Word Count and Ancient Novels

From a letter to the New York Times editor, January 7, 1899:

Have you taken note of the fact that the majority of successful novels are long? I mention this fact because a few years ago — about the time The Prisoner of Zenda made such a hit — it was predicted that all the widely read novels of the future would be very short. Not long ago your own London correspondent W.L. Alden predicted that the novel of the future would be only 40,000 or 50,000 words long.

I have calculated very closely the length of the prominent novels of the last two or three years, and I find that Mrs. Steel’s On the Face of the Waters is 150,000 words, Ford’s Honorable Peter Stirling is 145,000, Hugh Wynne, 170,000; Corleone, 165,000; Quo Vadis, 210,000; The Landlord at Lion’s Head, 120,000; The Seats of the Mighty, 115,000; The Manxman, 220,000; The Christian, 210,000; The Gadfly, 105,000; A Soldier of Manhattan, 100,000. Against this list of long novels appears Soldiers of Fortune and The Choir Invisible, which are of medium length, about 75,000 words each, while in the 40,000 novel list we have only Hopkinson Smith’s Tom Grogan and John Fox’s Kenutuckians.

I have purposefully omitted the 1898 novels from the above, but when we come to the year just closing we find the tendency to length still more accentuated. Take the two best and most successful American historical novels of the present season — Mr. Altsheler’s A Herald of the West and Miss Johnston’s Prisoners of Hope — and we find that one is about 120,000 words and the other 130,000. Mr. Parker’s very successful Battle of the Strong is about 135,000 words; Mr. Page’s Red Rock, which is a study rather than a historical novel, is 140,000 words; David Harum is about 110,000 words; Helbeck of Bannisdale is 110,000 words; Ms. Crowninshield’s lively story of adventure, Latitude 19, is 145,000 words; Evelyn Innes, which many think the finest novel of 1898, is 175,000 words; Roden’s Corner is at least not a short novel, nor is The Red Axe. All these have passed the test of commercial success, which is the final arbiter in such matters. In view of these facts, does the reign of the very short novel seem to be at hand?


* * *

I know very few of the titles that the good C.T. Adams has kindly listed for us to investigate. But for those who find a 900-page book imposing, the above statistics are worth remembering. I have added links to the complete text of the books that Adams mentions. It is a great credit to our information age that only Manxman could not be located.* Adams is right to observe that George Moore’s Evelyn Innes is somewhat promising — that is, for those who like slightly florid, monosyllabic noun-heavy sentence constructions. (“Iron-grey hair hung in thick locks over his forehead, and, shining through their shadows, his eyes drew attention from the rest of his face, so that none noticed at first the small and firmly cut nose, nor the scanty growth of beard twisted to a point by a movement habitual to the weak, white hand,” reads one such sentence.) My current beard, such as it is, is not habitual to any movement by my hand. But I am very much taken with this image, and I’m wondering if men have, over the past century, resisted the impulse to tug and twist at their facial hair in such a matter. The time is ripe for a comeback.

There’s more from Moore: “The vague pathos of his grey face was met by the bright effusion of hers, and throwing her arms about him, she kissed him on the cheek.” Who knew pathos could be vague? But “vague pathos” is a wonderful idea. And I particularly like the antediluvian sentence construction.

I’m serious! The forgotten novels that people raved about a century ago are worth revisiting — if only for the odd and enjoyable syntax. (I’m afraid that Moore’s dialogue didn’t impress me as much as the sentences.) Can you imagine a novelist today getting away with a woman “regretting her tongue’s indiscretion?” A man named Sir Owen is “seemingly a tall man, certainly above the medium height,” which suggests that Moore isn’t certain. But then how often are any of us certain about how tall some people are? “Wall paper” has not yet been crammed into one word. An upper-class man in his thirties is described as “three-and-thirty,” and I’m considering adopting this manner of speech if anybody ever asks my age.

“The nakedness of the unfinished and undecorated church was hidden in the twilight of the approaching storm….” This is very old school, but I’m again strangely fond of this phrasing, even if I’m not inclined to use such a prepositional phrase in my own writing. If an MFA tried to write a sentence like this today, she’d be asked to revise the sentence read something like: “The undecorated church hid in the storm.” This isn’t nearly as interesting. And you can’t really make this sentence work without the past tense.

Don’t discount the old novels. There are quirky ideas here to be discovered, tinkered around with, and employed in your own writing.

* — UPDATE: The good Rory Ewins has pointed out that Manxman is available online. I had mistyped it “Maxman.” Thank you, Rory. And thank you, Internet!


  1. the easter parade by richard yates is around 54,000 words

    good morning, midnight by jean rhys is around 40,000 words

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