an absolute limit to length, I do get impatient with unnecessary padding, repetition, and lengthy description. I have occasionally wished for a Reader's Digest condensed version of overly-wordy books, and there was one Harry Potter book (the fourth?) that could have used some pruning. (Yes, I said it ;-)
Some weighty tomes send me, despite my preference for "tree books," searching for ebook versions, for the sake of my hands. It the prose is lovely, I may overlook some extra length for the pure enjoyment of poetic descriptions, and if the action is quite compelling, I'll read non-stop.

Alan P.

I think it is J.K. Rolling wannabes. Harry grew in pages at a pretty good clip.

But I don't buy the pound. Tell me a good story. There are some pretty powerful authors who can get it done around 200 pages.

Alan P.

I have read all of the Ian Fleming Bond books as well as several of the additional stories. No, other than the titles, very little Fleming is one the screen after the first three movies*. All of them are under 200 pages. One of his books is a collection of short stories.

* When Casino Royale came out there was a lot of talk about the violence and the story. The movie is about 90% true to the book. The big change. Baccarat is switched to Texas Hold'em.

Elaine Viets

You're spot on, Marcia. Most of the Golden Age writers published books in the 250-page range. A big change from today's novels. I like JK Rowling, but her mysteries could use a good trim.

Elaine Viets

Yep, I feel the same way, Aimee. The novel has to really grab me to keep me reading more than 350 pages.

Elaine Viets

I'd like to see the return of the novella, Art. Mark Twain said something like everything ever written is too long -- and he's right when it comes to the modern mystery.

Elaine Viets

A thoughtful commentary, Mary. I've fallen asleep over those weighty tomes when I read in bed -- a painful experience.

Elaine Viets

Love that books by the pound phrase, Alan. The Bond books turned out to be a pleasant surprise after the movies.

Storyteller Mary

Addendum: When I was in grade school, the bookmobile limited the number of books we could check out, and in order to have enough to last, I would seek out bigger books. I've also been told that Russian novels are so long because Russian winters and train journeys were so long.

Elaine Viets

Ah, yes, the bookmobile. It brought great excitement to our neighborhood in Florissant, Missouri. I loved the smell of the bookmobile and the librarians were so helpful.

Cath from Australia

An uncle of mine had a theory that you could tell when a writer moved from a typewriter to a computer by the increase in the length of their books. He was fond of using Asimov’s Foundation series as an example.

Elaine Viets

I like that theory, Cath, and I think it's true. The Golden Age writers either typed their own manuscripts on clunky typewriters or hired secretaries. I used to use those things. When I switched to a computer, writing was so much easier.

Storyteller Mary

Asimov was one of the first to make use of computers for writing. In a PBS interview, he gave insights into how this new technology worked and said the biggest change for him was that he no longer tried to think of new words to avoid having to correct a typo.

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