The Great Gatsby received some truly awful reviews when it was published. HL Menken called it "no more than a glorified anecdote" and felt its characters were "not quite alive." Edmund Wilson said much the same. Fitzgerald spent a good deal of time writing letters apologizing for having written an incomplete book, and the main source of his contrition was this: he felt the book was too short to be accepted as truly great. Years after its publication he wrote to legendary Random House editor Bennett Cerf that the book "was a light little volume barely touching 50,000 words," and as a result "it was a rank commercial failure."
Which is all to say that what Fitzgerald's biographer calls "likely the most widely read novel of the 20th century" is by some quantitative standard not a novel. It's a novella. EM Forster famously defined the novel as "any fictitious prose work over 50,000 words," and the iteration of Gatsby we read likely comes in somewhere just north of 49,000. I should say here I'm not prepared to give a definitive word count on Gatsby mainly because Amazon's Text Stats function isn't available for the book.
What's Text Stats?
Glad you asked.
A number of years ago, when I was eighty-or-so-thousand-words into what I hoped was my first novel, a writer friend of mine was nearing 300K words on a novel of his own. One day he called. "Torday!" this novelist said (to get to 300K words, you probably have to use a fair number of exclamation points and write a fair amount of dialogue.) "You seen Amazon's Text Stats?"
I hadn't. He explained that for participating books and publishers, Amazon provided a link at the bottom of the book's page that would allow a viewer a series of quantitative facts about a book—its Fog Index, the average number of syllables per word, words per sentence. Most important to us was its "Number of Words." My novelist friend was pushing hard to accrue pages, and one of our favorite books was Infinite Jest, and according to Amazon that book is just over 484,000 words. That's a lot of words. It's a fact known only to the persistent long writer that after 100K words, Microsoft Word ceases providing a word count at the bottom of the file—as if at that point the novelist has somehow won an unspoken battle. One assumes David Foster Wallace had been writing in that word-count-less abyss for a long time.
At some point that novelist friend of mine finished his book. I believe it totaled more than 1,400 pages in manuscript. The book I was working on, which had passed the 100K word count, began to bear signs of fatigue. Scenes went on and on. Dialogue repeated itself. Early readers used modifiers like "stagnant" and "lacking urgency." So after a couple years of swimming into a strong wave I turned and let it sweep me—or my manuscript—back to a comfortable spot between 38- and 39- thousand words. That's a lot of tidal erosion. But by that time I could push it in the top right corner, but I'd find that then there was a corresponding bulge down in the bottom left. This was its size, and it would have to shop for jeans accordingly. Which is all to say that I soon found myself obsessing over Text Stats myself—only in my case not to join the quixotic race to out-count my Word file, but to see how long some of my favorite books were.
Here's a quick list:
Joan Didion, Play it as it Lays: 32,482 words
Saul Bellow, Seize the Day: 38,816 words
Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?: 45,361 words
Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John: 41,909 words
Paula Fox, Desperate Characters: 47,739
I'm sad to say Amazon doesn't provide Text Stats for William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow, but I feel pretty confident it would fall in about that range. Now, none of this is to asperse by any means. I love novels and I love novellas; I don't think anyone would change the label "novella" on, say, Heart of Darkness, or The Metamorphosis, or James Joyce's "The Dead." But I prefer to leave taxonomy to botanists and ichthyologists. And I'll still say that many of my favorite novels are maybe not so much novels at all.
So me, after all that Text Stat madness: I cut and cut and cut.
Then, at some point, I stopped cutting.
So did my novelist friend.
We both mainly stopped Text Statting, too. Word counts are for the actuaries in our drafting minds, the accountant within each novelist who worries he won't have enough left upon retirement. But one day you just have to amortize and hope all your teetotaling nest-egg planning wasn't for naught.
So. My maximalist-novelist friend's big book? Published to great acclaim, over a thousand pages in print. Mine? I'm happy to say it is 177pp and it was put out this spring by a great little publisher called Nouvella Books, a small house committed to publishing novellas by emerging writers. But I'll also admit in my dark hours, I'll still Text Stat every once in a while, though to fulfill what need deep in me I can't yet say.