book
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Writing

On length and literary merit

The jocular internet expression ‘Too long; didn’t read’ reflects the demands on our attention from an abundance of information. It’s an impatient dismissal of anyone who clutters up online space by using too many words to express themselves. Sometimes people use it pre-emptively, as an apology.

You would think a culture so dedicated to concise, efficient communication would concomitantly celebrate short-form writing in all its modes, from capsule reviewing to flash fiction. But I propose that writers aspire to lengthiness, conflating it with refinement and complexity, because lengthiness remains literature’s primary signifier of merit.

Whether in paper or pixels, books are what realise literary aspirations and cement literary reputations. Blog posts, zines, features, essays, short stories, chapbooks, novellas – they are all just baby steps along the road to publishing a novel or a volume of nonfiction. According to Australia Council funding guidelines, as Elmo Keep angrily observed in Meanjin in 2011, ‘You’re not an emerging writer unless you’ve published a book.’

While more writing is published now than ever, we also have better tools for navigating abundance. We discover new writing through recommendation algorithms, networked social sharing and aggregator portals such as longreads.com, longform.org, byliner.com and thefeature.net.

Long-form nonfiction is enjoying a renaissance. The #longreads genre encompasses immersive adventure narratives, detailed public affairs investigations, human-interest profiles that dig for uncomfortable truths, and the first-person sob stories that seem to have overwhelmed the ‘essay’.

Furthermore, time-shifting apps such as Instapaper, Pocket and Readability have freed readers from having to consume a text in one session, therefore liberating writers from the need to ‘hook’ readers and keep them entertained. Instead, writers tease enough narrative breadth or detail to provoke that catalytic ‘read later’ click. The actual story is consumed when its audience is most disposed to reading.

‘In the process,’ writes Jonathan Mahler in the New York Times, ‘a long magazine story went from being one part of a steady diet of journalistic consumption to something artisanal, a treat for connoisseurs.’ The term ‘long-form’ or ‘long-read’, notes Mahler, ‘confers respectability and connotes something special, something literary.’

In 2007, French literature professor Pierre Bayard published the provocatively titled How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read. Now, I haven’t read it, but I was struck by this excerpt: ‘Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system, which requires you to know that they form a system and to be able to locate each element in relation to the others.’ Isn’t that precisely what the online ecosystem of sharing and saving, of recommendations and reviews, provides the contemporary para-reader?

Meanwhile, ‘stunt reading’ memoirs follow writers as they work their way through a narrowly defined reading list. Most recently, in The Shelf: From LEQ to LES – Adventures in Extreme Reading, Phyllis Rose read an arbitrary selection of alphabetically shelved library books.

If the act of reading (rather than the book itself) becomes a text, then a book’s length becomes a signifier of contemplation, which, in turn, connotes complexity. There’s an unmistakable correlation between celebrated books and fat books. Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch continue in the tradition of such highbrow doorstops as War and Peace, Infinite Jest, Moby-Dick and Middlemarch.

Writers also use lengthiness mimetically to create a sustained reading experience that prompts readers to recognise the intellectual labour that went into the writing. The multi-volume epics of Marcel Proust and his contemporary heir Karl Ove Knausgärd are chronicles of lifelong experience; their length is a demand to take their authors’ quotidian struggles seriously.

Tomes produced within genres such as fantasy and historical romance are hefty in another way. These books promise ambitious, immersive and escapist reading, and their length reassures the reader there is plenty of world-building to get lost in.

I find it excruciating to arrange my ideas into any word length: 140-character tweets, 100-word album reviews, 800-word columns, 2000-word essays or a 60,000-word book. But when I’ve had to review films in 200 words, I found myself resenting other critics who had thousands of words to expound on plot, theme and character.

Short-form writing is no less meticulous or mature for being expressed more briefly. Yet, its writers don’t have gravitas. Short-form writing is considered facile: an unsatisfying, fast-food version of a richer, more sophisticated long-form ideal. A pejorative tang clings to the phrase ‘a slim volume’, as if to suggest the writer didn’t have much to say.

But there is beauty in a single, well-chosen idea. Like a bell, it resonates. Like a pebble in a pond, it provokes ripples. Anyone can noodle on for 10,000 words, but it takes creativity and discipline to express oneself within word limits. And great writers understand the devastating precision of a perfectly placed final full stop.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Mel Campbell is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist, cultural critic and author of the book Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit. She blogs on the cultures of clothing at Footpath Zeitgeist and tweets at @incrediblemelk.

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