These days, most of us are busy as hell. Even when we do have uninterrupted free time, our attention spans are too short to let us enjoy it. You’d think these circumstances would push fiction readers toward lean novellas and quick stories that we can gobble up in under an hour. Somehow, you’d be wrong. Short fiction venues struggle to stay afloat by begging for donations and charging writers submission fees. And great big books are great big sellers, particularly in speculative fiction. NYT Bestseller Leigh Bardugo’s dark academic Hell Bent is a beefy 496 pages long. Hannah Whitten’s The Foxglove King is an absolute unit at 480 pages—and it’s only part one of a longer series. CL Clark’s The Faithless, also an installment in a longer series, boasts a chonky 512 pages in its paperback edition. The Wandering Inn series is a staggering 11 million words and still growing. And in the time it took me to write this introduction, Brandon Sanderson published at least three 1200-page novels. Meanwhile, book bloggers on TikTok and Goodreads brag about crushing their goals of conquering 100 books a year. How do these people find the time to hike through so many words?
The truth is, they don’t. They don’t read these books. They skim them. They listen to the audiobook at 1.5x speed while doing something else. They binge read, just as you might binge watch a Netflix series while playing on your phone or binge eat a package of Oreos when you’re having a really bad time.
Some books are easier to binge than others. Length is no object. A long book can be binged on just as easily as a short book—if anything, length is a bonus. More words mean more bang for your buck, as long as you don’t let silly issues like taste get in your way.
Not all big books can be binged on. Not all big books are overlong. I like to draw a distinction between two types of hefty novels: fat books versus bloated books.
Fat books are a feast. And like a good feast, they demand a lot of time and effort. When we feast, we sit at a table for hours, and we give the meal our full attention. Feasting is a joyous occasion. Feasting is deliberate.
Fat books are heavy with evocative description, dense with theme, rich with style. Fat books give us characters’ inner lives and family histories. Fat books often have a sprawling scope, telling the story of a family, a community, a nation. In fat books, the plot meanders—we’re more interested in the journey than in the destination. Fat books have very careful prose, whether flowery or post-modern or sparse, and stopping to examine a well-crafted sentence is wonderfully rewarding. Fat books expect us to slow down and concentrate. You can’t binge a fat book.
Moby Dick is a fat book. So is The Secret History. So is Cloud Atlas. So is One Hundred Years of Solitude. So is Infinite Jest. (The 50 pages I managed to get through were pretty dense, anyway.) These are long books that take a long time and a good deal of effort to get through. You can’t skim or binge them. And despite their length, they’re not excessive. There’s hardly anything you could trim from them—it’s all necessary. (Yes, even the chapters about whale phrenology.)
But you don’t have to be literary fiction to be a fat book. Tolkien wrote fat books. House of Leaves is a fat book. Stephen King wrote some real fat books—IT is over a thousand pages long. Dune is a great big fat boy of a book, plump with weird worldbuilding and the author’s morbidly fascinating sexual pathology and metacommentary on white savior fiction.
Bloated books are long, but less substantial. The prose is not crafted with care—stopping to examine a sentence confronts you with its sloppiness. Consider the following excerpt from A Memory of Light, Brandon Sanderson’s entry in the Wheel of Time series:
The monsters almost seemed to blend and shift together, one enormous dark force of howling, miasmic hatred as thick as the air—which seemed to hold in the heat and the humidity, like a merchant hoarding fine rugs.
This passage gets worse the longer you look at it. Using “seemed” twice in one sentence is a real rough draft mistake. And why would air “seem” to hold in heat and humidity—isn’t that just what air does? And why is miasmic in italics like a vocabulary word in a middle school reading textbook? And, as many commenters have pointed out, merchants don’t hoard rugs—they sell rugs because that is how you make money.
Bloated books don’t labor over rich descriptions or nuanced characterization. Instead, they’re story-centered. The purpose of the text is to mechanically deliver formulaic plot beats. But even an incredibly convoluted plot isn’t going to get you to 1000 pages, so bloated books pad the page length with dreadful banter, tedious worldbuilding, and clunky gestures. Characters in bloated books curtsy and smirk and bite their lips and cock their eyebrows like hammy actors in a bad sitcom.
A bloated book is diluted. A bloated book would improve with heavy editing. But then, it would be a lean book— smaller but denser, harder to skim, harder to binge. And that’s why publishers love bloated books: because they’re easy to binge on, and binge readers buy a lot of books. These books don’t sell well despite their bloat—they sell well because of it. And taking the time to tighten up the books would slow down the writing process, which means you’re producing fewer books, which means you’re selling fewer products.
(header image via davebrenner)
Years ago, not too long after the "worldbuilding is the clomping foot of nerdism" post (and whew did that one rile people up!), M. John Harrison made another blogpost on the same subject as your piece here: he compared the big chonky books of your Pynchon and Wallace and others, with the vast series you found then too in epic fantasy. It always stuck with me when he wrote that with enough effort, you could build a world in a line and stuff the rest of the book full of things.
I remember finding The Poppy War extremely repetitive after around page 150 and thinking “how the hell does this go on for 350 more pages?"
I’ve had similar thoughts for other SFF I’ve read recently too. So much of it is needless bloat, as you say. It’s a real problem.
I’ll risk a controversial opinion and say I loved A Feast For Crows because it was rich and more divorced from plot. Just excellent world building, character development, atmosphere, tone, etc. I know a lot of people hated it for this same reason (it was “boring”).