In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Elsewhere | Main | The Structure of Aesthetic Revolutions, Part I »

April 14, 2004

Shorter Art?

Dear Friedrich --

Do you find yourself craving shorter art experiences? I do. Over the last few years I've found myself thinking such thoughts as, Who really wants a piece of fiction to be hundreds of pages long? And I find myself thinking more highly of short films, art songs, and poetry with every passing day.

Have I become quicker to "get" art and thus more efficient at having aesthetic experiences? (Possibly.) Have I fallen victim to flashy-media-induced Short Attention Span Syndrome? (Possibly.) Is this taste, like my vanishing jawline, yet another function of age? (Certainly.) Tyler Cowen wonders why art can't be shorter too, here. "How about 'high culture' in bite-sized portions?" Tyler asks.

FWIW, I've heard from many fiction writers that they find novels so big and overwhelming that they wouldn't write them at all if they didn't feel they had to. Many say they find writing fiction that's story-to-novella length a far more natural, creative, and enjoyable experience than writing novels.

And, hey, I just stumbled across this quote from the first-class British mystery novelist Peter Lovesey:

If I could make a living as a short story writer, probably that would be a great joy for me. I love writing the short stories ... There one can take risks more and experiment and if it doesn't come off, well, there's no big deal, whereas if you've spent a year, as I do, writing a novel and it doesn't come off, well, you're in trouble.



posted by Michael at April 14, 2004


And, umm, why do they have to? High-lit authors aren't exactly making Stephen King money last time I checked. Or making any money at all.

There are many people writing poetry, getting published by small or university presses, or even self-publishing.

Write your short stories. Self-publish, sell the book on a web site. Or upload directly. Use pay-pal. Or give them away.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on April 14, 2004 6:49 PM

Did you see this recent post by Terry Teachout?

I too have a difficult time finishing long novels. I recently tried the Putnam abrigdgement of Don Quixote, but I was only able to get a third of the way thru. The next novels on my shelf are The Friends of Eddie Coyle (183 pages) and Lucky Jim (250 pages).

Then there's this recent comment by Camille Paglia which I fear describes me pretty well:

"Interest in and patience with long, complex books and poems have alarmingly diminished not only among college students but college faculty in the U.S. It is difficult to imagine American students today, even at elite universities, gathering impromptu at midnight for a passionate discussion of big, challenging literary works like Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov—a scene I witnessed in a recreation room strewn with rock albums at my college dormitory in upstate New York in 1965."

If I couldn't get thru the comic Pickwick Papers, God help me with Crime & Punishment.

Posted by: Bryan on April 14, 2004 7:48 PM

Is the lack of patience with longer forms of writing (or even music) a function of age? Absolutely. Say it once and be done with it. With age you can't stand inflation, you don't need endless permutations and combinations.
In one of his later novels, I think it was Mr. Sammler's Planet, Saul Bellow has Sammler say, "Short views, for God's sake short views." I agree.

Posted by: ricpic on April 14, 2004 8:04 PM

Does anyone else, in general, prefer bigger works to shorter ones? For me a short story either has to be incredibly good or a mystery, I can't stand the other sorts, e.g. Katherine Mansifeld's. While I happily spent a month plowing through War and Peace.

Of course there are plenty of long works out there that aren't any good, and suffer terribly from word processor bloat. But a short work doesn't have so much time to get you involved in the story or the emotions, or explore the characters. Sometimes very good things are done with them, but War and Peace was as good as any short story I've ever read, even Runyon Damians. (badly misspelt I know).

Posted by: Tracy on April 15, 2004 12:56 AM

I'm with you, Tracy. I much prefer a longer work I can spend time with and live in for a while over shorter books that pass by quickly. But then, I an enthusiastic Trollope fan which may say something.

Posted by: Deb on April 15, 2004 4:56 AM

Bob -- I'm with you on that. To be a little hard-headed about it for a moment, though, I see a couple of reasons why people who'd rather not would write (or make) longform works anyway. One's for ego reasons -- just gotta. These are the greats, this is the great form, this is what I, Underrecognized Artist-Genius, simply have to do. The other is business. If you're interested in being taken seriously as a, say, fiction writer, and you have hopes of developing a readership and maybe even (gasp) making a few bucks, the novel is where it's at. There's a market for novels (however bizarre a one). Even if you're just interested in impressing your fellow writing-school grads and getting reviewed in respectable places, novels are considered more "real" than short fiction is. I think that's a pretty nutty state of affairs myself, but there it is. Given that a lot of people write for very mixed motives, not just for the pleasure of creating and interacting, most of 'em wind up trying to write novels. My hope is that over time the market for fiction will open up a bit more to story-reading and story-publishing (as well as novel-reading, of course). Obviously, there are tons of stories around. But they don't get much attention, and many people seem to feel they aren't really having much of a fiction-reading experience if they aren't deep into a long book.

Oh, which is an excuse for a moment of free-associating on the theme of "Americans are a funny people." Even where books are concerned, Americans want value (ie., bulk) for their money. When they spend money on a book, they want it to be thick -- they want there to be lots of "book" there, in the dumbest, most material sense: paper, jacket, ink, color. But being Americans, they also want easy, convenient, fast reading. The upshot is that a lot of popular fiction that's published (as you've noticed) is both rather short (very short chapters are the new thing: check out James Patterson) in terms of wordcount, but quite large in terms of physical bulk. Thick paper, lots of white space, short chapters. Funny, no? Reminds me of the way Americans are so prone to stuffing themselves on low-fat snacks.

Bryan, thanks for the link. I remember having those conversations Paglia talks about -- it was such a common thing for arty or scholarly kids to do that I'd never have imagined that the "bull session about long literature and big art" thing would vanish. But at the same time, given how education and the media have evolved, I'm not surprised to hear that it has. Kids don't seem to have developed the taste for really sinking into things -- their mental lives seem to be all about surfing and clicking around from thing to thing. Very broad but very shallow. And, as Paglia also says, without any trustworthy framework to allow for perspective or evaluation. It's all about immediate impact.

Ricpic -- It's funny, isn't it? I mean, as a person I'm infinitely more patient now than I was at 17. Yet I was more prone to crave huge, overwhelming art experiences at that age than I am now. Energy levels might have something to do with it. What else do you suppose plays a role? Are we just becoming cranky?

Tracy, Deb -- I still love the pleasure of getting caught up in a long work, I just don't crave it any more. Interesting to hear that you do. In the middle of a novel, I'll even find myself thinking, Wow, this is such a strange arrangement: the novelist is asking me to pay attention to his/her show for four nights or two weeks' running. That's pretty darned audacious. And I also find myself thinking, Wow, as a reader, I have these expectations of novels that they'll be these big, absorbing things. I think it's wonderful that such things exist. But it seems like a lot to ask of any artist. People really have to knock themselves out putting novels together -- that's about as big a creative project as can humanly be done.

How do you guys find that, say, watching a movie compares to reading a novel? A movie can offer a lot that's rather novel-like: a complete story, full cast of characters, observations about the world, etc. Plus it's over in a couple of hours, and you can watch it and be done with it in one sitting. Do you find it a different kind of pleasure than the multi-night, get-lost-in-it pleasure of novel-reading?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 15, 2004 11:47 AM


But if you notice, substance-wise, movies are much more like short-stories than they are like novels. Granted, they are short stories with potentially a lot of atmosphere and impact, but short stories none-the-less. I mean, didn't 'short burst fiction' effectively gravitate from periodical literature (I'm thinking the serialized novels of the 19th century) to the movie and even more to the T.V. screen? Meanwhile the truly long story still has no alternative means of presentation and hangs around because...I remains unique.

O.K., I'm not sure what I'm getting at here, but it seems relevant somehow. I'll be quiet now.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 15, 2004 12:40 PM

FvB -- FWIW, I think it can be useful to make a distinction between "amount of narrative" (ie., actual storytelling: plot turns and complications, etc) and "how complete or full a work feels." Movies often seem to use up an amount of narrative that's about the equivalent of a very long story or a short novel -- that's about what fills up a 90-120 minute space. "The Maltese Falcoln"'s a good indicator because the movie is so close, in terms of action, to the novel -- wasn't Huston said to have thought, what the hell, I'll just put the book on film?

But as experiences movies can feel remarkably complete, ("can"!), because of everything else that package tends to contain: music, visuals, set design, performances, etc. Plus there are all those personalities and minds kicking in, where a book just has the one brain at work, generally.

So a 90-minute session with a movie is usually a "fuller"-feeling thing than a 90-minute experience with a piece of prose fiction. Or at least many people seem to find this to be the case.

And maybe there's another reason why many people find long stories or short novels to feel skimpy. 90-120 minutes of a movie seems to be (exceptions allowed for, but let's admit they're rare) about what's humanly possible in terms of control -- much longer than that and most film artists start to lose their command over their projects. And maybe we sense that. Maybe watching a feature movie, we feel we're being given the whole deal, people working at their limits. And maybe that feeling parallels one of the feelings we get when reading a novel, which is that this thing here is about all a human being can do. Maybe a 100 page story, on the other hand, makes some brain cell say something like, "well, that's all very nice and nicely-turned and I'm glad the artist had a nice time, but I want to see some more EFFORT, dammit."

I suspect one of the age-related taste-changes I'm experiencing is that, with age, I'm more prone to appreciate ease, comfort, working within limits, having a nice time. And I like thinking in terms of pleasure, and people working for and from pleasure. Maybe as a younger dude I wanted more kapow, more stress. I had more energy, and I wanted to see something dynamic, explosive, category-busting, new, different, immense. These days, what people do from love and for pleasure moves me most deeply.

The other thing you've got my motor going about here is the whole "short story" thing. It's off-topic a bit but I'm going to indulge myself anyway.

For years I struggled with the "short story" thing. I loved the idea of short stories, and there were some I adored. But mostly -- pee-yew. Mostly I couldn't believe how bad I found them. Why should that be?

Well, partly it's because so many have been written -- the lower the barrier to entry, the more crap is likely to be created, and short stories are certainly much less demanding of time and effort to create than novels are, thus scads of lousy short stories. But even many of the supposed "greats" turned me off, as did many many of the contempo world's supposed best short story writers.

I finally hit on a way of adjusting my thinking that left me calmer and happier. It's to make a distinction between "short fiction" and "short stories." The literary (and especially the contempo-literary) short story is a very specific (and to my mind peculiar) kind of thing, with an accepted literary history and a specific set of contempo techniques: Poe-Chekhov-Mansfield-Hemingway-Cheever-Carver, basically. I like a certain amount of this work, but it's a very narrow view of short fiction. It's like the story of art as told by a modernist -- big surprise, it all leads to modernism, and to contemporary absurdities, and to a very specific set of ways that a present-day "short story" has to be conceived of and made. (I've taken enough how-to-write-a-short-story classes to be familiar with the routine.)

I find it helpful to think instead of "short fiction" -- ie., fiction that just happens to be shorter than novella length. Short fiction, conceived of in that sense, is just a matter of length. Nothing in terms of form or technique is being prescribed -- the writer's free to do what he pleases, the reader to choose (and enjoy) as he pleases. As it turns out, there's a lot of short fiction I get a big kick out of -- and while I'd certainly love to see more people write short fiction, if I never read another officially-sanctioned "short story" in this lifetime, that'll be fine with me.

I looked into this some, and what I finally concluded was that the official "short story" is quite a distant, and often thin-blooded, relative of the original short stories, which were trashy. American short stories originated with Poe -- horror, mystery, glitzy trash, basically. In England, short stories grew out of, believe it or not, journalism. Back in the 1700s, journalists would cover Parliament and politics (and gossip), but they had to protect themselves -- they couldn't use real names. So they'd invent names, and then tell the stories. With invented names, they started screwing around with the content of the stories, and eventually fictional, short stories evolved out of that. Kinda like the way novels grew out of pretend-real accounts -- the way Defoe pretended that Moll Flanders and Crusoe were "real" accounts. Journalism and fiction all mixed up, and rather downmarket -- much more like a cross between B-movies and the E! network than like today's hush-hush lit world.

That high-falutin', over-formal form "the short story" actually has its roots in trash and garbage -- sensational literature and journalism. Then it got a little conscious of itself; then it got very conscious of itself; then it became an artform; and these days it's rigid and largely dead, IMHO. Doesn't interest me much, anyway. Short fiction, on the other hand, still lives -- mystery stories, porno, horror (and a handful of lit stories too). And largely, as far as I'm concerned, because its connection to its roots (and to what many, many people enjoy and love about reading) is far more direct. The official-lit-world people have gotten so fixated on the "art" and on appreciating art and catering to that kind of appreciation that they've killed the form. They've cut it off from its roots.

Hey, still free-associating: did you ever run across the (to me interesting and useful) notion that what a screenplay is is pure storytelling? It's all action, behavior and story, with none of the frills or decor -- pure storytelling engineering. On the one hand, that means that screenplays aren't complete works of art. Someone has to complete them, to flesh them out by acting and directing and photographing. On the other hand, it does mean that there's a lot to be learned from reading and studying screenplays -- at least if you're interested in storytelling. Even mediocre screenplays are often better-engineered as storytelling than a lot of novels are. They've gotta be, because that's all they're selling, where a book-writer can whip it past, or try to, with the writin'.

All IMHO, of course...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 15, 2004 1:24 PM

>>How do you guys find that, say, watching a movie compares to reading a novel?

I think the closest analog to novel-reading in mass media isn't movies but TV series, especially now that DVDs have made it easy to buy an entire season of a show at a time.

I discovered Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel on DVD and watching a season of either of those shows is just as satisfying (if not more) as any contemporary novel I've read in the past few years.

Posted by: Bryan on April 15, 2004 4:32 PM

I recommend Patricia Highsmith's "Little Tales of Misogyny" in her Selected Stories; none over three pages long. It starts with one of my favorite opening lines (from memory, but I think it's right):

"A hopeful young man asked a father for his daughter's hand, so he gave it to him in a box."

Posted by: Brian on April 15, 2004 6:11 PM

Bryan -- That's a great point, thanks. I watched the first season of "The Sopranos" a few years back all in a rush (over the course of about a week, rather than as a "tv series") and was struck by how much like reading a good solid novel the experience was. One thing that most movies don't deliver that some novels do (and, as you point out, some TV projects do) is that sense of really having spent some time living among a bunch of characters -- that sense of a life lived (as opposed to a dramatic impulse enacted) -- seems to be hard to convey in a movie of conventional length. But ongoing TV series have their prob too, which is that they're open-ended, so that final bit of shaping and rounding that a novel delivers doesn't often come across -- finally, most of them turn into soap operas. (Not that I have anything against that.) The reason the first series of "The Sopranos" worked so much like a novel for me was that it did have a big, rounded-off shape. It was so satisfying that I've never gone back to watch the series again -- it felt complete to me. Do the "Buffy" DVDs supply that rounded-off-and-complete feeling, do you find?

Brian -- Right on to that, and thanks for pointing those stories out. I'm a Highsmith nut, and adore her stories. I remember reading 'em and thinking, Jesus, "why didn't The New Yorker publish these rather than the wimpy beige stuff they usually did?" If they had, they'd have turned a lot of readers on rather than off short fiction, I bet.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 16, 2004 10:28 AM

Poems fit this bill admirably. Yet no one reads them. I reluctantly conclude that people prefer length after all.

Posted by: Aaron Haspel on April 16, 2004 1:08 PM

Michael, well if I have an evening to spend on a novel I generally finish it, so I'm not feeling imposed on by the amount of time the novelist requires me to spend on it. When I have to travel a long way I go out of my way to find books that are slow going. I read fast.

Having said that, War and Peace took me about a month, in amongst other stuff. But it wasn't demanding, since I wanted to spend the time in those books and of course in a book it's easier to mark your page, put it down and then pick it up again and fit in around life's demands. Even videos aren't like that. You need a TV and a video, you have to stay put instead of wandering around with a book in one hand. I enjoy the LOTR movies, but sitting down to watch one is definitely much more demanding than sitting down with A Suitable Boy.

But I've never seen a short movie that's half way as good as the LOTR series, or Stickmen, or Memento.

Posted by: Tracy on April 17, 2004 8:23 AM

>>The reason the first series of "The Sopranos" worked so much like a novel for me was that it did have a big, rounded-off shape...Do the "Buffy" DVDs supply that rounded-off-and-complete feeling, do you find?

Definitely. Joss Whedon (the creator, head writer, and executive producer) is known to plot his story arcs far in advance, so each season has a beginning, middle, and end. But since each season is 22 episodes he's got some wiggle room to play with, so there are "self-contained" episodes that are a little digressive from the main plot. (Whereas a show like "The Sopranos" is more tightly plotted since an HBO season consists of about a dozen episodes.)

Posted by: Bryan on April 17, 2004 1:29 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?