The Long and Short of It

by Mary Jackson (October 2008)  


“I am sorry this is so long. I didn’t have time to make it shorter.”


This apology is attributed by turns to such fine minds as Blaise Pascal, Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and even Marie Curie. Between them they must have a point. Here are some brief thoughts on length:


If any man will draw up his case, and put his name at the foot of the first page, I will give him an immediate reply.  Where he compels me to turn over the sheet, he must wait my leisure.  ~Lord Sandwich


The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.  ~Thomas Jefferson


A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.  ~William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style, 1918


If you bring that sentence in for a fitting, I can have it shortened by Wednesday.  ~M*A*S*H, Hawkeye, “The Gun”


Brevity is the soul of lingerie.  ~Dorothy Parker


Parker’s briefs aside, the consensus seems to be that short is good. But is it? What, in any case, do we mean by short? The writers and speakers quoted above do not mean quite the same thing.


Lord Sandwich appears to have been a busy man. He had no time for a full lunch, or to read a lengthy brief, if such is not a contradiction in terms. One page had to suffice, even if the matter required more than one page to do it justice. When Lord Sandwich praised brevity, he was pleading time constraints.


Thomas Jefferson does not praise brevity tout court:  he qualifies his statement. Two words should not be used “when one will do”; by implication one word will not always do. Brevity is a means to clarity.


For William Strunk Jr., brevity appears bleakly utilitarian. We must purge our writing of “unnecessary” paragraphs, sentences and words and become a lean, mean writing machine. Brevity, in the context here of a stylebook, is a discipline and a corrective to excess.


Hawkeye, in the comedy M*A*S*H, has clearly heard a convoluted sentence that he cannot understand, and he suspects that he is not meant to understand it. Brevity, for Hawkeye, is a corrective to pomposity.


Brevity, then, is a means to an end, not an end in itself. And it is not always a good thing. 

Theodore Dalrymple writes a regular half-page article in The Spectator. The short pieces are always entertaining and informative, but sometimes they shade into caricature, for example here:

Whenever I return to England from abroad, which is often, a very troubling question comes insistently into mind: why are the people here so ugly?

I do not mean by this that I think all foreigners are handsome or beautiful, far from it. One of the tricks that Stepmother Nature has played on humanity is to give it an idea of beauty in its own kind, and then deny the thing itself to so large a proportion of the race.

Still, there is something special about English ugliness. It is not of the face alone, but of the soul.


And so he goes on, without really saying who is meant, or how he knows all about them. Similarly, in this column, he revels in the “quite transcendent vulgarity” of a stranger:

His was the kind of vulgarity that is not merely the absence of refinement, but a positive contempt for refinement. Indeed, it was a principled, ideological vulgarity; and, as its bearer, he was a true modern representative of his country.

Was he? Perhaps, but the case is not made, and cannot be made in the mere five hundred words dictated by the space allowed. Dalrymple is an excellent essayist who combines moral and verbal clarity, but he generally needs space to develop his arguments. His thoughts are too big to squeeze into half a page.

Five hundred words is not enough for Dalrymple, but it is more than enough for many journalists and “public intellectuals”, and for quite a few novelists. Such writers generally use a lot of words to say very little. Homi K. Bhabha, Professor of English at the University of Chicago, uses fifty-five words to say nothing at all:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

A Professor of English, it seems, may collate words in any way he sees fit. Mere meaning is for the layman, the ordinary reader, who wishes to understand, or – heaven forbid – to be entertained.

A few months ago, The Times challenged six authors to “put a modern spin” on the theme of love. This sounds easy, until you learn that they had a limit of three hundred words. The best entry by far was “Romeo and Romeo” by Lionel Shriver, which, since it is only three hundred words, I reproduce in full:

Romney came of age thinking Bad Thoughts, and led a secret life with other boys. The badness made him feel guilty, but it was also exciting. So in a way the badness was good.

At 25, Romney met Jules, whose long flowing hair compensated for the fact that he tended to get a bit melodramatic about roses and the moon. Their steamy frolics being forbidden made the sex fantastic; it was really good badness! But secrecy about fancying a gender from the wrong side of the tracks – your own side – was now frowned upon as cowardly.

So Romney braved at Sacramento parties, “I’m gay, you know!” his heart racing. Everyone acted very bored. They seemed to be waiting for him to say something about global warming. Romney was hurt. He’d finally come out, and now people treated his bold challenge to social mores as perfectly dreary.

Fiercely, he resolved to tell his mother. Clutching Jules’s hand on her porch in Coralville, Iowa, Romney braced for hair-tearing and tears, if not disinheritance and disavowal.

Instead, Mother swept them inside and kissed Jules like one of the family. Within minutes, Mother was on the phone, boasting about how progressively welcoming she’d been of her son being gay.

She and Jules got on great, which was annoying.

Then California had to go and legalise gay marriage. Jules proposed. Romney wasn’t sure about marrying Jules, but – fi! – nothing stopped them now. After an expensive wedding in Napa Valley (the cabernet was sour, the carpaccio off-colour), the couple settled in a dumpy Fresno suburb with a mole problem where everyone knew they were gay and didn’t care.

Jules went bald. Deprived of the goodness of badness, they developed erectile dysfunction issues. After seven tedious years, they split.

Alack, alack! Methinks Romney and Jules might have made a fabulous tragedy, if only someone had tried to keep them apart.

Whatever else went wrong, the length is perfect. The piece could not be wished longer or shorter. Any shorter and it would sound clipped or rushed. Any longer would be superfluous padding. Indeed it is very difficult to imagine the piece being longer or shorter, a sure sign that the writer has done his work. Contrast this entertaining and not unserious story with the passage by Homi K. Bhabha quoted above. The latter could drop a sentence or add a hundred sentences without any loss of quality.

Contemporary novelists often disappoint because, unlike Lionel Shriver, they are insufficiently disciplined – and self-critical – to stop writing when they have nothing further to say. I recently read The Story of You by Julie Myerson. It was gripping to start with, very good until towards the end of the first half, and then went off. All her novels are like that. So are those of Anita Brookner, Maggie O’Farrell and countless others. If the modern novel were a footballer, they would bring on a substitute at half time.

The books all start well, however, and it would be a pity to miss out on those beginnings. So why can’t I just give up on them half way through and start a new one? I suppose I hope they’ll pick up. But they never do – I should know that by now.

Writers, too, must know they have run out of steam. Aren’t they as disappointed as the reader? Here’s an idea: stop pretending. Quit while you’re ahead. Write the good first half of a book, then write the good first half of another one. Unless it’s a murder mystery, it doesn’t really matter what happens in the end. You can always put in a summary: “they got together after a few ups and downs” will do the trick for most of them.

German author Thomas Mann did something of the kind with his novel Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years. “The Early Years” is a little misleading; the German is “Erster Teil”, or Part One. There was no Part Two; Thomas Mann died before he could write it. But does it need a Part Two? This Amazon reviewer suggests not:

The episodes where Felix evades military service and the whole section where he recounts his Parisian days as elevator boy, jewel thief, dishwasher, and popular waiter at a top hotel, were particularly effective, showing Mann’s deft touch for entwining character, psychology, and manners.

After these bright spots, most readers will probably feel the last third of the novel, mainly set in Lisbon, is wasted. Here we have a lot of cosmic gobbledygook from Professor Kuckuck and the tedious courtship of the Professor’s daughter, Zouzou, who never advances beyond an abstraction of a surly, spoilt young lady. There is still the occasional speck of gold to be panned here in these muddy lower reaches, but the river has by now lost most of its sparkle.

This is my recollection of the book, although it is some time since I read it. I did not mind in the least that it was “unfinished” – as was its hero. We are told near the beginning that Krull ended up in prison, which is all you need to know. Thomas Mann quit while he was ahead, even if the quitting was involuntary.

A possible drawback of my proposal is that modern novels will shrink from around 250 pages to around 125. Here is another idea: two-in-one novels. Two good first halves instead one half-good half-bad book. They could charge a bit more, say 20%, but it would be better value than two books of the old kind. Will it catch on? I hope so.

I am sorry this month’s piece is of medium length. I didn’t have time to make it long and then short. And I forgot the two rules of writing:

Rule 1: Always leave them wanting more.


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Mary Jackson contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all her contributions, on which comments are welcome.  


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