Has the long novel made a comeback?

11 November, 2013

Today’s New York Times (November 11, 2013) reports on the recent sale of a 900-page novel, CITY ON FIRE, by Garth Risk Hallberg, for “close to $2 million.”  The article headline grabbed my attention:  “A Long Debut Novel Fetches About $2,200 Per Page.” The article points out several long novels that are currently enjoying strong sales, including Donna Tartt’s GOLDFINCH and Eleanor Catton’s LUMINAIRES, winner of the 2013 Man Booker Prize.

Are long novels back in vogue, as the article suggests?  I would argue not.  Perhaps the reason why these three novels sold was not because of their remarkable length in an age of Twitter, but because of their quality.  Each of these novels has received stellar reviews–in the case of 4GOLDFINCH and LUMINARIES, from the review press and literary blogosphere, and in the case of CITY OF FIRE, from the 10 publishers who bid more than $1 million for it.  The acquiring editor at Knopf, the publisher who acquired CITY OF FIRE, calls it “off the charts in its ambitious, its powers of observation, its ability to be at one intellectual and emotionally generous,” while the chairman of the company commented “It has a richness to it, and that was really what I responded to almost immediately.”  While all three of these talented authors clearly had a vision that was incredibly ambitious, they also have the chops to pull it off.

Traditionally, long novels put off publishers.  For one thing, they are very costly to produce–at least in their print incarnations.  But the greater question is if they truly deliver to the reader.

So before writers who are hesitating to cut down their 1,000 page manuscripts rejoice, I’d recommend taking a hard look at your work.  Is your novel brilliant?  Do you give readers enough reason to stay with you on this long journey?  Are you just in love with your own writing, or is the length of your novel truly necessary to its inherent purpose.

–Joelle Delbourgo