Why I dislike long novels

Those of you who have followed my reviews over the years, know that I am inclined to dislike long books. In fact, I have gone so far as to state that authors who use more pages than necessary are incompetent. If this is true for long novels, it is even more so for series of books, which have even lower chances of winning my approval. In my experience, this is a somewhat idiosyncratic idea not shared by a majority of readers. Since I am often misunderstood in my zealous crusade against the plague of wordy novels, I intend to explain how I feel and why. I do not intend to win anybody over to my side, I only want to explain my point of view once and for all.

Reasons for reading
To begin with, I want to state that I do not read book to relax or to kill time; I have way too many other things that fulfill those needs. Time spent on reading is often high-quality time in that, if desired, it could have been used to do almost anything else. Therefore, I want more out of reading than procrastination and escapism.

Primarily, I read because I like to enjoy ideas which I could not have come up with myself. Ideas can be of almost any nature (characters, setting, plot or whatever), so this is not a very delimiting statement. The reason I bring it up is because it is the most important thing to me, more important than the author’s use of language, for instance. Development of characters and plot is also part of this, since I tend to like it if it is original. In other words, I do not care very much for well-portrayed character development if I have seen something similar before.

It should be at least theoretically possible to quantify the ideas in a text. Even if it is practically impossible and not even desirable, let us at least assume that we can assign a highly subjective number to the amount of good ideas in a certain book. I do not care about defining the terms or specifying a procedure of counting; this is a purely abstract method to explain my point of view. A lot of problems would arise, like how to count good ideas which require much space, for instance. However, let us assume that the good ideas can be quantified.

A question of time
There is a virtually unlimited abundance of good books in the world and realising that it is of course impossible to read all of them, time becomes an important factor. This means that it is not the number of good ideas in a certain book that is important, instead, it is the number of good ideas per time. Since reading time is very subjective, let us call it ideas per page instead.

Following this line of thought, I conclude that some books are better than others, because they contain more good things per page. Let me illustrate with an example. If a given book contains X good things and is 250 pages long, and another book also contains X good things, but is 1000 pages long, I will, without hesitation, regard the latter one as hideously much worse. It feels a bit like diluting juice extract with twice as much water as prescribed; it contains the same amount of flavour, but thinned out.

Why do I dislike this? Because it is a waste of my time. If I read a book (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell by Susanna Clarke comes to mind) and have the feeling that the positive aspects of that book could have been fitted into half the number of pages, it would have made me angry if I would have been the sort of person inclined to getting angry at all (which I am not). Instead of reading that particular book, I could have spent the time reading something else, giving me perhaps twice as much pleasure in the same span of time.

In fact, I do not dislike long novels
The time has come to contradict the title of this article. In fact, I do not dislike long books. I hate ineffective ones which use more pages than necessary, though. I am aware of the fact that this is grossly unfair, since what I perceive as interesting might not at all be in line with that which the author intended.

However, long novels and series of books tend to be less dense when it comes to good things per page compared to shorter novels, which leads to, that in practice, I often do hate long books, even though there are many exceptions (Dune by Frank Herbert). There are even series I like (Gap by Stephen R. Donaldson), albeit that they are few in number and ofter come short of being perfect because they are, surprise, too long.

After all, some ideas require a lot of text to work properly, so in certain cases, long novels can be excused. My aversion to long novels is therefore a bit categorical, but it saves a lot of time.

I hope that I have explained why I tend to dislike long novels. As I said initially, it is not my intention to stop anyone from reading long books, joining the dark side or anything, but since my dislike has been increasing over the past few years, I feel that I need to have an article published so as to have something to refer to instead of using makeshift arguments in the heat of the moment. By way of hypocritical conclusion, I will now continue reading John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, which is rough 650 pages long.

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  1. Martin’s avatar

    You already know that I agree with you. Not wholeheartly on every reason though. Ideas is a too narrow word for me, I’d rather use “experiences” or something similar. That include ideas, of course, but also general knowledge, a good laugh, a good cry, and everything that touches and makes me grow in one way or another.

    Another argument for me against long novels is my poor attention span. If a book is too long and don’t really catch me I will drift away as I read and suffer through, because of my conviction that I want to finish everything I read.


  2. Ronny Hedin’s avatar

    I don’t–primarily–read for the same reasons as you do. Admittedly still somewhat up to interpretation of what one puts into the concept of “ideas”, but I still think there is a fundamental difference of motivation–which I won’t go into here because a) I’m too lazy to elaborate and b) it’s not very interesting (at best it might be fodder for an RL conversation at some point).

    (In brief, my primary–though not necessarily only–concern is emotional engagement.)

    That said, despite not agreeing, I can totally empathize with and understand the place your coming with. (And occassionally I do share the concerns, but of course my motivations are not 100% coherent.)

    And surely, nobody wants pages in a book that don’t add to the enjoyment of it? (Even if opinions on what exactly adds to enjoyment differ.)


  3. Olle Linge’s avatar

    Martin: Experience is a rather pointless word, though, because it does not discriminate at all. Everybody is reading for experience. However, I do not like “idea” either, but it was the best I could come up with :)

    Ronny: I think we have already had at least one discussion on that subject? Well, anyway, of course no one likes pages that do not add anything, but the difference here is that I would like new things on those extra pages, not more of the same stuff, which is the reason for my hating certain series.


  4. Ronny Hedin’s avatar

    Ronny: I think we have already had at least one discussion on that subject?

    Quite. But, they haven’t really been fruitful, and partially because I recently had some new self-insights regarding what I was really trying to say and what I’m really after, which I weren’t as clearly articulated before. (Partially because talking with you has caused me to reevaluate the matter and think more in-dept about the issue.)

    (Btw, I forgot I usually “thark” here. D’oh.)


  5. Martin’s avatar

    Well, I rather use experience for the one reason that it’s not excluding anything. That’s the whole point. I want as much “enjoyness” per time regardless of what’s the reason of it.


  6. Olle Linge’s avatar

    Ronny: Ok, at least I thought I understood what you were getting at last time, but since I find it an intriguing subject, why not discuss it again when there is opportunity?

    Martin: I understand what you mean, but since I wanted to make a point, it had to be a delimiting statement. Idea is vague enough, but experience is even more vague. I said it was pointless because it does not say anything whatsoever about why you are reading or what you are after. Ideas, as I used it, does not say very much either, but it says more (about why I read, that is).


  7. Ronny Hedin’s avatar

    In short: It’s a long rant, and I’m too lazy (teh shock! teh horror! teh unexpected!) to write it. :-)