Wednesday, July 1, 2015

In Praise of Concision

Among the features of this blog that I would find attractive if it were written by someone else are the brevity of the posts and the emphasis on getting to the point. As a reader I frequently find other writers loquacious and unfocused. From my point of view, many of the articles and books that I read are more than twice as long as they ought to be and sometimes border on unintelligibility. There are many explanations for this, and I'll touch on a few of them here.

Sometimes the fault may be mine: perhaps I don't get it when others do. That probably occurs occasionally, but most likely in specialties with which I am unfamiliar. Of course, I may be more stupid than I realize, a common human error, but for general reading I don't think comprehension is much of a problem if you are literate: when in doubt you can always look things up. I suppose that it might also be argued that my preference for concision is a matter of personal taste and may not apply to everyone. However, what I'm complaining about has to do with unnecessarily fuzzy thoughts and the insensitivity and bad manners associated with wasting someone else's time. A case can be made for unusually verbose authors such as Proust, but even there I think he would have benefited from heavy editing. I'm about halfway through In Search of Lost Time, which I started several years ago, and it may take an act of will to resume reading it. It is surely no coincidence that in person Proust's acquaintance, Claude Debussy, a far greater artist in my opinion, found him "long-winded." Though Proust writes well, I believe that his standing will decline when the mystique currently in vogue wears off. I am willing to cut some slack for writers who display an unusual sensitivity to language. It is true, however, that my interests and background incline me to favor "the short version." As a philosophy student in the Anglo-American tradition, I was encouraged not to waste words. Most of my career in the printing industry required me to write short, accurate instructions that were followed in manufacturing plants where a mistake could cost thousands of dollars in losses. Furthermore, business school taught me the importance of "the executive summary."

These caveats aside, I have to say that a lot of what I read is quite disappointing. In an earlier post I commented on commercial writing, which I believe is a very large part of the problem. The length of an article is generally going to be determined by a publisher's requirement to fill a certain space, whether virtual or printed, and this constricts the author from the outset. Regardless of the real interest of a topic or an author's knowledge of the subject, you are going to get a predetermined number of words. In this context, you might, for example, get a circuitous two thousand word essay instead of a simple "He was a minor prewar English poet whom no one ever read or should read now." This example pertains to what one encounters in literary publications such as the TLS, LRB or NYRB and calls attention to the vapidity of much literary discourse, which has become a type of pseudo-intellectualism. But pure academic writing may be worse yet. In that you are likely to encounter unnecessary jargon and references which serve mainly to demonstrate the author's knowledge; he has dedicated his life to the rote memorization of obscure facts and jazzed them up for publication with convoluted language that passes for astute analysis. While some academic writing, particularly in technical subjects, remains precise, the humanities seem to be riddled with verbal legerdemain. To explain this phenomenon one need look no further than the number of PhDs in the humanities and the "publish or perish" pressures that they live with professionally. Unfortunately we now have thousands of academics combing the same barren ground for increasingly insignificant material long after the best of it has been harvested. You could probably write a PhD on Charles Dickens's underwear.

Popular writing seems to have become a little shorter over the years. In this area my complaints have more to do with quality, and one would not expect popular authors to write better books than their readers could appreciate. Thus, a reader who is not aesthetically challenged is likely to be disappointed not only with popular television programs, magazines and films, but with the works of popular authors. Within the broad field of fiction and nonfiction, literary fiction fits into a special category of its own. You might say that over the last fifty years fiction in the U.S. has become a managed industry. Bestsellers are controlled by major publishers with no academic involvement, while literary fiction is publicized subject to approval by academics and prize juries. Literary fiction represents an incestuous relationship between academia and the publishing industry that in my opinion tosses artistic merit to the wind.

To sum up, serious readers seek writers who say interesting things concisely, without fuss, diversion or subterfuge, and in a better world that would not be such a rarity.

2 comments:

  1. Funny you should reference Dickens. I'm on my way to the library to get A Tale of 2 Cities, our next book club read. In light of your post I'll be reading it with a view to conciseness. I do agree with you though. I was watching an interview with Chris Rock and he was saying that one, becomes, "in love with their words" and so hates to see them removed or changed. That was a good little catch phrase for me when I'm writing stuff (generally at work) to try and be brief and too the point and for that matter even somewhat in conversation. A lot of ppl talk too much too.

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    1. Dickens probably isn't as bad as Proust. A lot of people have logorrhea, but I think we should expect more care from writers and stand-up comedians.

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