Thoughts on The Hobbit, and other “Big” things.

So I am presently watching Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy for the umpteenth time because The Hobbit is coming out soon and, well, I am a big ol’, oliphaunt-sized Fantasy Nerd. How big, you ask? It should go without saying that I’m watching the extended versions of all three movies with all the deleted scenes and so forth, making each film something like 57 hours long.

And I love it.

It did, however, get me to thinking, and since I have this column to fill on a weekly basis, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you. To wit, I love big books. There, I said it, but here’s the thing: I think everybody loves big books – they just don’t necessarily know it.

People love all sorts of books, and there are all sorts of books out there for people to love, but here is something no one has ever said: “This is my favorite book. The characters are flat and the story is boring, but it’s really, really short, and that is what I mostly look for in a book.” Nor has anyone ever wished that there was less of their favorite book of all time, whatever that book may be. The popularity of hugely successful series that basically repeat the same story over and over again, as well as whole genres that are defined so rigidly that you can pretty much sketch out the plotline of any given book before starting on page one is, to me, proof that an awful lot of readers like to read what they like to read, if you follow me.  People who may have a kneejerk reaction of “I don’t like big books,” are – I personally believe – not really commenting on the length of any book. They are making a substantive judgment on what they believe to be within those far apart covers, as opposed to really being bothered that the covers are just far apart.

It’s easy to see how such a bias probably developed for many readers. In the pre-digital days, a Big Book was just that: a big, honkin’, cumbersome thing you had to drag around with you if you wanted to get in some reading at the laundromat or in church. Also, the first experience a lot of us had with really Big Books were “classics” assigned as reading for a class at some point. Being forced to do something, even reading a book, always sucks a lot of the joy out of it to begin with. Plus, let’s face it. A lot of classics are representative of an earlier time when the human attention span wasn’t attuned to 90-minute movies, and 22-minute sitcoms (not counting commercials). We do live at a faster pace nowadays, and a lot of people prefer what they read for entertainment fits into that pace. Not the more contemplative and even pastoral pace of an earlier era.

If there was a certain word count where readers just lose interest in a given set of characters or the sort of story they are in, there would be one Harry Potter Book, one Sherlock Holmes story, one book set in Narnia, one set in a Little House on the Prairie, and Sue Grafton would have wrapped everything up in A is For Alibi. Sure, you can say each of the books in all those series brings a fresh new element to the whole…but can you say it with a straight face? Really? Do readers love all those series of books, and dozens or hundreds of others besides, because each volume is like a whole new world? Or is it because each volume is a return to familiar people, places, and things that readers know ahead of time that they like already?

For me, when a book feels like it may be “too long,” it’s really only because I am not enjoying what is written there. Though given in quantitative terms, I believe “too long” is really a qualitative judgment. If I like a book, it never seems too long, no matter how long it is. And if I don’t like it, brevity is not going to make it any more enjoyable to me personally.

So when in the course of authorial events, you are editing your own manuscript and thinking you should really get it down to a length that “people are going to want to read,” do think carefully about what that means. In the most general sense, every writer’s ideal target audience is “people who will like this book.” And are those people necessarily going to like it more, just because there is less of it? Or is the part of your brain telling you to make it shorter really telling you to make what is there better? While it is true there is such a thing as addition by subtraction, it remains less common than subtraction by subtraction. That’s why they still call it subtraction.

Later skaters, Frodo and Sam are just getting to Mordor. 😉

In closing, a bit of a real, short review on a real, really long book.

“Proust is just a bit verbose.”
In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (4211 pages in 7 volumes)

Author: M. Edward McNally

Epic fantasy author M. Edward McNally is a North Carolinian of Irish/Mexican extraction. He has a Masters in English Lit from ISU and Russian/East European History from ASU. He grew up mostly in the Midwest along I-35 northbound (KS, IA, MN), and now resides in the scrub brush surrounding Phoenix AZ, where the scorpions and javelinas play. Learn more about Ed at his blog, and his Amazon author page.

14 thoughts on “Thoughts on The Hobbit, and other “Big” things.”

  1. I adore big books. At least now with the Kindle, when War and Peace or a John Irving novel tips over because you’ve fallen asleep reading in bed, it won’t break your nose. And I agree with Yvonne on feeling like losing friends. That’s why I have not read the last Harry Potter book yet. Then it will truly be over. 🙁

  2. I LOVE a big old doorstop of a book. When one of my favorite authors has a new book out, and it’s just huge, I am overjoyed. I am sometimes disappointed in the trend to cut to the bone. Of course, remove unnecessary words, but ALWAYS tell me more. You mentioned Narnia– I boo-hoo, snot bubble sobbed when those were over, and in such a way that there could never, ever be anymore. My heart was broken. I guess a part of it still is, because I am tearing up now at the thought. I agree, if you are writing what readers want to read, they will always want more.

  3. As a horror writer and Stephen King fan (among others), big books are the norm. From the writer’s point of view, I think that length should be dictated solely by how long it needs to be to tell the story. If one needs 180k words to tell their story, they should have 180k words. Yes, there will always be room for editing. If possible, I always try to see if I can edit (efficiently and without losing the story) about 10%. Sometimes it turns out to be more and sometimes less. Where I think some of the problem about lenght comes from is when you’re trying to get traditionally published. Unknown authors whose work runs more than 100k words will (generally) have a very difficult time getting an agent or publisher.

    From a readers perspective, I agree that a good book, no matter how long (or short) is one that carries you along, leaves you thinking about it afterward and makes you wish there were more of it. It’s always the story and characters that carry you along … and if they’re really good…the back cover comes too soon.

  4. I can really relate to the “big books” being a matter of psychological perspective, rather than a physical one. I would too be rereading Tolkien’s books and many other series I really like and can’t get enough of. I am often sad that most of my favourite authors are dead and can’t write any more of this character or that world…
    Hopefully all us aspiring writers can become big book writers 🙂

  5. Love big books. I loved The Stand and when King published the even more monstrous unabridged version, I bought that too and loved it more. The only caveat is that the author must have the chops to sustain it, not as easy as it looks. King again is a prime example of both extremes.

    And Ed, I have a confession, mate. I have your first book still sitting on my Kindle and I want to read it but you know what? Fear is holding me back. Fear of loving it. Because if I do—and given what I’ve already read of your stuff my suspicion is that I will—I’m then committed to your series for a length of time it’s hard to justify when there are so many books on my TBR list! Tough dilemma.

  6. Hello Edward,

    Welcome to Middle Earth. I live in beautiful Gore,New Zealand, a mere few kilometers away from some of the most spectacular scenery on this planet. And … do you know… just this morning – on this glorious first summer day in Middle Earth – I saw a Hobbit emerging from his hole. Oh, what a wonderous sight!

  7. For all the reasons you said and more, I’m reluctant to commit to reading a big book by someone I’ve never read before, because there is such a small chance that I’m going to love it all the way to the end. I recently listened to 11 of 13 CDs of an audio book just to be disappointed at the pivotal moment. I think that initial reluctance is legitimate to consider when writing the first book in a series. In the Harry Potter example, if The Philosopher’s Stone were as long at the Deathly Hallows, a lot fewer few kids would have picked it up to read, and the phenomenon might never have started. But after that first book, when it was clear that the characters were great, the story was great, and it had a satisfying ending, then when every book got longer and longer, they were still never long enough.

  8. You want a series of BIG books? I give you “The Malazan Book of the Fallen”. I would get such amazed looks from people when I would carry one around with me (in pre-ebook days). But…yeah. The author has started a new trilogy in the same world, but I’ve yet to pick it up. I’m worried I’ll get sucked in again and get cranky between books. 😉

  9. Epic fantasy has always been my favorite genre. I get excited when my favorite authors come out with crazy 300K+ word epics(such as Brandon Sanderson’s Way of Kings and Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear). My upcoming sequel to my debut novel will be breaking well into big book territory, so hopefully fans of the first like big books as well.

  10. If it’s big and the story works the whole way through then it’s ok. I’ve recently read a pair books in different genres that were very big and the first didn’t really start until the last 100k out of the 400k in it (a thriller). The second should have ended at 300k not 450k where it was cut (a paranormal). There is a segment of readers that want a lot of dialog and slim description which causes shorter books 50k-75k, nearly movie script length at times – and even shorter if done cheaply, quickly, and later packaged into larger books (precedence is guys like Dickens .. Tale Of Two Cities came out in weeklies, monthly packs, and then the whole book over seven months).

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