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How Long Is Too Long?

So I just finished Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear a couple of days ago. I'd had the trade paperback for almost three years, and had been meaning to read it for much of that time, so when the winter elements left me housebound for the better part of a week, I figured it was the perfect thing to read, preferably while curled up in bed.

And I did enjoy it, just as I'd enjoyed the first book in Rothfuss' trilogy, The Name of the Wind, the better part of a decade ago. But Name was only about 700 pages, while Fear was exactly a thousand pages long. And while I don't remember the first novel that well, it seemed like that book had a lot more story than its successor, despite being 75% of its length. The impression I got from both books was that they could have stood some editing, but Fear especially felt unnecessarily long, with redundant scenes (especially at the University) and some weird pacing issues.


I don't read a lot of epic fantasy. Martin is the only other major writer I'm following right now — but there are some other writers with a thing for gigantism that I find kind of tiring. Stephen King for sure, though most of his novels since the '80s have been overlong, beginning with 1986's It, a novel I have still never quite gotten to the end of (the last 300 pages seem to go on forever). Dan Simmons has always written big — he was writing doorstops like Carrion Comfort and The Hyperion Cantos before it was cool — but I found The Terror exhausting, and Drood was disappointingly anticlimactic after 500 pages of semi-interesting incidents. Neal Stephenson used to write moderately longish books like Snow Crash and Diamond Age, but since 1999, all of his novels have been at least 800-1,000 pages in hardcover. I struggled through parts of Cryptonomicon and "The Baroque Cycle," but I enjoyed his standalones Anathem and Reamde, even though I felt that both of those books could have been cut by at least 200-300 pages each. And Martin's last couple of books weren't exactly endless thrill rides, either — he could have easily cut Feast and Dance by 50%, and merged the two halves into a tighter, more satisfying story.

But maybe I'm just an old fogey who values economy over more stuff. When I started reading SF and fantasy in the mid-'80s, the average novel was still only around 50,000 words long. Finishing a multipart series, like Gene Wolfe's "Book of the New Sun"tetralogy (a whopping 1,200 pages altogether) felt like a real accomplishment. But if your favorite writer only produces a new book every five or six years, like Martin (and it seems like Rothfuss is getting that way too), then getting a new book with a page count running into the quadruple digits probably makes up for the wait. And epic fantasy is heavy into worldbuilding, so the bigger the volume, the more legendaria — geography, history, folklore magical systems, etc. — there is to take in, even if the characters aren't going anywhere. I doubt I'll ever read Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series, but it seems to me that even though the author and his fans knew that the books had fallen into a deep rut by the middle volumes, they didn't care, because they knew and loved that world so well, and didn't want to see it end. Something similar is happening with Martin's books, I fear.


Despite my reservations, I've enjoyed both Rothfuss and Martin's sagas, and will probably buy their next books on their publication date. And there are some other big-ass genre novels that look interesting, like Stephenson's Seveneves and Ken Liu's Grace of Kings. But I often miss genre books that don't try to impress you with their size. That's why my favorite fantasy from the last couple of years is Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, which clocks in at a very tidy 288 pages in hardcover. Maybe not an epic, but certainly a fun read — and one you can definitely finish before bedtime.

So what do you guys think? Is excess a bug of modern genre writing, or a feature?

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