In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says,
The weight of [a book] in your hands tells you the other stuff that you can take in without reading a single word. The book’s length, naturally, but more: the commitment the writer shouldered in order to create the work, the commitment Constant Reader must have to digest it.
Big books can be intimidating. They’re a time commitment. Say you start a huge behemoth of a novel and it doesn’t interest you. What a waste for picking up the book in the first place! But what if — gasp — that large book hooks you in its opening scene and never lets go. Then what? You’re in for some long sleepless nights. For weeks, if you’re a slow reader like me.
And you know what? I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I’ve always been fascinated by big novels, even when I was kid. When I was nine and ten years old and reading every Goosebumps book I could get my hands on, I always marveled at those big books on the shelf, knowing that one day I would tackle each one. When you’re a kid, the big books feel like the holy grail because getting to read one means you’ve come of age as a reader. Reading something 500 pages or 600 pages or even longer means that you are in the big leagues, for now and for the rest of your life.
The first truly big novel I can remember reading is Boy’s Life, by Robert McCammon, when I was fifteen. At about 600 pages, this novel swept me up from its first page and never let me go until I read that final sentence. This book, still my all-time favorite novel after all these years, taught me the glory of the longer novel and that, when the story works, there is just an infinite amount of pleasure because there are always so many more pages to go.
Cut to nearly twenty years later since I read Boy’s Life and I still am in awe of big novels that run at least 500 pages, mostly because as a fiction writer myself I understand the amount of work and time and energy that goes into writing a short story, let alone a novel. I’ve spent nearly three years working on a middle grade novel that runs a mere 160 pages. I’ve spent nearly two years working on my MFA thesis novel that is currently topped out at about 270 pages. The idea of working on a novel that was 500 pages or longer is sort of inconceivable to me at this point. It’s there, deep inside me, this desire to write an epic that runs twice as long, many three times as long, as my average novel, if I ever get the perfect idea.
But at the same time, I recognize how hard it is to get a work of longer length published to begin with. Yes, your Stephen Kings can write works as long as they want because the public will buy it. Whether the new King is 300 pages or 900 pages, you’re going to snap it up! And my excitement level for a new King actually grows when I see the novel’s super long. I remember how excited I was for Under the Dome in 2009 because that was his first gigantic novel in at least a decade, more than 1000 pages that would keep me on a fascinating journey.
When you think of King’s classic works, Carrie or The Shining may come to mind (and Misery, of course) but I feel like many would consider his most beloved works to be the two landmark epics, The Stand and It, both of which run longer than 1100 pages. Some stories simply don’t need to be long. They need the weight cut out of its middle, or hell, the beginning and end. But these two novels have always felt the right length to me. Those stories, with the huge ensembles of characters, with those numerous storylines, would have felt disappointing at, say, 400 pages.
Two of my favorite novels of the last five years have been giant novels. The first, The Goldfinch, was a sublime way to spend six weeks in the summer of 2014. That book is so brilliant I savored every page, every sentence. And it when it reached its conclusion nearing 800 pages, I was so sad there weren’t another 200–300 pages to enjoy. Then in 2017 I came across The Nix, which was so brilliant in its storytelling and POV work that I just marveled at what was being done from beginning to end. A short novel can tell a great story. A long novel that works can truly take you on a journey that you won’t soon forget.
So in the end, don’t be worried about the weight of the book you hold in your hands. More times than not, the author and the agent and the editor have worked on a book that simply does need to be that long. And if the story works for you, think of all the time you get to spend with that author’s words, in a world that will exist for you long after you’ve turned the final page.
I love big books. And I can’t wait to find the next one I can surrender to.