Writers and readers have different ideas on what the optimum length of a book should be. Writers will say that the optimum length is whatever it takes to tell the story or to develop the subject ; readers, however ,will feel that it is a specific page count , a number or a range that varies from reader to reader. More than that number and they lose interest or , more likely, skim rather than read. In some cases, readers may even decide not pass on a book because it is too long. At the same time , if the book is too slim , it doesn’t seem ” serious’ enough.
I began thinking about the optimum length of a book because I’m currently reading Walter Isaacson’s masterful biography of Steve Jobs which weighs in at 571 pages , not including notes. Steve Jobs was a fascinating figure : a complex , driven genius whose life has much to teach us but , a hundred pages into the book , I feel like taking a break . Jobs’ biography is too good a book to skim but I find myself going slower and slower . I find myself distracted by how many more pages there are. I know that the fault is in myself ; there are too many other books I’m interested in.
As I said , I will finish the Jobs book and I will enjoy it but there are other books I’ve passed on because of their length. The prime example of such a book is Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson. The first Volume ,Path to Power , took up 768 pages and had another 80 pages of Notes . The other volumes are equally long as is Caro’s earlier book , a biography of Robert Moses. Caro’s books are the result of exhaustive research and he and his wife Ina , who helps with the research, have devoted their lives to the writing of these books. Last year I read a lengthy article about Caro in the New Yorker and I was filled with admiration at the thoroughness of his research and the dedication that he brings to his craft. At the same time , I know I’ll never read any of his books ; they are just too long for me .
I understand that a topic such as the life and career of an American President will result in a lengthy book and I can even go along with that argument for non-fiction books in general. I cannot buy such thinking in the case of fiction. The writer of fiction has more control over his subject matter and I prefer fiction that is tautly written. Many fiction books go on and on, when some judicious editing would have made them more readable.For instance, I felt that way about the later Harry Potter books , particularly Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows , which would have read better if it had been trimmed by about a hundred pages.
Some fiction writers pad their books to make them longer. I’m not saying this is true of J.K.Rowling but there are several others who are guilty of this ploy. Usually , it is because they are prolific writers who have corralled a loyal readership and are hurrying to publish as many books as they can . This is also true of some older writers who have burnt themselves out and have nothing new to say.
There are two mystery authors who come to mind ( they shall remain nameless here ) who churn out two and sometimes three books a year . They use several tricks to make their books longer and thus more substantial than they are. One stratagem is to use large print. Another is to have the main characters banter with each other in inane , pointless conversations . Yet another is to have the hero tomcat around and fall into bed with many different women , all of them gorgeous and willing; these affairs don’t advance the plot but they do increase the page count. Earlier in their careers , both these authors wrote well and some of their books have even been made into films. It is only now that they’ve resorted to such tricks to keep the money rolling in.
The optimum length of a book will vary from reader to reader. For me , it is between 275 to 350 pages . The upper limit can be increased by another 50 pages but any book of fiction over 400 pages I will probably pass on unless it is extra-ordinarily good.