Published by Kettle Magazine 26/07/2014
When we think of great novels we think mostly of words, but we might also think of a memorable piece of dialogue, or of a particularly strong image that stuck with us long after we’d finished reading. It’s less often that we think of books in terms of numbers, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t matter.
Is there a magic number?
What’s the difference between a novel and a novella? How short does a short story really have to be? And when does a poem become an epic?
A new infographic attempts to answer some of these questions, by charting the lengths of famous works of literature, from Dickens to Rowling, and Shakespeare to George R.R. Martin. So, is there a magic number for the perfect novel?
The short answer is, of course, no. What determines a books’ readability isn’t the number of words used, but how they are used. In literature, finesse and storytelling ability are just as – if not more – important than a propensity for splurging a great deal of words onto a page. After all, we’ve all heard the phrase “It’s not War and Peace” to describe Tolstoy’s longest and, arguably, most laborious work.
As it happens, it turns out that the Russian epic heartily warrants its lengthy reputation, being a novel to end all novels at a startling 561,304 words in length. To put that into context, James Joyce’s Ulysses comes in at a modest 265,222 words, and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is one of the more surprising novellas on the list, at a meagre 28,944 words from beginning to end.
Short but Sweet
According to the people who define these things, a novella is a short novel between 20,000 and 50,000 words long. Although it is a doubtful grey area as to what we’d call a piece of writing that’s 19,999 or 50,001 words from beginning to end. But let’s not quibble.
What is interesting, is that the novellas popularity was at its peak during the mid to late 20th century, boasting authors including Orwell, Hemingway, and Steinbeck as well-known masters of the form. Some of their most famous works, including Animal Farm, The Old Man and the Sea, and Of Mice and Men, are also their shortest books, proving once and for all, that being concise can be more important than embarking on a love affair with adjectives.
For the greatest playwright of all time as well, it wasn’t the length of the play, but the impact of the words, that mattered. Although Shakespeare’s most famous play, Hamlet, is also his longest, the eponymous Macbeth is the shortest work the Bard ever wrote, and no less brilliant because of it.
The Modern Epic
In modern novels, however, we seem to expect a little something more from our fantasy series. It was, of course, Tolkien who popularised the fantasy genre as a work of serious literature, with his groundbreaking novels The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
They set the bar for the fantasy genre as epic novel, with the shortest book being The Hobbit at 95,356 words, and the longest being The Fellowship of the Ring, at 187,790. And those figures don’t include the numerous appendices and histories that accompany the main narratives. If they were added together, the number would be far higher indeed.
Following in Tolkien’s footsteps, George R.R. Martin’s historical fantasy A Song of Ice and Fire, adds to the master’s word count. The series so far clocks in at an eye-watering 1770,000 words, with at least two more books still to come. By comparison, J.K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books combine to make a modest 1084,170 words in total, with the shortest by far being The Philosopher’s Stone, at 76,944.
In the end, our love affair with words can be counted, but the results cannot be quantified. From Tolstoy’s War and Peace, to Orwell’s Animal Farm, it isn’t the amount of words that matter, but what you do with them.
And perhaps no-one has proved this better than Hemingway’s six word short story:
For Sale: baby shoes, never worn.
The 1954 Nobel Prize for Literature winner is certainly a master of both brevity and storytelling. And so, with all apologies to Tolstoy, in the case of books at least, it’s clear that in the end, size really doesn’t matter.
NB: All figures are taken from the original published texts, and may vary from edition to edition.