When Did Books Get So Freaking Enormous? The Year of the Very Long Novel

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When Doubleday editor Gerald Howard acquired Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a 736-page novel about a New Yorker with a hellish past, he told her they’d have to cut it down by a third. She countered that Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, both longer than her book, were poised to do pretty well that year. She also emailed a list of successful long novels, as well as a “passive-aggressive picture” of her manuscript beside a 900-page issue of Vogue and a paperback copy of Vikram Seth’s 1,400-page classic, A Suitable Boy.

Howard lost the fight, and Yanagihara turned out to be prescient. The Goldfinch went on to win the Pulitzer, and The Luminaries became, at 864 pages, the longest novel ever to win the Booker prize.  “I don’t know if it’s a real trend or just some statistical clutter,” says Howard, “but there’s definitely something going on.”

Like most “trends” in publishing, it’s been going on more or less forever, with cyclical variations here and there. In fact, Garth Risk Hallberg, one of this year’s most notable high-page-count writers (whose 944-page novel, City on Fire, will be Knopf’s most important literary debut next fall), wrote a story for the Millions way back in 2010 titled “Is Big Back?” Arguing that big books’ success complicates simplistic narratives about our collective ADD, he marshaled ample evidence, including Joshua Cohen’s Witz, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, and thousand-pagers by Jonathan Littell, Adam Levin, and David Foster Wallace that were widely read (or at least discussed). Perhaps Hallberg was just being savvy, laying the groundwork for the multi-million-dollar sale of another doorstop — his own.

Nearly five years later, that list of megabooks is even longer. A Little Life has a rabid following and four printings so far; Larry Kramer just published The American People, an epic gay parallel history of the U.S. that runs to 800 pages (and that’s just Volume 1); Marlon James’s sprawling Jamaican saga A Brief History of Seven Killings, out since October, is enjoying a run as long as the book itself. William Vollmann’s July novel, The Dying Grass, will close in on 1,400 pages, and Grove Atlantic just acquired a first novel called TheMystery.Doc, which is 1,700 manuscript pages long. Throw in several big-deal, massively popular series that are really single works split into volumes — a small platoon led by Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard — and it’s tempting to proclaim this the era of the Very Long Novel (VLN).

But again, maybe it was ever thus? “I don’t think the long novel ever went away,” says Jennifer Brehl, who edited Neal Stephenson’s forthcoming 880-page sci-fi story Seveneves. Other editors and agents of VLNs agree, but the notable thing about these books isn’t that their heft is unprecedented; it’s that all the forces Hallberg alluded to in 2010 are exponentially stronger today. We measure out our lives not just in tweets but in a blizzard of memes, Vines, Periscope soundings, and flash quizzes. We binge-watch, sure, but we wash dishes at the same time. Reading, on any device, is a discreet and solitary experience. “We’re in a very noisy, fast-paced world that’s only getting noisier and faster,” says Hallberg’s agent, Chris Parris-Lamb, “and books, without changing at all, increasingly stand in relief.”

At least, that’s one of the ways that people pitching them try to sell us. The most popular explanation for the staying power of the VLN is no less true for its obviousness: counterprogramming. “The promise of a book remains a unique pleasure in contrast to thumbing through 800,000 Instagrams,” says Michael Pietsch, the CEO of Hachette and the editor of both The Goldfinch and Wallace’s Infinite Jest. “The idea that one mind has created this world for you is a unique and perhaps even more compelling experience to us now.”

Hallberg’s essay called reading a VLN “an act of resistance.” It also dovetails with other fashionable affinities of the quasi-counterculture, from the fever for “longreads” to the cult of Etsy. “People seem to be seeking wholly immersive experiences,” says Knopf publicity director Paul Bogaards. “They’re binge-watching, they’re cooking from scratch, going on ecotours. And there’s no more immersive experience than reading a good long book.” But ultimately, the cognitive dissonance of toggling between Snapchat and The Goldfinch requires no totalizing explanation. “The truth is that people live large, complex lives, and they want a multitude of experiences,” says Sam Nicholson, who edited Joshua Cohen’s The Book of Numbers, a slightly slimmer follow-up to the 800-page Witz.

But sometimes readers want a multitude of books, too. Along with apocalypses and superheroes, the book series is yet another genre convention bleeding into the lit mainstream. “It probably has something to do with that continued blurring of high and low, of what we consider highbrow and super-fancy and what’s just plain good storytelling,” says Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Sean McDonald, who handles Knausgaard’s paperbacks and Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. In a recent online column on the sudden popularity of the literary series, the novelist Alexander Chee invoked the parallel to binge-watching but also millennial obsessions like Harry Potter and science fiction. And he referred, interestingly, to “the world the writer has created.” World-building, a term once exclusive to physicists and game designers, is now on the tip of every book publicist’s tongue. Asked what keywords they use in marketing VLNs, editors came up with variations on “creates a world.” Longer novels create bigger worlds.

Joshua Cohen once said that one of the eight publishers who rejected Witz told him they’d have published it at 200 pages. But the VLN editors and agents I spoke to (admittedly a self-selecting group) all claimed never to have turned down a book for being too long.  Most agents are impressed if they like a book past page five. “If I read the whole thing and it’s longer than a few hundred pages,” says Anna Stein, Yanagihara’s agent, “I can’t imagine I wouldn’t at least try to take it on.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. VLNs are expensive to make — almost prohibitively so for translations — and must be priced higher at bookstores. (Vollmann’s new novel will cost $55.) It’s a good thing, then, that a book’s length can become a marketing asset. Knopf spent close to $2 million on City on Fire, so it needs a best seller no matter the page count. Advance readers’ copies arrived on media desks late last month, festooned with quotes from booksellers praising the novel for its most challenging quality. “Even after 900 pages, I wanted it to go on and on,” writes one. “This is a vast deep ocean of a book … and reading it is no chore,” writes another.

At publishers’ sales conferences, buzzwords like important and audacious quickly give way to immersive and addictive. There are, too, the bragging rights earned by polishing off Middlemarch or its successors. “When [Little, Brown] brought out Infinite Jest,” Gerald Howard remembers, “they as much as presented the book as a challenge to readers. ‘Are you smart enough? Are you energetic enough to meet the Dave Wallace challenge?’”

Published in 1996 at 1,079 pages, Wallace’s magnum opus was both the bellwether of VLNs and a case study in how to sell them. Michael Pietsch remembers doctoring the margins to fit 600 words onto a page, double the average. Early copies went out on thinner paper — the better to appeal to weary, sore-shouldered critics — with a beautiful preliminary cover that telegraphed the rarity of the book in your hands. That rarity is what Parris-Lamb finds most appealing about a truly ambitious VLN. “We’re all going to die before we read the world’s great literature,” he says, “but it would be feasible to read all the world’s great long novels.”

The flipside is that you’re setting up some serious expectations. “If you’re picking up a big book,” says Farrar, Straus and Giroux publisher Galassi, “you’re competing with Tolstoy but you’re also under the shadow of Tolstoy.” Galassi’s next VLN, coming out in June, is an 816-page novel by Stephen Jarvis called Death and Mr. Pickwick. It’s a fictionalized account of the creation of Dickens’s first novel. The catalogue copy opens by calling it “a vast, richly imagined, Dickensian work.”

The Year of the Very Long Novel