How long is a novel? I am at that stage in my current ms where I am starting to worry about novel length. A lot.
This is a story that has deepened and matured over time. The first draft umpty-um years ago was just over 100K words. Which I knew was too long for what it delivered. But is that still true?
I think it’s grown in complexity. But is it really delivering more, or is that just vainglorious fantasy because I’ve been working on it so long? AAARGH.
So I’ve been digging a bit to see what I can discover about novel length across time and genres.
Novel Length – in the Beginning
The first novel out of the trap in English is generally held to be Pamela or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson in 1740. It comes in at around 177,000 words. The plot is convoluted and repetitive. The story doesn’t need to be that long. But Richardson was the printer as well as the author and he got the thing into two volumes. So if you wanted to know the ending, you had to buy Book 2. Result! Reviews were mixed but it was scandalous and hugely successful.
It seems as if he was also a prize tiffler, expanding letters and adding new ones to his book as he went. His second, Clarissa (1747), was longer. Like Pamela it is delivered in letters and, to be fair, they are not the most economical way of delivering narrative. (Though the hero-villain’s letter to his friend to tell him that Clarissa’s seduction is completed is brutally concise: “It is done.”) There are more characters and more events, too. But still is was surely unnecessary to hit 970,000 words. I think it may still be a record.
Even A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (1993) was only 591,552.
The Three Volume Novel
Like many romantic novelists, I have long winced over poor Miss Prism in The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). According to Oscar Wilde’s Lady Bracknell, she had penned “a three volume novel of more than usually revolting sentimentality.” Was the three volume novel the Victorian norm, then?
Well, yes and no. At the prestige end of the market, they held sway for nearly 70 years from 1820 or so. But they were (and remained) expensive at half a guinea a volume. Publishers delayed producing a single volume version for, say, a year after. (Think of the old relationship between hardback and paperback in the last century as a comparator.)
The 3 decker was the brain child of Sir Walter Scott’s publisher, Andrew Constable. He worked the price up from seven shillings the volume for Waverley (1814) to ten shillings for Ivanhoe (1820) until Kenilworth (1821) finally reached ten shillings and sixpence, which became universal and remained stable until 1894.
Ivanhoe is 179,00 words long. I read it when young and thought I loved it. Only then I found that the book I’d read had been abridged for children. The real thing was, well, so turgid in places I could hardly bear it. And in 2012, Professor David Purdie, President of the Sir Walter Scott Club, produced a new version at 80,000 words.
Victorian Novel Length
The word count for the three volume novel was around 150-200,000. All the Victorian greats were published in this form, as well as cheaper single volumes and, frequently, serialisation. Dickens, of course. Trollope. George Eliot. The Brontes.
But so were popular novelists like Rhoda Broughton. She wrote her daring first novel, Not Wisely But Too Well, when she was only twenty-two. It was turned down by one shocked publisher – the heroine is seduced by a sexually irresistible cad – but it was hugely successful. She became a best seller and her publisher, anxious to maximise the return on another title, Second Thoughts, offered her £750 for the two-volume-sized manuscript, but would increase it to £1,200 if she added enough story to make a third volume.
Of course, few readers could afford the three-decker. They mostly borrowed them from the circulating libraries, like Mudies, on whose consistent purchases Victorian publishers could rely. But the profile of the reading public changed and so did the economics of the industry. The habitual three volume novel declined over the 1890s and the last 4 were published in 1897.
What Readers Want?
Writers slimmed down their offerings. Padding reduced, along with sententious authorial commentary. Film makers adapted novels – Ouida’s Under Two Flags (1867), Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks (1907) . The audience began to appreciate a punchier style of story telling.
Writers adapted to it, partly by cutting out the boring bits but also by narrowing their focus and reducing the cast list of the book in progress. It might still include history, adventure, social issues, murder, mayhem, a ghost and/or a love story. But one theme would start to predominate, at least in popular fiction. Discrete genres began to evolve.
It seemed to be a gift for the reader. Temporarily, it made life more difficult for the publishers.
They soon adapted. And readers did too, with more precise expectations of one genre or another. But not so much on length, as far as I can see.
The Writer’s Perspective
Which brings me back to my current conundrum. How long should my novel be? For the reader to enjoy it?
There is all sorts of advice out there. I even found an interesting rule of thumb on word length per genre.
An editor once told me that if I wasn’t sure, kick out the first three chapters. Then start from Chapter Four. (That’s certainly advice Walter Scott could usefully have followed. Well, at least the first chapter or two.) Doesn’t work with my current story.
Another editor told me that her employer felt a novel should be as long as it needed to be. Which is comforting but not terribly helpful in identifying a ballpark target.
So I’m back to flying into the mist in editing, as well as writing. Wish me luck.