Friday, May 8, 2015

Does (Book) Length Really Matter?

It always surprises me when I poke around a bookstore and see super thick hardcover or even trade paperback bestsellers. I've noticed this particularly in the past year or so with books such as We are Not OurselvesThe Girl on the Train, The Forgotten Garden, and The Goldfinch. And quite frankly, it baffles me. I've read two of the aforementioned bestsellers, both of which I struggled to get through. Not because I have an issue in general with "long books," but because neither of them needed to be as long as they were.

As an editor, I am keenly aware of these things, and it makes me cringe when novels meander and go off on tangents that are entirely irrelevant to the story. In fact, when I was working at Simon and Schuster, I once was tasked with taking a 700+ page women's fiction novel from overseas and paring it down to 400 pages at the most. Crazy, right? But the craziest part is that I actually accomplished it. Not only could the language itself be tightened on a sentence level but whole paragraphs could come out because they didn't tie into anything or have any real purpose. What was really shocking, though, is that I kind of killed off a character. o_O There was entire plotline and POV that was unnecessary to the story. It didn't weave into the main plot or character arcs at all, other than that character being related to one of the other characters. While the character certainly still "existed" in the story, every section with her POV narrating lifted right out. It was interesting plotline in and of itself, don't get me wrong, but it was its own story, not the one this book was telling. That plotline alone took up about 200 pages long and it wasn't needed.

This is something I see a lot in early drafts of manuscripts and it's my job to address it, to make sure a reader is engaged from the first to the last page, that the pace is moving at a readable clip, and that the story is clear, tight, and moving along with each scene. So the fact that so many books go to publication with these sorts of issues--and do well sometimes--makes me kind of sit there and blink at the wall. My first question is always "what did the editor even do, then?" and second, "how on earth are all these readers getting through these books, especially in today's world of ADD?"

Of course, classic literature has always been on the longer side, so there's certainly a precedent of it. Just look at the unabridged versions of Les Miserables, The Count of Monte Cristo, and Don Quixote. They were all over 400,000 words. But note something I just said...these are unabridged versions. There are abridged version of all three of those classics. Meaning, if you think about it, that extra length...? Yeah, it wasn't necessary. It might have lovely language or a nice lesson or tangent behind it, but it wasn't telling the story the book was meant to tell.

Now, don't get me wrong, it is incredibly impressive when people can write such tomes and find a way to keep readers' attention. But why is this mini-trend happening right now? Is it something people really like or is it just happening because of good marketing and reviews that focus on only the strong points? Just because people buy the books doesn't mean they enjoy them. It doesn't mean they didn't skim over half the book to get to the good parts (what I did with both those novels I mentioned earlier).

A recent article by the BBC (and what do you know, like this blog post, it's a super long!) takes a look after hearing about the UK publication of  an 800+ page novel called Death and Mr. Pickwick by debut author Stephen Jarvis. (They also mention an upcoming book that is one million words long. Yes, one million words. That is not a typo.)

Debut novels don’t come more heavyweight than Stephen Jarvis’ Death and Mr Pickwick. Twelve years in the writing, it tells the story of the creation and afterlife of Charles Dickens’ own first novel, The Pickwick Papers, one of the world’s most written-about works of fiction. Pickwick was the book that made Dickens a celebrity, and it was published in monthly installments starting in March 1836, using his pen name, Boz. 
Out this month in the UK and next month in the US, Death and Mr Pickwick is a gloriously meandering tour of 19th Century London that has already been dubbed “a staggering accomplishment” by Publishers Weekly
Yet it’s heavyweight in another, more obvious sense too. Lug this book to the beach and back every day, and you’ll be getting a full-body workout. Drop it, and you risk breaking a toe. Weighing two-and-a-half pounds, it’s a whopping 802 pages long – an audacious claim on readers’ time in an age when our attention spans are supposedly being whittled away to nothing by ever-more insistent digital distractions. 
There is plenty of longer fiction, of course. Kelidar, Mahmoud Dowlatabadi’s Persian language novel following a Kurdish family in the wake of World War II, is 2,836 pages. The Son of Ponni, a historical novel written in Tamil by Kalki Krishnamurthy, and published in the 1950s, is barely any shorter at 2,400 pages. And then there’s Proust, whose In Search of Lost Time is 3,031 pages long. 
Don’t think it’s just a 20th Century phenomenon, either. Nothing compares to the 17th Century French novel Artamène. The tale of a shepherd’s son who’s really a Persian prince, its 2 million or so words (the average 280-pager contains just 80,000) fill 13,095 pages. Originally credited to Georges de Scudéry, these days it’s more commonly attributed to his sister, Madeleine. 
A bulky bedfellow 
Though it can’t quite compete in terms of pagination, Jarvis’ novel is part of a mini-trend that seems to be gathering momentum – and bulk. In the next few months alone, playwright Larry Kramer publishes the first of his two-volume fictionalised history, The American People, which comes in at 800 pages (he’s been working on it for 40 years and at one point the manuscript was 4,000 pages long), Amitav Ghosh completes his Ibis trilogy (the final installment is 624 pages), and review copies of Hannah Yanagihara's A Little Life have been sent out filled with Post-It notes attached to flag representative passages, presumably because the book’s girth is so daunting (at 736 pages, it’s really not so little at all). In July, you can expect to hear bookshelves groaning as William T Vollmann’s new novel, The Dying Grass, is published. Set in the Wild West during the 1870s, it totals 1,376 pages. And next year, British graphic novelist Alan Moore publishes his second non-graphic novel, Jerusalem, which is billed as a fantastical exploration of his hometown, Northampton. It’s said to be a million words long. 
Together, these bulky books call into doubt the received wisdom about our besieged attention spans. They might also make you wonder what editors are up to. And they question, too, the evolving role of the literary novel in the wider culture. Doesn’t there come a point at which the sheer scale of these works is so out of kilter with the reading time available to even the most dedicated bookworms, that they have to be seen as wilfully marginalising themselves? Think of this as well: every purchase of a novel over 600 long pages may well come at the expense of two or three others. 
If you wanted to pinpoint the start of all this, you could do worse that looking to 2013, when 28-year-old Eleanor Catton became not only the youngest author ever to win the Man Booker Prize, but did so with the longest book. The Luminaries is 832 pages long. Did the judges not deem its length problematic? Not according to their chair, author and academic Robert Macfarlane. 
“Length never poses a problem if it's a great novel”, he insisted. To prove his point, that same year, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (760 pages) sold and sold. 
As a reader, you know what you’re in for when you begin a long book. It’s not that we necessarily expect more – after all, as much can be said in a poem, never mind a short story – but we do tend to indulge the author a little, allowing for the fact that in a longer work time can be taken establishing characters, and the subplots layered on with plenty of scope for resolution. It’s a different relationship. A novella may be read in a single sitting, making for a more intense reading experience. The bulky epic, meanwhile, inveigles its way into your life over a period of weeks or even months, becoming a travel buddy and bedfellow. 
Is bigger better? 
In genre fiction, big has never fallen out of fashion. Fantasy novels especially tend to run long, and plenty of airport paperbacks are so dense they look almost square. But then those tend to be vastly pacier affairs. In the US, too, there’s an expectation that a great literary work will also be physically imposing. Still, how many of even those wouldn’t be improved by a judicious nip and tuck here and there? The Goldfinch is one of my favourite novels of this century, but if I were forced to come up with a quibble, it would be that Tartt spends too long in Las Vegas in the middle section. 
“Very few really long novels earn their length. My fingers are always twitching for a blue pencil,” Ian McEwan told the BBC last year. He was speaking on publication of his own most recent novel, The Children Act, a work so slender it might almost be called a novella. The story of a high court judge who must decide whether to compel a young Jehovah’s Witness to receive a life-saving blood transfusion, it radiates brilliance, and yet weren’t there a couple of passages that felt too research-heavy? Sometimes, authors themselves simply become too big to cut. Remember how the Harry Potter books grew as JK Rowling’s fan-base exploded? 
In an age of 140-character tweets and six-second Vine videos, it’s hard not to view the abundance of fat books as a throwback trend. A tome so heavy it’s barely portable is, after all, the ultimate anti-e-book. Novelist Naomi Alderman is well placed to comment, as she also creates video games, most notably the top-selling Zombies, Run! 
“The trend towards long books is a fascinating counterpoint to the suggestion that we're all becoming iPhone-junkies, with minuscule attention spans, twitchily unable to concentrate on anything longer than a tweet,” she told BBC Culture. In fact, she suggests, technology might be making us more ready to sign over large chunks of time to a novel. As well as the oft-cited influence of TV binge-viewing, made possible by streaming, she points to the fact that AAA video games – those with the highest development and promotion budgets – frequently demand upwards of 100 hours of gameplay. 
“The death of the ‘attention span’ might have been declared prematurely,” she adds. “But at the same time, novels are competing with other entertainment forms that provide a lot of instant thrills. To start a long novel these days, I think the reader needs to feel certain that the tale will be worth the journey.” 
Of course, Stephen Jarvis, who’s 57 and lives in Maidenhead in the south of England began writing his novel in 2001, in a world before Facebook. It was influenced, he says, by reality TV’s Big Brother. ‘It strikes me that there are parallels between Big Brother and The Pickwick Papers – both of them are plotless things which just sort of ramble along. There’s an emphasis on character and you don’t really know what’s going to happen.’ 
At one point, Death and Mr Pickwick rambled to 800,000 words, but he cut it back by over half in order to have it fill 802 pages – the exact same number as Dickens’ novel.
Jarvis has no worries about readers being put off by the novel’s length, though he does admit this wife has vowed never to read it. “She has special dispensation – her excuse is she doesn’t need to read it because she’s had to live it,” he says. She supported him while he wrote, and so it seemed only fair that he let her type the letter ‘d’ of the ‘The End’ before they went off to the pub to celebrate. When finished copies arrived, however, the words had been cut. Turns out it’s not house style. 
See the original article HERE

So what do you think, dear readers? Would you pick up (and read in its entirety) an excessively long novel? If so, what would compel you to do so?

I am truly curious...

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Scholars Discover 150 Unpublished Stories by Mark Twain

Just when you thought classic American Literature couldn't get any better with the upcoming second novel from Harper Lee, scholars at the University of California, Berkley proved that thought wrong. Just this week the news broke that they discovered over 150 unpublished stories by Mark Twain.

The Guardian tells us more:

Scholars at the University of California, Berkeley have uncovered and authenticated a cache of stories written by Mark Twain when he was a 29-year-old newspaperman in San Francisco. Many of the stories are 150 years old. 
Twain wrote some of the letters and stories at the San Francisco Chronicle when it was called the San Francisco Dramatic Chronicle, where his job included writing a 2,000-word dispatch every day and sending it off by stagecoach for publication in the Territorial Enterprise newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada. 
His topics range from San Francisco police – who at one point attempted, unsuccessfully, to sue Twain for comparing their chief to a dog chasing its tail to impress its mistress – to mining accidents. 
Bob Hirst is editor of the UC Berkeley’s Mark Twain project, which unearthed the articles by combing through western newspaper archives and scrapbooks. The author’s characteristic style authenticated some of the unsigned letters. 
Hirst told the Guardian the digitisation of newspaper archives had been like “opening up a big box of candy”, allowing as it did Twain’s articles to be tracked down in a way that was not possible when archives were all on microfilm. 
The articles were written, Hirst said, at a time of great uncertainty in Twain’s life, when he was trying to decide in which direction to take his career. 
“It’s really a crisis time for him,” Hirst said. “He’s going to be 30 on 30 November 1865, and for someone not to have chosen a career by that time in this period was quite unusual.” 
Twain had been resisting becoming a humorist, according to Hirst, because at the time humor was considered a lower order of writing. He was in debt and drinking heavily, and even wrote to his brother that he was contemplating suicide, saying: “If I do not get out of debt in three months – pistols or poison for one – exit me.” 
Nonetheless, the articles, Hirst says, are brilliant examples of Twain’s inimitable style. 
“He knows the city, he’s a bohemian of a certain kind, he’s interested in what’s going on,” Hirst said. “He simply weaves that all together with the greatest clarity and the greatest humour that you could possibly imagine.” 
See the original article HERE

I don't know about you, but I'm itching to get a look at these stories. Here's hoping his estate allows for posthumous publication!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

I'll Be There For You: A Harry Potter Promise


I have been MIA, and I'm extremely sorry, dear readers. Life has been beating me up over the past year, making it quite difficult to stay on top of things. *hangs head in shame*

Please allow me to give you this fun and straightforward peace offering and promise:

"Tumblr user Jeremiah Rivera got 'bored' and made this absolutely perfect remix of the Friends intro, but with the characters from Harry Potter." (

Friday, January 23, 2015

National Readathon Day Takes Off Tomorrow

Happy friday, fellow readers! This upcoming weekend is an exciting one for the book world, so I hope your week has prepared you to curl up on the couch (especially for those of you who are expecting a snowstorm this weekend!) with a cup of hot cocoa and a good book. And while I wish that type of relaxation for you all the time, there is an additional reason this particular weekend is so special...

Tomorrow is the first annual National Readathon Day!

Initially created by the recently merged Penguin Random House, National Readathon Day is about more than just reading a book, though. It's also about fundraising for literacy, GalleyCat points out:

Proceeds will support the National Book Foundation’s education programs, including an after-school reading program called BookUp. Fundraisers will win prizes from The National Book Foundation. 
More than 200 bookstores and libraries across the country will be participating in the event. To find out where to participate in your local area, check out this map. 
Fifteen bestselling authors including: Khaled Hosseini, Jacqueline Woodson, Delia Ephron, Harlan Coben and Simon Doonan have supported the cause in this #timetoread video.
See original post HERE 

The National Book Foundation website tells us more about the celebration:

Consider this: 53% of 9-year-olds read for pleasure daily, and by the time they turn 17, that number drops to 19%. Without your help, book worms may soon become an endangered species.  
That's why Penguin Random House and the National Book Foundation are launching National Readathon Day. We're asking book lovers across America to pledge to read for four hours starting at noon (in respective time zones) on January 24, 2015. 
Make your commitment here on FirstGiving and fundraise to support the National Book Foundation's efforts to create, promote, and sustain a lifelong love of reading in America. Proceeds will support our education programs, like BookUp, our after-school reading program which has given away over 25,000 books to middle schoolers since 2007. 
To show our appreciation, we're delighted to offer some exciting rewards at a variety of fundraising milestones. 
Individual fundraising premiums for National Readathon Day are awarded at the following levels:  
$100 - an I Love Reading tote bag  
$250 - a copy of a 2014 National Book Award winning book   
$1000 - a tote bag plus all four 2014 National Book Award winning books. 
$2500 - 2 tickets to the invite-only 2015 National Book Awards ceremony, dinner, and after-party  
$7500 - 2 tickets to the invite-only 2015 National Book Awards ceremony, dinner, and after-party plus hotel and airfare (from anywhere in the continental United States) 
Additionally, the top fundraising team will have the opportunity for an exclusive reading (in-person or online) with Phil Klay, author of Redeployment, the 2014 National Book Award Winner for Fiction. 
Thank you for joining us for National Readathon Day and in celebration of how important reading is to American culture.

The mission of the National Book Foundation is to expand the audience for literature in America. Its programs include BookUp, 5 Under 35, the Innovations in Reading Prize, and the National Book Awards. 
If you need more information about the National Book Foundation or National Readathon Day, email And for press inquiries, email
See original post HERE

As of a week ago, there were already more than 120 teams that had "raised more than $20,000 as part of the event" (GalleyCat).  As of today there are 153 teams, raising more than $40,000 according to the FirstGiving website. There is still time to get involved and get excited, so hop to, folks!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Perfect Cookie for the Perfect Book

Lately I have been hearing an awful lot about Girl Scout cookies. And I always hear an awful lot about books, of course. So when I saw that someone over at Book Riot put the two together, pairing different GS cookies with certain reads, I was delectably intrigued:

Girl Scout cookies are great no matter what they’re paired with, but I think we can all agree that everything is better with books. As a former Girl Scout, I know that people have their favorite cookies (Reppin’ Samoas, what what!). After some extensive taste tests, we here at Book Riot have found the perfect book/cookie pairings – no matter what your cookie preferences may be!
 See the original post HERE

Some of these pairings are utterly fantastic, I must say. Others, I admit, I don't quite get because I don't know enough about the book. :( Buuuut I do think a fun pairing for Savannah Smiles, though, would be "The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake" by Aimee Bender. :-p Ahh irony. Gotta love it.

What would YOUR perfect pairing be?

As a side note, my littlest sister, who has been selling GS cookies for years, won't be doing so this year. But I'm stoked that GS has finally moved some cookies sales online, so those of us who don't know any Girls Scouts aren't missing out on the deliciousness itself and on helping out such a great organization!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Give the Man a Break

And by "the Man" I mean Nicholas Sparks.

Earlier this week my social media feeds blew up with "news" of novelist Nicholas Sparks's marriage split. I saw a lot of callous remarks being made about the irony of it with Sparks's penchant for hopeless romanticism in his books, and it seemed the trend was to chastise him, many people almost reveling in his pain. And then there were those who claimed that love couldn't ever last if Sparks couldn't make it work. Honestly, I was ashamed to even be reading such commentary.

That said, I'll keep this short and sweet.

Leave the man alone. Just because he writes about enduring love doesn't mean he isn't human. It doesn't mean he has some magical power to make love last that the rest of us don't. He had a twenty-five-year marriage, which is more than most people can say.

So, to Nick Sparks, wherever you are, I'm sorry for what you're going through. It's a sad thing for a relationship to unravel and it's painful and scarring and it takes time to heal, even when you're a bestselling author.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Welcome to 2015

With 2015 now upon us, "Best of 2014" lists are coming out our ears, making it hard to focus on what's to come in the year ahead. While I like "Best of" lists just as much as the next booklover, the start of a new year is a time to look forward, not back.

But where do we start? There are so many amazing books hitting the shelves this year! If you're struggling like I am (despite the giant TBR pile that is basically every room in my home), Book Riot has given us readers a fun challenge to get us started with the "2015 Read Harder Challenge":

Whatever your preference for reading challenges, we here at the Riot enjoy the odd challenge. We’ve written before about the benefits of a reading challenge; they can stretch your reading, whether the intention is to push you to read more of your TBR, more classics, more backlist, more new releases, or just to read more. Or even if the intention is to read less. 
January 1st brings with it both an abundance of challenges for the new year and an abundance of resolutions. These are often connected for readers, many of whom – Rioters included – make reading resolutions. As many of us here resolve to read more diversely, in any number of ways, we thought it would be a good idea to come up with our own reading challenge for 2015 to help you stretch your reading limits. 
I’ve included 24 tasks, averaging out to two per month, that will hopefully inspire you to pick up books that represent experiences and places and cultures that might be different from your own. We encourage you to push yourself, to take advantage of this challenge as a way to explore topics or formats or genres that you otherwise wouldn’t try. But this isn’t a test. No one is keeping score and there are no points to post. We like books because they allow us to see the world from a new perspective, and sometimes we all need help to even know which perspectives to try out. That’s what this is – a perspective shift – but one for which you’ll only be accountable to yourself. 
Where applicable, I’ve linked to previous Book Riot posts, to Goodreads lists, or other resources that might help you find books to fit the tasks.* 
We hope this challenge will help you not only to read more, but to Read Harder. 
We’ll be checking in here on the Riot periodically throughout the year, but we’ll also be talking about this challenge on social media with the hashtag #ReadHarder. Share your books, share your challenge plan, share your recommendations.
A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25 
A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65 
A collection of short stories (either by one person or an anthology by many people) 
A book published by an indie press 
A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ 
A book by a person whose gender is different from your own 
A book that takes place in Asia 
A book by an author from Africa 
A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans, Aboriginals, etc.) 
A microhistory 
A YA novel 
A sci-fi novel 
A romance novel 
A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade
A book that is a retelling of a classic story (fairytale, Shakespearian play, classic novel, etc.) 
An audiobook 
A collection of poetry 
A book that someone else has recommended to you 
A book that was originally published in another language 
A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind (Hi, have you met Panels?) 
A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure (Read, and then realize that good entertainment is nothing to feel guilty over) 
A book published before 1850 
A book published this year 
A self-improvement book (can be traditionally or non-traditionally considered “self-improvement”) 
*Goodreads lists are user-created and the books on them may not fit the challenge requirements. Double check any book you’re using, just to make sure. 
Have ideas for what books you want to use for certain tasks? Leave 'em below! 
Editor’s note: we’ve created a Goodreads group for this challenge! Give it a join!

See the original post HERE

I think I might give this challenge a try! What about you? Any books spark to mind when you hear these categories?

Happy new year, dear readers! May your year be filled with books to make you laugh, cry, and feel all the feels. :)