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13 November 2009

Brief thoughts about length

(Photo via Jim Herrington)

In this morning’s paper I came across this quote from novelist Cormac McCarthy:

    A: The director had the notion that he could put the entire book up on the screen. Well, you can’t do that. You have to pick out the story that you want to tell and put that on the screen. And so he made this four-hour film and then he found that if he was actually going to get it released, he would have to cut it down to two hours.

    Q: Does this issue of length apply to books, too? Is a 1,000-page book somehow too much?

    A: For modern readers, yeah. People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you’re going to write something like “The Brothers Karamazov” or “Moby-Dick,” go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don’t care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.

I’ve spent a fair time thinking about how mediums relate to different eras. I recall a favorite quote wherein artist Marcel Duchamp said he had no patience for books over 100 pages long. (I don’t have the quote. Make due with the summary.) Always a future teller, I suspect he understood how the 20th century would erode our attention spans.

Recently an acquaintance queried me why none of our Ivy League peers had ambitions toward tackling The Novel.

“Well, no one reads anymore,” I said. “Why would they write books when they could just as easily start a rock band?”

I floated this by another acquaintance recently, a slightly younger individual with a background similar to my own. Why aren’t kids these days aspiring to create literature? Will music claim them all?

“I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by organic farming,” he said.

End of quote.

UPDATED NOVEMBER 23, 2009: This post inspired an unusual level of response which continues on Clusterflock & Teenage Kicks’ simulcast at Stanford’s Arcade.

Posted by Alec Hanley Bemis

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. On 2009-11-14 John Beeler said:

    I enjoyed reading this – it’s like McLuhan meets Bill & Ted, media meets timeline. Not just “what does this media form do” but “what does this media form do at this particular moment.” This is important right; the way we read Dickens is not the way people originally read Dickens, which was in serial form week to week. The way graduate students will (presumably) watch the entirety of Lost in one weekend is wholly different from the way we’ve experienced it.

    But the organic farming thing went over my head. ??

  2. On 2009-11-15 Alec Hanley Bemis said:

    Hey John,
    The organic farming quote was certainly a sidelong trip from my point about making music vs. making literature. Here’s some context: The person who I quoted in my post is a 20something Ivy League grad who I used to run into at my neighborhood coffee shop. He was semi-successfully playing in an indie rock band and — on the side — writing television pilots and occasional essays for small literary magazines in the mold of N+1, New York Review of Books, and The Believer.

    What he meant with the organic farming comment was pretty literal. He’d seen peers of his who, in previous eras, may have aspired to publishing novels or making music starting to tropism toward a different kind of creativity: literally moving off-the-grid in the ’70s style to explore natural lifestyles away from the hubub of the city. It’s worth a quick peep at Wikipedia’s entry on the Back-to-the-land movement for an idea of what I’m referring to here.

    This has definitely happened to a few friends of mine. I recall one who left behind her life in New York & career as an architect to join an organic farm outside of Vancouver. That was a temporary move, but it presaged her settling down in a small town in Colorado.

    I find this interesting for two reasons.

    One: It finds a certain socio-economic class of American moving steadily along a continuum of creativity from the very structured, highly cultured, refined & small audience art of literature >>> toward the less structured, less “cultured” & wider audience craft of music >>> and finally settling on the very essentialist need for food & sustenance. It’s at once very practical, sad & intriguing to watch humanity’s more pretentious arts lose ground to “arts” which I suspect come out of more basic necessity.

    Two: Is the state of urban culture so difficult & messy right now that tons of kids are really aspiring to leave it behind in favor of a more rural and quote-unquote “natural” form of existence? Or is something else emerging, wherein urbanites are trying to bring “off the grid” styles to urban centers. i.e. Green roof architecture, urban farming a la Will Allen, et. al.

    The intention of original post was to give but an elliptical nod toward this phenomenon and these ideas. That’s all!

    – Alec

  3. On 2009-11-15 John Beeler said:

    I think what’s left unsaid in your post is the possibility of cultural crowding. Let’s assume for the moment that your friend is right, that the best minds are in fact going Thoreau ala vegetable. I’m not sure it’s an essentialist move as it is rather a move of efficiency. “If you could in fact write the The Novel, why would you if no one reads it?” is the question you raise. But perhaps the answer is: because there are already hundreds of The Novel’s out there. Maybe we have so much access to culture (again in a McLuhan, global village sense) that it’s not much organic farming destroying the minds as it is increased access to culture.

    The recent migration to Detroit by hundreds if not thousands of the culturalcrati (artists, musicians, writers, etc) would seem to indicate that there’s not much to worry about – or at least that this rather impromptu overcrowding theory isn’t so far from the truth. ?

  4. On 2009-11-15 Alec Hanley Bemis said:

    Hey John, I have thought often of the cultural crowding idea you’re talking about. “If I have all these Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell & Leonard Cohen albums, what is another singer-songwriter bringing to the table?” “Once I’ve heard Black Flag & Minor Threat what is this new hardcore band contributing that they did not?”

    I’m not going to try to breakdown this idea any further but it really is fascinating. Does culture need to be permanently avant-garde if only to displace the progressive achievements of past creators? I’m not sure.

    Your comments on the migration to Detroit — of which I’m aware, though not in any detail — fills in a space I open up in my second point. I’m curious if there is a clear in-road for outsiders interested in the Detroit migration to investigate what it’s all about. Is it actually a community or just a bunch of disparate threads? Are there blogs or websites where these pioneers (weird word choice!) are congregating? If one visits Detroit can one get a sense of this bohemian undercurrent short of visiting Jack White’s old house?

  5. On 2009-11-20 Jonathan said:

    Is David Foster Wallace’s _Infinite Jest_ so “old” already that it doesn’t count? It was big as a house and sold pretty well. William Vollman keeps cranking out the opuses one after the other. I’m sure there are others that I’m not aware of (since I stopped working in bookstores circa 2000, I’ve totally lost track of the new literature scene). I don’t know how many people are reading these Big Novels, but then, how many people ever hear the album of yet another indie band? And farming? Even today, creatively inclined younger people can name a bunch of novelists and musicians. I challenge any of them to name more than three farmers, organic or otherwise. It seems as though all of these creative outlets come with a near-zero chance of garnering a large audience. If the expected size of the audience influences the choice of creative outlet, why _not_ stick with the good old novel? It’s no worse of a bet than music, and way worse than farming. I don’t say that to denigrate the choice–I myself fantasize much more about doing organic farming that writing the great novel that I’ve had in the back of my mind for approximately 20 years now. (And I assure you, it would be great. Maybe not if I wrote it since I’m not the best writer per se, but themes would blow your mind.) It’s just that the choices being made don’t seem to square with the hypothesis that readership matters in the urge to write The Novel.

  6. On 2009-11-20 Jonathan said:

    PS: also, there are many millions more people today that when Melville was writing. And Moby Dick didn’t, to my knowledge, get read all that widely initially. So a massive audience is unlikely to have been Melville’s driving force. Even a “bestseller” in that day would sell how many copies? 10,000? That’s not an out-of-the-question sales target today for a serious literary novel even from an unknown writer. As a fraction of the potential readership it’s a lot smaller, but in absolute rather than relative terms, it’s about the same as what the Big Boys of Yesteryear would have had in mind with their Novels.

  7. On 2009-11-22 Alec Hanley Bemis said:

    Hi Jonathan,

    Some farmers:
    Will Allen
    Joel Salatin
    “Mas” Masumoto

    You’re right, though, I get stymied at three. I also bet most people couldn’t name more than three rock stars in 1959. Or three novelists in 1909. Any cult of celebrity takes time to find adherents.

    To address your point more directly, I agree people generally do not commit creative acts based on the expectation of an audience. (And if they do, it often makes for bad art, or at least dishonest art.) That said if you grow up thinking Nirvana is more important than J.D. Salinger you’re more likely to pick up a guitar than a typewriter. And in 2009 it would not surprise me if there are some 18 year olds picking up fertilization techniques. (Probably not many 16 year olds doing it yet though.)

    As to the writers you mention: William Vollmann, while possessed of an intriguing biography, is less than popular — one of those writers who is labeled a genius because his readers (or skimmers) feel guilty about not finishing his books rather than take pleasure in savoring them. He may be important historically and it’s cool he wrote for Spin for awhile but his impact on the culture is minimal.

    As for David Foster Wallace, well, his is a sadder case. One, his fiction has always struck me as inferior to his non-fiction. I believe he may have been an ecstatic hysteric cultural commentator masquerading as a novelist. (Could he have been the best ever liberal talking head on Fox News? Or at least a screenwriter for someone more comfortable in front of the camera?) Two, while it pains me to theorize about any person’s suicide, I have a suspicion one reason for it in DFW’s case was a deep deep frustration at the receptivity of the world to his genius vis-a-vis the very massive reality of his genius. He made real efforts to write in a semi-popular form, in popular forums and I’m sure would have found great gratification if his writing helped eradicate some of the horrific-slash-hilarious 20th century American cultural tragedies/comedies that he depicted.

    It’s become trendy to say that depression is brought about mainly due to body chemistry — but it’s my believe that the doings of the world have as much of an effect.

    Thanks for your comments,

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