In Purity, one of the novel’s secondary characters, the angry, ambitious writer Charles, is working on the novel, “the big book, the novel that would secure him his place in the modern American canon. Once upon a time,” this writer named Charles thinks, “it had sufficed to write The Sound and the Fury or The Sun Also Rises. But now bigness was essential. Thickness, length.”
Jonathan Franzen, always more self-aware and prescriptive (and certainly much funnier) in his fiction than in his nonfiction, is on to something here. Books really are getting bigger. According to a recent study flagged by the Guardian “the average number of pages has grown by 25 percent over the last 15 years.” And, according to a representative from the group that carried out the study, there’s “relatively consistent pattern of growth year on year.”
The Guardian provides a host of possible reasons for why this is: the growth in digital reading, which makes big books less intimidating; the rise of binge-watching, which has made consumers more tolerant of immersive work; the climb in book prices, which make long books seem more valuable to consumers.
There are also industry reasons for the growth of big books. Publishers are under more pressure than ever to produce blockbusters, and big books communicate importance in a way slim volumes struggle to. And more books are being published than ever, especially when you consider the growing “shadow industry” of self-published ebooks. Size is one way to stand out in a crowded field.