While we’re taking issue (or I am, at least) with the suggestions in this Library Journal open letter from a librarian, I thought it’d be interesting to talk about her issue with book length: “Unless you’re publishing Madame Bovary or The Brothers Karamazov, 200 pages is plenty.”
I’ll leave aside the issue that even the newest of the books she cites as the ideal length is 12 years old and most of them are 40 or more. And I’m all for a variety of book lengths for a variety of readers and reader skill levels (not to mention age groups). I’m a little more troubled by the idea that she lists this suggestion under the subhead, “Better editing.”
Personally, I don’t think editing has much to do with it. I’ve read any number of adult books recently that made me think, “Boy, this could be about 25% shorter and we’d never know the difference.” I have NEVER read a published middle-grade or YA book and thought that. I may not have liked it, and I may have seen things I thought were editorial lapses, but I’ve never thought a published book for young readers was bloated or rambling. Generally, I think “our” pacing is excellent and there is rarely a lick of padding — there’s just plenty of story packed between the pages.
And what about SFF/fantasy books in particular, which lately are more likely to be long books than contemporary fiction? One could argue (I’m not sure I’m prepared to) that the fact that a story takes place in another time, place, or universe suggests that the author might need a few more pages to establish those settings or inform the reader about things that can simply be taken for granted in a contemporary book. Does it? Or are fantasy authors, and readers, simply more likely to indulge or wallow in their worlds and peoples? And if so, is that perfectly okay, as long as we have, as it were, “consenting readers”?
(I’ve certainly heard book people talk about kids who wouldn’t look twice at a book if it wasn’t 300 pages because they’ve become used to lengthy books, love them, and know anything shorter would be over too soon. I’ve also had loads of readers who simply assume that if there is one book, there WILL be a series, and when does the next one come out?? Even my shortest novel for the youngest readers is 217 pages, and some of that length is because the publisher felt it would be too skinny to appeal without a pretty decent font size and some illos. And my second-shortest novel, which is 240 pages (well over that 200 limit), is the only one that had otherwise glowing reviews say, in short, “I wished it was longer and/or X was developed more.”)
I will admit that when selecting which book to read next, a thick one will often go lower in my TBR pile because I know it will take me longer to complete. But I’m not convinced young readers think the same way, I’m almost certain it’s not for the same reason if they do, and I wouldn’t want that particular book to be thinner or ever let it affect a purchase decision — I’m just prioritizing my to-do list to be able to cross more things off sooner.
What do you think? Have HP and Redwall and a few titles like that given authors word diarrhea? Or are there elements of spec fic particularly that beg for or require greater length?
– Joni, who probably couldn’t write a novel under 200 pages to save her life.