This weekend I picked up “The Historian” (Elizabeth Kostova’s mammoth debut magnum opus) and I wonder…since it clocked in at about 241k words…how the hell did something like this get published?!?! Don’t you literary agencies have an unwritten screed somewhere that no debut novel may be more than 100k unless it’s *really really* good and said wannabe novelist has first sacrificed a Muggle on the altar of JK Rowling? (Whose first Harry Potter book was considered quite long for the young’uns, and we hadn’t seen nuthin’ yet). I haven’t read the Kostova’s yet but obviously it’s at the top of my reading pile.
Do you have the inside scoop on whether whether Ms. Kostova bribed, threatened, wheedled, cajoled, slept with or otherwise followed a plan outside the customary novel submission process with her agent? And what did her agent think about trying to sell a mammoth tome like that by an unknown, untried novelist? Don’t editors involuntarily hurl up their last three meals if a debut novel ms comes to more than 120k? Were souls sold to a certain collector of errant same? Was the agent sleeping with the editor while Ms. Kostova was sleeping with her agent?
All right, I’m being a little silly here but…*this is supposed to be outside the realm of possibility!!!* Then again, the Red Sox finally won the Pennant so I guess *nothing* is impossible in this ol’ world…;)
Please, please enlighten us curious masses. I know I’m not the only one who wonders. ;)
So,  The Historian is exceptionally long and actually is 241,021 words [/edit] Unlike Harry Potter, the publishing company doesn't make the page count longer by putting in big letters and a lot of white space (at least not in my hardcover copy).
There is some story behind The Historian that I don't happen to know off the top of my head. Elizabeth Kostova graduated with a middle-range MFA degree (in terms of prestige) from the University of Michigan. She won an award there but most MFA programs have elaborate award programs so that they can say their students have won awards. But with a 2 million dollar advance, there is some story there that I don't know. I remember reading about it in Newsweek. It may have been that the book was just considered that good.
There are two major genres for which we allow a higher word count: historical fiction and high fantasy. This is because traditionally high word count books of these types have done well commercially. They're generally involved and generation-spanning or extremely descriptive. They're not a like a mystery novel, which the reader might be inclined to just keep reading until the ending to find out the end, so the reader will be annoyed if this means staying up for three days. Mysteries and category romance are shorter. High fantasy is usually unbearably long or broken up into many books.
It is true that we get a little leery over 120,000, just because we know it's going to have that going against it when we go to sell it to a house. Also, it's going to be annoying to ship around and handle and copy-edit, because it's just going to be so large. That said, I've put many a 150k'er into the maybe pile because I thought it sounded good. Maybe one or two 200k's in my time. There was a 412,000 one, some old west saga, and we had to pass. But I don't see a reason to give up hope if you're a little over the number and you're in historical or fantasy. And remember: It's easier to trim than to pad. (Well, it's better for the story. Padding a story is something that you do because you have to and it always shows)