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The Million-Word Novel: More on Long Novels and Word Count

Updated: Nov 23, 2020

I'd like to go into a bit more detail on novel length. The previous post was analysis, this is opinion. I've written several times on verbosity in novels in the past, and maybe it's time to look at why I think it's a bad idea.

Even today, books are judged by their length - people are just impressed by big, thick, heavy books. Admit it - if you walk into someone's office or home and see a two inch-thick copy of some arcane novel sitting out on their desk, it sways your opinion of that person just a little bit. In our culture, it's a truism that good novels, classic novels, intelligent novels are distinguished by their size, and even the existence of classics such as The Sun Also Rises and As I Lay Dying that are shorter than "standard" novels does little to sway this view.

I always thought this might change with digital publishing - when the book doesn't exist as a discrete object, it's harder to be impressed by its length. As it turns out, I'm dead wrong. From every source I've read, people are eager to download books that have high word counts, page counts, or file sizes. They want to get their money's worth, I guess.

Why Do We Write (And Publish) Long Novels?

For all the gravitas, writing a long book is a serious gamble. Many agents will flatly turn down a long novel by a first-time author, and argument won't change their minds. Let's consider some real-world examples of massive books.

long novel word count
Long and Short of It

A few caveats here: First, this is obviously not a complete listing of the world's largest books, merely a sampling of those commonly mentioned in lists but excluding some of the more, let's say idiosyncratic items. Second, there can be a lot of disagreement on word count, especially with books not originally in English.

With those points out of the way, let's make some observations:

1. Long novels have good reason to be so long.

The longest book I've ever personally read was the Moss translation of Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Three Kingdoms is a historical romance (as in an heroic epic, not a love story) which chronicles the collapse of the Han Dynasty and the period of disunity that followed. It's probably one of the most famous and celebrated pieces of literature in the world. I might compare its significance to the legend of King Arthur, but even that may be underselling it a bit.

But in a weird sort of way, Three Kingdoms is not that long. The novel opens in the year 169 and concludes in 280 - 112 years of history. Given that I've seen books on the 5-year American Civil War run to 250k words or more, that's pretty damn lean. It's at least shorter than another common sight on long novel lists, the Indian historical novel Ponniyin Selvan, which tops 900k words.

A novel covering the history of an empire can be very long, but so can one covering the history of a family. Titans in this category include The Dream of the Red Chamber (840k) and Kalimar (950k), as well as Tolstoy's most celebrated works. These stories might not seem as epic, but they can be every bit as complex as the big historical narratives.

Historical novels tend to run long because of their scope. Any story with a grand scope is more than justified in being very long. There's your first takeaway - if your novel is a brick, it had better be because there was a lot to write about.

2. Long novels are often experimental.

Per Guinness, the world's longest novel is Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Needless to say, anything resembling Proust is going to be a tough sell. Literary fiction is one of the hardest markets to crack even with a novel of reasonable length. Try to find an agent with your 300k word meditation on the meaning of life and be prepared for the worst.

This also goes for those more experimental works. Look around a bit and you'll find that the longest novel in existence is a 3 million+ word monster in which most of the text consists of the words "blah blah blah" over and over again. I'm sure there's a story behind that, and I really don't care to hear about it. All you need to know is that you don't have much of a chance unless you have the right connections.

3. Long novels are often split into series.

Many of the books on "longest novel" lists are actually multi-volume series. Les Miserables was once a five-book series, though it's rare to see it split up today. Romance of the Three Kingdoms comes in four volumes and given its provenance, it was likely written over time, almost a premodern serial.

The longest novels are almost inevitably released as a book series, and are defined as "novels" based on the author's intent. If the whole thing is meant to be read as a single story, then it's a single novel. J.R.R. Tolkien originally pitched The Lord of the RIngs as a single work that was split up into several books later on; L. Ron Hubbard's Mission Earth is a ten book series that is treated as a single 1.2 million word novel.

There are very basic practical reasons for this (a 2,000-word book presents some issues with binding and storage), but marketing reasons as well. If you are a fantasy author and approach an agent or publisher with an otherwise marketable novel that's over 160k words, expect to be asked to split it in two. It's not a bad idea, though - a series is an easier pitch than a single work, and splitting it up lets you make it as long as you want. The whole Harry Potter series is over a million words, and A Song of Ice and Fire will almost certainly top 2 million words when Martin finally finishes it.

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