How long should a book be?
This is one of those questions that either has no answer because people either believe that a book should be as long as it takes to tell a story, or because no two people will agree on who gets to decide what anything should be.
Television and movies hold themselves to fairly rigid standards when it comes to scripts. In the case of television the story need to follow a certain three act structure that allows for a certain amount of commercial breaks within a given time period. A situation comedy is 22 pages/minutes of story, an hour-long drama is double that. In movies, without the constraints of commercial breaks, a script still follows a three act structure with comedies running between 90 and 100 minutes/pages and a drama stretching out a bit to 125 minutes/pages but occasionally to 150 minutes/pages. With movies a comedy over 95 minutes will begin to feel stale or forced and rarely can they maintain the comedy right up to the end; dramas require the extra space in proportion to the amount of action, with special effects bonanzas chewing up more screen time than a quieter art house talk fest. Exceptions beyond these lengths are rare, and even fewer justified.
(I maintain to this day, from day I first saw it at a press screening as a high school newspaper reviewer, that Steven Spielberg’s 1941 would not be considered the disaster it is if I could edit it down by 25 minutes. That wouldn’t necessarily make the two-hour comedy funnier – it’s humor was negligible to begin with – but it would make it tolerably amusing.)
When we turn to the world of books for children and young adults, however, a funny thing happens. The older the reader gets, the longer the book, to the point that by he time a reader hits middle grade it appears that some books have bulked up on the literary equivalent of steroids and fast food. I happen to think this is a mistake.
Beginning with board books and picture books, word counts hover at 50 words (or significantly less, like Emily Gravett’s Orange Bear Apple Pear with five words, including the four in the title) and in general most picture books are currently in the 250-500 word rage. Easy-to-read books run from 100 to 1500 words, early chapter books run between 10,000 to 20,000 words, and then all hell breaks loose.
Beverly Clearly’s Beezus and Ramona comes in at 22,000 words, which is fine for a reader transitioning out of early chapter books, Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory runs just over 30,000, Sachar’s Holes weighs in at 47,000 words, each of these light comedies running the general length of what is considered average for a middle grade book.
And you know what? I think this is where things should stop. No book over 50,000 words.
But what about series titles, I can practically hear the echoing from the wilderness, what about YA?
What about them? What is it about a story that justifies its length? Everyone’s favorite dead horse Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight has 118,000+ words (for just the first book) and I have a difficult time understanding why it isn’t half as long. That may sound like opinion, but when Hollywood decided to make a movie out of the book they didn’t make a four-hour movie out it, they held to their standards and released a 122 minute movie. Maybe if you removed all the adjectives…
Perhaps its a matter of preference, but I find that when a book reaches page 200 I begin to wonder if I can skip ahead to the end. I usually stop and begin to rethink everything to that point and wonder how much superfluous detail I’ve endured, or what excesses of story would have been better summarized. On the other hand, when a book winds up its story before the 200th page I’m usually grateful to the author for being able to keep the story lean, especially so if I didn’t particularly care for the book. I have rarely hated a shorter book, but I’ve resented plenty of longer ones where I felt the author had wasted my time.
In addition to the middle grade books mentioned above I look to classic American literature as a guide for length. Of Mice and Men comes in at 29,100 words, The Great Gatsby comes in at just a smidge over 50,000, both ends of the range of average middle grade books. I would love to hear someone argue that either of those titles was in some way lacking in terms of story, quality, or detail, or that they somehow could or should be longer. Yes, yes, Steinbeck wrote the 600 page Grapes of Wrath which closes in on 130,000 words but the majority of his books not only fit the 30,000 word range they do so comfortably.
We can argue for days at length about where the trend in longer books comes from. Harry Potter, lazy editing, authors who believe they must show everything in show-don’t-tell, but as with a two-hour comedy I have come across few longer books that have justified their length to me. Your mileage may vary.
Some might say I’m arguing for the novella or novelette to become the dominant form of literature for middle grade and young adults. I am. I think a shorter books lead to a more satisfying reading experience, that a reader can read two 125-page books for every 250-page book they currently read, that reading more books by a variety of writers is better for the business of books, for the exposure of authors to readers, and for greater possibilities in expanding reader’s horizons.
In defense of any number of their decisions, Hollywood likes to say they are merely giving the people what they want. Likewise, other have argued that if kids didn’t like longer books they would read or buy them. I don’t find this argument lazy as much as I find it irresponsible, especially with books for children and teens. By that logic we should allow our kids to eat chocolate cake and soda for breakfast, french fries with soda at dinner every day, with steroid milkshakes for lunch. Readers don’t decide what gets published, or purchased for school libraries, or what gets carried in retail stories. No one argues that they’re hungry for stories, and we should give them all the choices we can.
I just happen to believe that one of those choices includes a larger selection of shorter books.