600+ pages…

Yesterday on Twitter, Matt from Penguin General Marketing asked, ‘Why is 600+ pages so off putting to a literary fiction reader, but not at all to [a] mass market reader?’ I’ve been on both sides of that particular fence and, though I’m uncomfortable with the sharp distinction Matt makes, I’ll take his question at face value and try to answer it.

(Please note: this is going to involve some generalisation and stereotyping, as I try to put people in neat little boxes where they don’t really fit. It’s not my intention to offend anyone’s sensibilities; I apologise in advance if I do.)

So: why would there be different attitudes to a large page-count? Essentially, I think it’s because we’re talking about two different groups of readers who are looking for different things from their books, one of which is facilitated by such a page-count, whilst the other of which may not be.

I would say that, for the kind of mass-market reader to whom Matt refers, ‘more is more’. There was a time when one of the main criteria by which I judged whether to buy a book was its length: longer books, to my mind, represented greater value for money. Of course, this is a very crude way of assessing a book’s worth; and, though we may still balk just a little at the thought of paying £7.99 for a 150-page book (I know I did a few months ago – though I bought the book in question nonetheless), I think that, as book-lovers of any sort, we move on from that attitude pretty quickly.

But there’s another attitude, or cluster of attitudes, that has more to do with what’s actually in a book. What is most satisfying for our hypothetical mass-market reader is the ongoing experience of reading, which may transcend individual books. If you’ve ever welcomed a new volume in a series because it was the chance to return to the lives of a set of favourite characters, or a new novel by a favourite author who writes a specific ‘type’ of fiction (be it medical thriller, wartime saga, epic fantasy, or whatever), you will have experienced the feeling I’m talking about. Under this view, a lengthy page-count prolongs the reading experience, which is why it’s so welcome.

For our hypothetical literary reader, however, what is most satisfying is the specific experience of reading each individual novel. Such readers are more likely to be concerned with the craft of the whole as a distinct piece of work, to ask how well different aspects work in each particular case – to ask of a 600-page book, ‘Did this novel justify its 600 pages?’ Often, the answer is ‘no’, simply because, the longer a novel is, the more room it has to slip up, and the harder it has to work to make its pages really count. That’s why a 600-page book might make a literary reader’s heart sink: the very real possibility that it would have been a better piece of work at half its length.

Of course, there is all manner of overlap between the two categories I’ve just described. Mass-market readers appreciate individual pieces of work, literary readers return to favourite authors because their books have signature characteristics, and so on. But I think there’s something in that basic distinction.

To sum up my answer to Matt’s original question in one sentence: broadly speaking, it’s because, for one group of readers, the 600+ page-count must be justified by the book itself; for the other group, the page-count is its own justification.

5 Comments

  1. David, I think you’re right. I posted a while back on my experience of reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. That book, for me, regardless of critical acclaim, barely… barely justified its length and the level of commitment I was required to invest in it.

  2. One possible problem with this theory is that I’m not sure how well it accounts for changes within sf and fantasy publishing — to stick with what I know. It’s a truism that sf and fantasy books have ballooned since the “golden age”; there is no shorter of older fans bitching about bloat and/or lack of editing in modern books; and yet I’m sure those readers value the ongoing experience of reading as much as your hypothetical mass-market reader. (One possible answer to this problem is to argue that early science fiction was very formulaic, so reading lots of short sf novels didn’t involve radical changes in style or content or what have you. But I’m pretty sure that a lot of current science fiction is very formulaic, so I’m not sure it’s a terribly good answer.)

  3. Neil: Your comment raises an interesting question — where does the 600-page literary novel fit in? The same as anything else, I guess — the bottom line is whether you enjoy a book or not, whatever it is and whatever sort of reader you are.

  4. Niall:

    …I’m sure those readers value the ongoing experience of reading as much as your hypothetical mass-market reader…

    Absolutely — that’s one of the areas of overlap that I was talking about: we all like reading, we all have our favourite authors, and we all ‘know what we’re getting’ (to a greater or lesser extent) with those authors.

    But I have, in the past, heard comments like, ‘I loved it that there was another volume in the series, because that meant the story would go on even longer’. That’s the kind of view I was trying to characterise. Perhaps the real distinction I’m making is between readers who prioritise one kind of reading experience over another.

  5. Yes, I like that distinction, although of course, as you say, a vast generalization. Nearly all the young women I work with here in Paramount are reading the Meyer vampire stories (and now Larsson), and may or may not have heard of Marquez (although I’m in Spain!). And these women are pretty intelligent. Which leads me to think there’s another factor – for the busy worker, as you say, a fat book is value for money, but also (in genre, at least) is a guarantee (although this shouldn’t NECESSARILY) be true, pf a light, relaxing read with loved characters. And not just a case of genre – I can’t imagine the Gormenghast trilogy, or the Foundation series, if it were being issued today as a new work, in three volumes, causing quesues (that typo sounds like Gollum!) to be formed to buy each succeeding volume. There’s also, of course, the film factor – although George RR Martin’s books deservedly sell without any films in sight.

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