I was poking around the internets the other day, and I discovered an amusing list of cliches that aspiring fantasy novelists should avoid — among them were making sure you didn’t have a character who could be described as a “forgetful wizard,” and steering clear of making up races that use the “half-” prefix.
But the one that caught my eye advised writers to avoid writing a book thicker than a New York City phone book.
There was a time when a decent-sized novel was about 400-500 pages. You felt like you were getting your money’s worth. Depending on how fast of a reader you are, it could be a journey that took you some time to complete. But recently it’s almost become the norm to create tomes of 1,000 pages or more, and anything less feels like easy reading.
How did we get here?
Well, the most obvious answer is that The Lord of the Rings, the seminal work of fantasy that basically created the genre, is a weighty 1,008 pages in its entirety, and that’s not including the 100+ pages of appendices. Of course, when it was first published, Rings was famously split into three books, and is often misconstrued as being a trilogy, when it fact it is meant to be read as a single novel.
Why so long? Tolkien was doing more than just writing a simple novel. He was also providing a window into a world no one but him knew, and that required a lot of description. Though touched upon in The Hobbit, light had to be shone more thoroughly on elves, dwarves, ents, and orcs, and while many people criticize the books for its large amount of pages in which characters are traveling to and fro (check out Kevin Smith’s Clerks 2 for a good laugh about the film version), it is that traveling that allows the reader to get to know this foreign terrain. And it’s a testament to Tolkien’s genius that it’s so engaging.
But as for the modern abundance of lengthy novels? I blame Harry Potter.
It’s no secret that J.K. Rowling’s beloved series began modestly with a few slim books aimed at young children, only to balloon into an epic, sprawling masterpiece meant for readers of all ages. (I recall Stephen King a few years ago writing that he was tired of hearing new works heralded as “Harry Potter for grown-ups.” As he pointed out, Harry Potter is Harry Potter for grown-ups.)
The series, which peaked page-wise with the fifth installment, Order of the Phoenix (almost 900 pages!), proved that there was a market for lengthy novels in the teen-to-young adult market, as well as for older readers.
Each one of Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga books, for example, are increasingly long, starting with Twilight at 498 pages, and capping with Breaking Dawn, which came in at 756 pages.
Is this a good thing, this trend towards books heavier than most toddlers? It depends. While it can be a joy to take a long journey with a book, they can’t all be The Lord of the Rings. One of my favorite books of all time is The Mists of Avalon, which can put a small-town phone book to shame with its girth, but that’s not to say I don’t enjoy a book that one can finish on a long train ride, either.
I worry that aspiring fantasy novelists now might feel that they have to make their books long just for the sake of being long, and not in service of their story. To them I give this advice, start small. After all, the original British publication of J.K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was a svelte 223 pages, and look where she is now.
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