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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines -

RAIL­ING against the in­ter­net is a pop­u­lar pas­time and one in which oc­ca­sion­ally I like to par­take as I see so­cial, psy­cho­log­i­cal, po­lit­i­cal and me­dia land­scapes re­mod­elled be­fore my eyes. But on one par­tic­u­lar point I think the ar­gu­ment of the com­mon or gar­den in­ter­net pho­bic, or i-phobe, is mis­guided, and it con­cerns the sup­pos­edly bale­ful im­pact of our restive new read­ing habits on the fate of long-form lit­er­a­ture.

Is the lux­u­ri­antly long read — the novel as con­ceived by Proust or Joyce — a thing of the past? Prob­a­bly. Does it mat­ter? Pos­si­bly not. When nov­el­ists com­plain of an at­ro­phy­ing of the ‘‘ cre­ative mind’’ as their pow­ers of in­tro­spec­tion and con­cen­tra­tion wither un­der the im­pact of email and the web, should we care? The clas­sic state­ment of the case was made by Jonathan Franzen, who moaned: ‘‘ It’s doubt­ful that any­one with an in­ter­net con­nec­tion at his work­place is writ­ing good fic­tion.’’

I’m not con­vinced. I think it’s pos­si­ble, how­ever, that they might pro­duce shorter, shape­lier fic­tion: at 567 pages Franzen’s 2001 novel The Cor­rec­tions is bloated. The work suf­fers, as critic James Wood noted, ‘‘ from a de­sire to put too much in’’. I pre­fer a style of fic­tion in which things are left un­said, or just left out; in which the imag­i­na­tion, left want­ing more, is stim­u­lated rather than sa­ti­ated.

I be­gan re­view­ing fic­tion in my 20s and have filed for many lit­er­ary ed­i­tors since then but only one, Barry Oak­ley, con­sid­ered small­ness a lit­er­ary virtue. Later, when I was in a po­si­tion to re­turn the favour by send­ing Oak­ley books to re­view, he would in­vari­ably ask up­front: ‘‘ Is it big or small?’’ There was an au­di­ble re­lease of breath if he learned that the work clocked in at less than 200 pages.

I’ve de­vel­oped the same sort of aver­sion to the novel of doorstop heft. While ev­ery­one was rab­bit­ing on, if you’ll ex­cuse the pun, about Ed­mund de Waal’s 368-page mem­oir The Hare with Am­ber Eyes, I just couldn’t last the dis­tance: the book wasn’t bad, merely bor­ing.

The nov­el­ists clos­est to my heart — Al­bert Ca­mus, Joseph Roth, F. Scott Fitzger­ald, Ge­orge Or­well, Joseph Con­rad, J. M. Coet­zee, Leonardo Sci­as­cia, Robert Louis Steven­son — write with the brevity of sto­ry­tellers or fab­u­lists rather than the am­bi­tion of nov­el­ists in the re­al­ist tradition who at­tempt to grasp whole worlds. One of the slimmest nov­els in the lit­er­ary canon, Voltaire’s Can­dide, is one of the most vi­brant. A few qual­i­fi­ca­tions, nat­u­rally, are in or­der: Roth’s The Radet­zky March, though clearly writ­ten by a sprinter rather than a stayer, is a fam­ily epic. Con­rad, too, mixed long and short forms. Yet I’m never less than amazed at what they achieve in the short course: Con­rad’s Heart of Dark­ness and Roth’s Re­bel­lion are fine ex­am­ples.

If the novel were to shrink in ac­cord with our tastes for brevity it wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily be a bad thing. We might also read more po­etry or, bet­ter still, wit­ness a re­vival of the the­atre.

If the long-form novel is the Test match of lit­er­ary cul­ture then the­atre is its Twenty20 fix­ture: an in­tense three hours of en­ter­tain­ment. Western lit­er­a­ture be­gan when the Athe­nian hoi pol­loi rolled up for per­for­mances by Sopho­cles, Aeschy­lus and Euripi­des at the fes­ti­vals of Diony­sus. We con­sider this a lit­er­ary golden age, but it was all short-form en­ter­tain­ment. Even the plays em­bed­ded in trilo­gies, such as Agamem­non of Aeschy­lus or Sopho­cles’s Oedi­pus the King, trans­ported their au­di­ence from open­ing ex­po­si­tion to tragic cathar­sis within a few hours.

The next great age of lit­er­ary pro­duc­tion, at least in English, is the El­iz­a­bethan: and here, once again, the short form dom­i­nates. No one ever said Shake­speare’s artistry was di­min­ished by his strict ad­her­ence to the evening’s en­ter­tain­ment prin­ci­ple. He wrote po­et­i­cally tex­tured works for the the­atre as well as po­etry, mostly in the son­net form. I sus­pect he favoured the three-hour play over the long-arc epic be­cause he was a busy chap in a crowded world try­ing to make a liv­ing.

It’s no co­in­ci­dence that many of the writ­ers I’m deeply at­tached to shared this mul­ti­fold na­ture: they were ad­ven­tur­ers (Steven­son, Con­rad), some­time jour­nal­ists (Roth, Or­well, Sci­as­cia, Ca­mus) or had other pro­fes­sional lives (Coet­zee, Voltaire) in the world of ideas.

They had some­thing to say, though not a decade to say it in. They were time-poor; but not be­cause of the in­ter­net. And if their model of suc­cinct artistry proves per­fectly suited to our age we will be none the poorer for it.

Luke Slat­tery

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