From Haruki Murakami to George RR Martin, both commercial and literary fiction have fallen in love with epic length.
By John Dugdale
Has there ever been an autumn season so rich in fat books? George RR Martin’s latest fantasy whopper, A Dance with Dragons (1,040 pages), was swiftly followed by Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi epic Reamde (912); and their efforts will be joined on Tuesday by Stephen King’s 11.22.63, depicting a time-travelling teacher seeking to prevent John F Kennedy’s assassination, which, while failing to match the 1,074 pages of King’s previous novel, Under the Dome, still asserts that he can keep up with the upstarts in reality-altering fiction by coming in at 740 pages.
Literary authors have contributed to this bumper harvest too, with Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, itself not lacking in sci-fi elements, doing most to destroy forests with a three-volume combined pagination just short of the virility-verifying 1,000-page marker. Also in autumnal lit fic, Adam Levin’s The Instructions and Peter Nadas’s Parallel Stories both managed to produce 1,000-plus pagers. And that’s what’s changed about the size issue today – it cuts across publishing’s class system.
A lot of commercial fiction has always been weighty, from Victorian three-decker novels via Gone with the Wind to Harold Robbins and Jilly Cooper. Reacting against this in the 20th century, classier writers regularly differentiated themselves (from both market-pandering scribblers and their wordy Victorian predecessors) by producing slimmer books – if they wanted to make a bigger statement, as with Marcel Proust, John Dos Passos and Anthony Powell, they wrote sequences of novels that were normal size. The era’s sci-fi, fantasy and crime classics were also easily portable. Ulysses and The Lord of the Rings were one-off monsters.