Are Big Books Better? Why the Long Novel is Here to Stay

I recently noticed that novels seem to be getting longer, so I did what any twenty-first century inquiring mind would and googled it. My search uncovered Publishers Weekly‘s “Fiction Gets Supersized” (2004), The Millions‘ “Is Big Back?” (2010), The Daily Beast‘s “Are Books Becoming Too Long to Read?” (2012), Salon‘s “Why We Love Loooong Novels” (2013), Vulture‘s “When Did Books Get So Freaking Enormous? The Year of the Very Long Novel” (2015), and The Independent‘s “If This Is the Year of the Mega-Novel, It’s Going to Be a Very Long 12 Months” (2015). It seemed safe to conclude that long novels are having a moment, yet it led me to wonder why that might be.
Salon writer Laura Miller implies that long novels are popular because one can be “swallowed up by a long novel, immersed in the world its author has created in a fashion that no other medium can rival.” While a shorter novel can certainly be immersive, time dictates that it simply cannot be as wholly immersive as a long novel. For example, assuming one reads at the average pace of two hundred words per minute, reading a short novel like Zora Neale Hurston’s 63,783-word Their Eyes Were Watching God would take 5.32 hours, while reading George R. R. Martin’s 298,000-word Game of Thrones would take 24.83 hours. It’s the difference between going on two dates with someone versus twelve. Plus, George R. R. Martin’s novel is part of a much longer series, which, if included, extends the word count to 1,770,000 or, put another way, 147 hours. In this case, it’s the difference between spending a day with someone versus spending a month with someone. Moreover, Game of Thrones was made into a successful HBO television series, which allows readers another avenue into the world he built so completely. This kind of extensive worldbuilding led me to wonder if the long novel is thriving because of the ways people consume media today. In other words, are worldbuilding and binge-viewing leading to longer novels, series formats, and binge-reading?
Market research supports the notion that readers are indeed binge-reading and that books may have better sales if all of the books in a series are made available at the same time so that readers have the opportunity to binge-read. Long novels are able to support the “Netflixication” of media, with the most iconic example being J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. The seven-book series (comprised of three short novels and four long novels) has sold more than 450 million copies worldwide and has spawned a successful movie franchise, along with computer games, toys, and even a theme park. Narrative incubators, like the approximately five-thousand-page Harry Potter series, are able to capture the attention of readers who can find the series in multiple ways across multiple mediums, from Lego Harry Potter on an iPad to a print version of one of the books in the library to Rowling’s Pottermore on the World Wide Web. Of course, not all novels can replicate the success of Harry Potter, but well-written and compelling long novels have the potential for promoting binge-reading and -viewing by creating worlds just as comprehensive as Harry Potter.
Long novels are not for everyone. They require a bigger financial and temporal investment from the writer, the publisher, the reviewer, and the reader. Not everyone is willing to spend the kind of time or money a long novel demands. Yet the long novel lends itself to literary immersion and detailed worldbuilding, which, in turn, facilitates the practice of binge-reading—a viable sector for market growth. In considering the future of the business of book publishing, it’s imperative to heed changing media-consumption practices. These practices suggest that the long novel not only encourages binge-reading but also provides an opportunity for growth and profitability because the long novel is able to meet the demands of readers who grow increasingly accustomed to instantly accessing captivating and complex stories. Finally, the long novel’s propensity for worldbuilding allows for the possibility of the propagation of the storyline into other formats, thus increasing the profitability of the book and making a well-written and compelling long novel worth the gamble.

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