Richard Lea over at theguardian finds out that size really does matter, at least in the literary world. Some of this is due to the rise of the eBook. When you can carry your whole library with you, a 900 page tome is no problem.
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The big question: are books getting longer?
A new survey of bestsellers and critics’ picks has concluded that the average book is now 25% bigger than 15 years ago. But not everyone reads things this way
Books are steadily increasing in size, according to a survey that has found the average number of pages has grown by 25% over the last 15 years.
A study of more than 2,500 books appearing on New York Times bestseller and notable books lists and Google’s annual survey of the most discussed books reveals that the average length has increased from 320 pages in 1999 to 400 pages in 2014.
According to James Finlayson from Vervesearch, who carried out the survey for the interactive publisher Flipsnack, there’s a “relatively consistent pattern of growth year on year” that has added approximately 80 pages to the average size of the books surveyed since 1999.
For Finlayson, much of this shift can be explained by the industry’s shift towards digital. “When you pick up a large book in a shop,” he says, “you can sometimes be intimidated, whereas on Amazon the size of a book is just a footnote that you don’t really pay all that much attention to.” The rise of digital reading is also a factor, he adds. “I always hold off buying really big books until I’m going on holiday, because I don’t want to lug them around in my bag. But if you have a big book on a Kindle, that’s not a consideration.”
The literary agent Clare Alexander agrees that long books are more portable in electronic formats, but points out that much ebook reading is focused on genres such as romance, crime and erotica. For Alexander, the gradual increase in size is evidence of a cultural shift.
“Despite all the talk of the death of the book because of competition from other media,” she says, “people who love to read appear to prefer a long and immersive narrative, the very opposite of a sound bite or snippets of information that we all spend our lives downloading from Google.
“The Americans have led the way – think Donna Tartt, Jonathan Franzen, Hanya Yanagihara and most recently Marlon James (Jamaican but living in America) – but they are not alone. Hilary Mantel from the UK or Eleanor Catton from New Zealand have both written long novels, and if you look through that list you will see how many of these have won prizes. So clearly the literary establishment loves long books too.”
The Man Booker prize has been a pillar of the literary establishment in the UK since the 1970s, and evidence of expansion can be found in the roster of winners. The first five years of Booker-winning novels average out at around 300 pages, but even taking into account Julian Barnes’s 2011 triumph with his 160-page novella The Sense of an Ending, the last five years of Booker laureates weigh in at an average of 520 pages. This year’s winner was brief only in name: Marlon James’s 700-page A Brief History of Seven Killings.
For Max Porter, the editor at Granta who published the 800-page Booker winner of 2013, Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, it’s difficult to get a sense of a shift across the whole market but it’s “heartening to see these big, ambitious books appearing”.
“All across culture, people are trying to work out whether content is going to become mobile, what devices people are going to be using to consume it,” says Porter, “so I’m quite encouraged by the big, fat book sitting there saying: ‘read me’.”
The rise of the television box set, where viewers will commit to spending dozens of hours following a single narrative, has encouraged publishers to support writers exploring a bigger canvas, Porter continues. “It’s shown that people have the appetite, patience and stamina to stick with a plot and characters as they develop over a large span.”
Read the full series on theguardian.com.
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