Are modern fantasy novels too long?

I’ve lately been reading Tad Williams’ rather good novel, The War of the Flowers, but realised it’s been taking me an awfully long time to get through. Partly, I think, because I’ve been focussing more on my own writing projects to give any sort of reading much time, but it could also be that it’s just too damned long for its own good. However, I will reserve final judgment until I’ve finished. I will say, though, that Flowers, until many other modern fantasy books, is not po-faced, and it has a measure of wit and entertainment value often missing in the standard telephone directory-sized tomes.

To be honest, though, apart from Lord of the Rings,  and a handful of others, I’ve found the fantasy books I’ve picked up to be over long,  over padded and consist of characters going from A, to B, to C, with little recognisable character development. George Elliot’s Middlemarch, Dickens’ Bleak House and Tolstoy’s War and Peace are also, of course, incredibly long. But they deal with human emotions, deep characterisation, philosophical ideas, politics, and much, much more. And, apart from the beautiful writing, it is all these elements that justify longer works. Don’t get me wrong – I love  good potboilers as much as literary works – but a great story isn’t just about one incident after another. Or about a group of travellers seeking a magical ring/amulet/genii/unicorn/land. As Robert McKee put it, story is not plot.

Fantasy novels are, at heart, adventure stories (for the most part). The great ones, as least as far as I am concerned, have all been short, or of moderate length: Moorcock’s Elric books, Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword, Tim Lebbons’ duology, Dusk and Dawn (I loved the fact that Lebbon broke the trilogy trap!), and, arguably Dune (crossing science fiction with fantasy, and, while long, isn’t ludicrously so).

I am prepared to be shot down in flames for expressing this view. It could be that I just haven’t been able to fully immerse myself in a big fantasy world, for a variety of reasons.

So, here’s the deal: let me hear your views, for or against my proposition. And, if you know of recent novels that are long and unputdownable, let me have your recommendations.

14 thoughts on “Are modern fantasy novels too long?

  1. To amplify a little on my previous response… This doesn’t mean that you won’t want to keep reading a book that’s “too long.” There can be a compelling story for which you want to learn the resolution. To take an example from television, I recently watched the first season of the American version of The Killing on DVD. This is a pretty bad show, all in all. It is like an episode of Law and Order: SVU pumped up to 16 times its size with air. Nevertheless, I wanted to keep watching it because I want to know who done it (even though I can guess it — I think) and I am interested in what happens to some of the characters, even though I continually roll my eyes at what’s occurring on screen.

    1. Fair point, Steve. I often do want to keep reading even if something is too long. I haven’t seen The Killing, but I know I sometimes watch (or read) something when it seems past its sell-by date. I watched Prison Break religiously, and in the main it was great, but took a nose dive in later episodes. But then it picked up again. Same can happen with fat books, I guess.

  2. No book is too long if it is good. The problem with most modern fantasy is that it is just not that well written. In fact, I think it would not even occur to you to ask that question of a good book.

  3. “Good writing” is rarely too long. Just like the chef of a “good cooking” knows when to lay off the spice, an author that is good at his craft will know when to lay off the words.

    The issue for me is “art” over “craft”. If the work is considered “art” then the mundane or excess may be part of the statement the artist was making. It may be that your appreciation or lack of appreciation for the form leads you to a specific conclusion.

    Which brings me to my answer: you are free to feel how you want to about art, that is its glory, but craft requires an objective be met within defined bounds of success. Determine which view you are taking then pass judgement.

    I like the “Wheel of Time” series. Requires 4 people to cary the entire set from room to room. It is a world with events artistically described. The plot isn’t more than 300 pages long though. Great art.

    1. I don’t necessarily make a distinction between art and craft. Ideally they work together. And I am not a fan of mono diets – reading one type of book only, for example. Trashy novels, literary novels, whatever…all can be excellent.

  4. I think you answered your own question with:

    but it could also be that it’s just too damned long for its own good

    If the book is long, but all of it is really good, then it isn’t too long. If the book is 500 pages, and only 300 of those pages are any good, it’s too long. Some of my favorite “long but unputdownables” include The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch, Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence, and the more recent Faith by John Love (ok, that’s SF not fantasy) and The Troupe by Robert Jackson Bennett (urban fantasy). Every single page in those books rocked my world, so they books felt short not long, because i finished them too quickly.

    But there is definitely something to be said for the Fantasy novel that doesn’t break your foot should you accidentally drop it.

    1. I’m interested in the books you mention…I will look out for them next time I can get to an English language bookshop. I don’t have an ebook reader, so digital versions not a great choice for me (reading lengthy books on the computer is too much of a challenge.) I heard an interview with Scott Lynch on a podcast, so his book has already appeared on my radar.

  5. I agree about overly long books, John. I have read some SciFi that badly needed editing. While I love Robert Jordan’s Eye of the World series, the latter books took forever to get anywhere. Holding the reader’s attention is harder in this day and age than its ever been, which means writers have to work that much harder to keep things interesting 🙂 Not every sentence has to move the plot along, but they should all be necessary, not superflouous

  6. This is a really interesting idea and something which I think is important to notice. Even if the reason for struggling to get through the books is because of a busy lifestyle and lack of time, these are issues which face a large number of people! If a book isn’t interesting enough to hold your attention and to make itself necessary in your day then my view is that is either isn’t a good book or needs to be significantly edited. It is a shame that so many books that could be great are ruined by massive sections of boring mush which are unnecessary and usually only exist to unfold plots which have become far too complicated in the first place!

    1. Excellent points you make. I wonder, too, to what extent publishers are demanding long fantasy books from their authors? Given the success of Wheel of Time, the George Martin books and so on, perhaps they think that long equals sales.

      1. I think it might be the case that *some* fantasy readers consider shorter books to be less detailed or complex and that the creation of vast fully-explored and explained worlds has become an expectation of some fantasy readers. Many hardcore fantasy fans that I know seem to consider a book which is not as complex as beneath them and their intellect.

        I get the feeling that fantasy reader want to be able to say “I read that – I made it through all 1500 pages – I’m a true fantasy fan.” I think there’s a lot of fantasy elitism out there!!! But again, that’s just my point of view!

          1. I wonder if it is more that long fantasy books appeal to a specific audience. Of course they need to have excellent writing, but that’s subjective. Some get better as they go, but I can’t get into them long enough to get there, Way of Kings being an example (put it down at 15%).

            Back to my first sentence. While my non-professional nature prefers to find one world and stick with it for a while (if I love it–see Germline by T.C. McCarthy and Dragonlance when I first read it back in middle school). My “professional” nature running a podcast and review site means I get dozens of books a month, many so appealing that it is hard to say “I’m going to read Way of Kings, so the next fifty books that come in the mail I won’t be able to start reading.” That’s really hard to do. I’ve failed at it so far, having picked up Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear and moving forward with that. Then John tells me about Marie Brennan’s Natural History of Dragons, etc. There are too many books and too much demand for product on my end to spend so much time on one book. Sanderson has two books in that Stormlight Archive series, so I’m already behind (it’s more like two trilogy size books), but at this rate, I’m pushing myself out of the audience that has time to read those books. I’d like to try them to see how epic storylines can get.

            Here’s another thought to consider. Marie Brennan mentioned, I think, John Scalzi, blogging about how each POV steals about 30k of words from other characters (though of course you can have them together in scenes). This makes me wonder if Epic Fantasy doorstops are doing much more with characters or if they are just adding more characters.

            1. Thanks for the long, thoughtful reply, Tim. I suppose epic fantasy does appeal to a specific audience, but then again if it’s the right book, the appeal can broaden. In spite of my initial comments on War of the Flowers, for instance, I got more and more into it as I was reading. The book’s now up there with my top half dozen fantasy favourites. Marie sticks with one character POV, so Scalzi’s comment doesn’t apply in her case. Epic fantasy may well be in the business of piling on characters, but a good story, well told, will always work, no matter the genre or length. I think my question may have related to publishers’ expectations, or the trend for epic books (whether they’re good or not).

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