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.