Against Extent


Since Halloween is but a month away, let me begin by quoting Edgar Allan Poe.  This is from his marvelous essay “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846), wherein he explains in almost self-parodically rationalized detail how he came to write “The Raven.”  Poe famously decides that brevity is necessary for unity of effect:

If any literary work is too long to be read at one sitting, we must be content to dispense with the immensely important effect derivable from unity of impression- for, if two sittings be required, the affairs of the world interfere, and everything like totality is at once destroyed. But since, ceteris paribus, no poet can afford to dispense with anything that may advance his design, it but remains to be seen whether there is, in extent, any advantage to counterbalance the loss of unity which attends it. Here I say no, at once. What we term a long poem is, in fact, merely a succession of brief ones- that is to say, of brief poetical effects. It is needless to demonstrate that a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychal necessity, brief. For this reason, at least, one-half of the “Paradise Lost” is essentially prose- a succession of poetical excitements interspersed, inevitably, with corresponding depressions- the whole being deprived, through the extremeness of its length, of the vastly important artistic element, totality, or unity of effect.

It appears evident, then, that there is a distinct limit, as regards length, to all works of literary art- the limit of a single sitting- and that, although in certain classes of prose composition, such as “Robinson Crusoe” (demanding no unity), this limit may be advantageously overpassed, it can never properly be overpassed in a poem. Within this limit, the extent of a poem may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit- in other words, to the excitement or elevation-again, in other words, to the degree of the true poetical effect which it is capable of inducing; for it is clear that the brevity must be in direct ratio of the intensity of the intended effect- this, with one proviso- that a certain degree of duration is absolutely requisite for the production of any effect at all.

One might object to this.  1.) It is untenably overstated (“mathematical relation”);  2.) it is, despite its faux-precision, based on unclear premises (for one thing, what relevant category is Robinson Crusoe exemplifying–novels? adventures? entertainments?);  3.) and it is, its air of empirically-derived scientific law notwithstanding, finally arbitrary (how long is one sitting? what count as an interruption? why define unity as a property of the reading rather than of the text? etc., etc.).

Having made those objections, though, I still think Poe’s thesis is relevant to narrative and dramatic art in our own time.  To put it plainly, our narratives are too damn long, often for the most crassly commercial reasons (serials keep the customers coming back) or else the most misguidedly middlebrow ones (how can a novelist searingly capture Life In Our Time in fewer than 500 pages?).  Andrew O’Hehir, in pronouncing cinema every bit as dead as opera, jazz, rock, poetry and the novel, takes for granted “the undisputed cultural primacy of televised serial drama in the 21st century.”  Which is to say, the undisputed cultural primacy of the staggeringly long narrative.

Populists can complain all they like, but in a commodity culture, whatever holds current primacy is usually trash, glorified advertising paid for by advertisers.  As my dad always says, a TV show is just an excuse for commercials.  More serious works, devoid of the comforts endemic to advertising, initially require the mediation of a coterie to shelter them from immediate market forces until they can be gradually introduced to, and finally domesticated by, a larger audience (at least that’s how it should go).

So what should people who want to create more serious works do to differentiate themselves from what now holds cultural primacy?  I suggest they should follow Poe (though an ambivalent trickster figure–grandfather, via the French Decadents and Symbolists, to modernism while also being grandfather, via the pulps and genre fiction, to pop culture itself) in pursuing the short: maximum effect in minimum form.

For, paradoxically, the prevalence of serial narrative is caused by our short attention spans.  We have to be bombarded with a huge mass of detail before any of it begins to register at all.  Absent the corn-syrup of tremendous extent, great short works, whose every word and image and gesture count, seem comparatively flavorless.  And works of vast length offer another false comfort: disbelief in limitation, the illusion of endless possibility–“the lights must never go out, the music must always play”–a balm to the technocratic imperial imagination.

Let us therefore leave extent to the pleasant world of entertainment and fancy.  Those seeking more astringent pleasures, darker intimations, should instead write poems of a hundred lines and stories of a thousand words, shoot thirty-minute films and paint pictures on a tiny canvasses: it will clarify our thought, deepen our feeling.