As the chart below shows, the range in huge, and the honest answer is: as long as it needs to be. Some of these novels are barely longer than a novella, which tops out at about 40,000 words. But the scope of their stories are novelistic. The longest is 10 times the word count of the shortest, and then some.
|Ray Bradbury||Fahrenheit 451||46,118|
|F. Scott Fitzgerald||The Great Gatsby||47,180|
|John Knowles||A Separate Peace||56,787|
|Erich Remarque||All Quiet on the Western Front||61,922|
|Virginia Woolf||Mrs. Dalloway||63,422|
|Alice Walker||The Color Purple||66,556|
|Ernest Hemingway||The Sun Also Rises||67,707|
|J.D. Salinger||The Catcher in the Rye||73,404|
|George Orwell||Nineteen Eighty-Four||88,942|
|Amy Tan||Joy Luck Club||91,419|
|Toni Morrison||Song of Solomon||92,400|
|Harper Lee||To Kill A Mockingbird||99,121|
|Emily Bronte||Wuthering Heights||107,945|
|Jane Austen||Pride and Prejudice||122,189|
|Anthony Doerr||All the Light We Cannot See||128,817|
|Charles Dickens||A Tale of Two Cities||135,420|
|Betty Smith||A Tree Grows in Brooklyn||145,092|
|Margaret Atwood||Alias Grace||157,665|
|John Steinback||The Grapes of Wrath||169,481|
|Fyodor Dostoyevsky||Crime and Punishment||211,591|
|Ayn Rand||Atlas Shrugged||561,996|
|Leo Tolstoy||War and Peace||587,287|
The realities of publishing
On the other hand … Let’s just say if you are an unpublished novelist coming in with a book the size of, say War and Peace or even Crime and Punishment, it better be about that quality.
My contracts have generally called for a novel of approximately 100,000 words, which I’ve heard a number of agents and editors suggest is a good place to shoot for adult fiction. Others have said 80,000 to 90,000. So maybe 80,000 – 100,000 would be a decent place to shoot, if you can shoot?
Again, the story has to lead the way, always. But you’d be surprised, when you take a really good look at what you’ve got, how much can often be cut. And freeing a story of the weaker material can allow it to become its best.
Genre matters, too.
Some of what you are dealing with is reader expectation.
Historical fiction tends to be on the longer side. I have a dear friend who writes novels set in the 13th and 14th centuries, and her contracts require her to deliver novels of about 140,000 words, so almost half again as long as mine.
Fantasy also tends to be longer, in part I think because you have to create a whole world.
Children and YA books tend to be a bit shorter, Harry Potter notwithstanding.
Cozy mysteries and romance tend to be shorter, too.
So do stop in your local bookstore and have a look at the shelves you aim to be settled on. – Meg