At present, I am indulging in a reading of Les Misérables (a free kindle ebook edition), which is (in?)famous for being phenomenally long. A quick calculation shows that this particular English translation has around 600,000 words in it. Now, I’m not particularly crazy about narrative pieces which stand out for their length above other attributes, since there are many cases in which that turns out to be for more wrong reasons than not (as you might know, half of the truly infamous [unabridged] Moby-Dick consists of nothing but exclamations, accolades and descriptions of the whaling trade, the seas, the creatures that inhabit them, and other things that have basically no impact whatsoever on the plot).
That said, there can definitely be volumes that stretch outwardly in a rather conspicuous manner and still manage to be very good– Les Mis is one of them. I have yet to fully see any of the theatre or film adaptation (I’ve made the habit of keeping a song list from the musical handy and looking up songs that cover parts I am 100% sure I have already read. It’s rather fun), but from what I’ve seen, there are people who are fans of the musical yet refuse to check out the novel. I can’t say I understand this.
Now, granted, the very first part of the novel (Book 1 of Vol.1, which stretches out for about 13 chapters) is about nothing other than the life of M. Myriel, the Bishop of Digne, and what an amazingly good and charitable person he is, with practically none of what happens having any impact on the rest of the plot other than providing him with ample character development. It might get a bit jarring for a more casual reader, but I have a genuine challenge that I’d like to issue out to anyone who claims to have an issue like this: Read the unabridged version of Moby-Dick all the way through, cover to cover, then after you’ve done that, I dare you to tell me that the section of Les Misérables titled “Book I: A Just Man” is truly boring.
I suppose what I’m getting at is that, while a certain degree of objectivity is imperative if you’re trying to write an interesting book, if you have the skill to keep that up, or at least to make it so that your descriptions and digressions are still interesting and pertinent, you can certainly pull off writing something monumentally long.
For another bit of contrast, I’d like to cite a couple more of some of the longest books I’ve read. One of them is Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami, which stretches on for about 600 pages with a plot whose being able to fit the definition of plot is debatable, but the narrative style the author provides is so engaging and compelling that you can’t help but to keep on reading. Another particularly lengthy book is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian, which has a similar length and consists mostly of why you really should plan ahead when you make any sort of framing device. It also has a bit of a history lesson about the conflict between Vlad the Impaler and Ottoman sultan Mehmet II, something that is much more interesting than the rather loose “plot” that is going on, which serves as little more than a vehicle to expose these history lessons and bits of folklore. Does it justify being that long?
That’s a legitimate question.