The OF Blog: "Long" novels really do irritate me, it seems

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

"Long" novels really do irritate me, it seems

It is one thing when a novel has as much length as is necessary to tell a good tale, it is another matter when certain novels feel "longer" than perhaps they should have been.  Perhaps this has become ever-present in my mind ever since I started that re-read/commentary project three weeks ago, where virtually all of my non-BAF 4 readings are of multi-volume works.

The Dune Chronicles novels did not feel too "long" - most were around 400 MMPB pages and Herbert certainly seemed to need virtually all of those pages to flesh out the ideas he wanted to explore in each novel.  The WoT novels, on the other hand have felt much too "long" for the amount of content that's in there.  And now that I'm 3/4 done with the third SOIAF novel, A Storm of Swords, I'm beginning to feel something of the same sort toward this series, albeit in a much weaker form of the antipathy that I feel toward the WoT "longness."

Perhaps it's a matter of what constituted my formative reads.  I rarely read books longer than 400 pages growing up.  This is not to say I read "simple" works, but rather that the books that I did read (several "classics" of 17th-20th centuries European/American lit) tended to be more concisely written, perhaps in part because virtually all were mimetic fictions.  I understand the perceived "need" to explain the setting when it is an imaginary construct, but as I read these epic fantasies, my God do they feel as though the kitchen sink were explained in addition to the rest of the tale.  It's become a real slog in the past week or so to read these 800-1000 page monstrosities, especially when in most cases, the spirit of the novels could easily have been captured with a third fewer words.

I think beyond the stories themselves, it is this "longness" that I perceive in most of them that make it difficult for me to read many epic fantasies; certainly not this many (16 and counting) in a row.  I suspect this is something that will creep into my commentaries if I don't intersperse the readings with more than just the 2-3 magazines/journals I'm reading between these.  Shall be interesting to see what will grab my fancy around these re-reads.  I know Peter Burke's Varieties of Cultural History has been a great refresher for me when I just want to read a chapter or two of something completely different.

Ever experience anything similar to this?  What do you do about it when you want to read, but not read more of the same?


Neth said...


As my free time (read that as reading time) becomes shorter and shorter, I've become very aware of novel length. I do get annoyed when novels are overly long (even WOT novels, though I'm still an unabashed fanbory - for nostalgia as much anything). When selecting books to read, length is a key factor - 400 pages is about cutoff I use. Yes, I'll read something longer, but I'm much more likely to read something shorter.

But Larry, you know you prefer shorter novels. You know that epic fantasy is not your preferred form of fiction. Why on earth are reading so many right now? I honestly haven't been following your re-reading project - because of time, but also knowing what I do about your reading preferences, I find that I'm not all that interested in reading your reviews on them.

Lsrry said...


I'm practicing what I've preached, about stepping outside one's "comfort zones" in reading. Although the unnecessary length in many epic fantasy novels irritates me, there are some elements that I have discovered that I like more than I had previously suspected. It is for that reason why I believe this has been a good (re)reading project, this sense of self-discovery. Not that all the commentaries are going to be as insightful as others, but I think in writing these, much has been revealed to myself about what I like, don't like, and how things can shift back and forth between the two.

Neth said...

ahh...well good to hear that you're finding it a productive endeaver. If I can find the time, I may go back a read some of them.

Lsrry said...

No rush - they'll still be there years from now :P

But I did decide to pick up a third novel to mix in with the others, Manuel Mujica Lainez's The Unicorn (or rather, the Spanish original, El unicornio). This is a very different form of fantasy. For some reason, the intro reminds me (favorably) of some of Peter Beagle's stories and it's not because of the title. Very smooth prose (no idea how it'd read in translation) and it's only a shade over 400 pages, so I'll probably read 50-100 pages here and there between the other books, so the sense of sameness won't hit me.

Gabriele Campbell said...

See, and I prefer those juicy big books (except for WoT which I gave up on because it has too much filler and I hated 95% of the female characters). I'm more likely to buy 600+ page books than those anorexic 350 page ones - it takes some good recommendations for me, or they need to be part of a series.

Looking at my early reading habits, it was mostly doorstoppers - to name just a few randomly picked from my shelves: War and Peace, The Count of Monte Christo, Der Zauberberg (Magic Mountain), The Heart of Midlothian, The Karamassov Brothers, Splendeur et Misère des Courtisanes, Ein Kampf um Rom, Thomas Mann's Joseph trilogy, Middlemarch, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Liechtenstein, Le Chartresue de Parme ... pretty much the whole canon plus a genre sortiment (except for Dickens whose novels I didn't like). I read the lot before I was 16 and I still reread them. But I also reread LOTR and ASOIAF or Malazan Book of the Fallen.

Sure, there are shorter books I like, but the doorstoppers take up more space on my shelves, and not because they're well rounded. ;)

Liviu said...

I also tend to like long books if I love the writing style - even outside genre my recent big time favorites are books like The Kindly Ones (~1000 pages), 2666 (900), The Children's Book (600), Wolf Hall (560 but only half the story); to be fair there are shorter books I love also and this year so far both my top 2 novels so far (The Folding Knife and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet both at about 460) are not overtly long, but both are quite dense in their own ways so you feel you read a longer book.

Harry Markov said...

I have read only two time a very long work. 600 pages and beyond. It was a dualogy. The first time it worked well. Didn't feel too long, but the second time. It was too much and I spent months starting/pausing before I could finish.

Chad Hull said...

I'm aware of the fact when I'm reading a long book, but that isn't enough to mentally turn me off. Page count doesn't bother me, but books in a series sure as hell do; I wouldn't be surprised if reading about the same stuff for x-amount of novels is what fatigues you as a reader.

Stand alone books in a series--James Clavell, or David Gemmell for the genre reader--don't feel anywhere as 'long' as by the time we finish we get a complete story; but these open-ended series from eight-twenty-nine books to tell one story are absurd.

I can't imagine a long good fantasy book like Jonathan Norrell and Mr Strange or The Historian being one of eight; nor a concise non-fantasy book being broken into a series for that matter like Lolita or Dangerous Lives of Alter Boys.

I honestly think many fantasy writers are a bit full of themselves with the page count thing. If War and Peace can be told in a thousand pages, or Brothers Karamazov in eight-hundred what is so complex about and deep about WoT that takes 15 books to tell one story? Yeah it sells, and makes a lot of people happy--and that's all that matters--but it sure isn't necessary.

(I'm trying to careful tread around saying, "the disparity in fantasy genre writing quality is vast to say the least. I feel those doing the better work don't need a host of books in a series to prove their quality.)

Angelo said...

I guess a book's lenght shouldn't irritate you if you're enjoying it and you like to spend some time in that other world.

Maybe it's like getting your daily protein requirements. You can get it all with protein bars, wich takes less time and effort, than from real food. I guess it's a matter of taste. If you're not enjoying a book's lenght, is it really because of the lenght or the book itself?

Lsrry said...

Well, I did say in the body of this post that "longness" doesn't refer to page count as much as it does to extraneous material, which tends to weaken the story's appeal to me. Liviu and Chad mention books like 2666 and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, both of which are well over 700 pages. Yet neither one felt "long" to me because the story was told in the fashion necessary to complete (well, as much as could have been done for 2666) the tale, without much or anything in the way of perceived "padding." Several of the latter WoT books (and many of the earlier ones) feel as though they could have been compressed and the storylines would have been better for it. The so-called "world building," or as I'm beginning to think of it, "world porn," is never an attraction for me, so stories that emphasize that too much and end up detracting from the pace and flow of the story tend to be the most tedious reads for me.

James said...

I used to love long books and epic fantasy. Over the past two years though, my tastes have swung about. Most of the books I have read in the past couple years have been less than four hundred pages and a lot of those have been less than three hundred pages. Very, very, few have been epic or traditional fantasy.

These days I actively avoid long epic fantasy works and, more recently, series. The sole exception to this is Erikson's novels. I love his work (and feel that it just isn't an Erikson novel without all the extraneous shit stuffed into it), but the only way I can read those books is to read half and then put it aside for a few months to finish later. It has a lot to do with page count and padding. A long book is going to come with a measure of tedium no matter if I like it or not and excess padding is going to strip away some desire to continue picking up a book.

And I have to agree with you on world-building, Larry.

(Also, one of my favorite reads of the last few years was The Count of Monte Cristo, which comes in at well over a thousand pages of tiny print in my MMPB version. I enjoyed reading it, but I did have to split it in half and take a few months break from it. The amount of pages, no matter my enjoyment, does matter to me. I will admit to being a fickle reader though.)

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