Blog Post

Brief thoughts about length

In this morning's paper I came across this quote from novelist Cormac McCarthy:

A: The director had the notion that he could put the entire book up on the screen. Well, you can't do that.

You have to pick out the story that you want to tell and put that on the screen. And so he made this four-hour film and then he found that if he was actually going to get it released, he would have to cut it down to two hours.

    Q: Does this issue of length apply to books, too? Is a 1,000-page book somehow too much?

    A: For modern readers, yeah. People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you're going to write something like The Brothers Karamazov or Moby-Dick, go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don't care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.



      (Photo via Jim Herrington)


      I've spent a fair time thinking about how mediums relate to different eras. I recall a favorite quote wherein artist Marcel Duchamp said he had no patience for books over 100 pages long. (I don't have the quote. Make do with the summary.) Always a future teller, I suspect he understood how the 20th century would erode our attention spans.

      Recently an acquaintance queried me why none of our Ivy League peers had ambitions toward tackling The Novel.

      "Well, no one reads anymore," I said. "Why would they write books when they could just as easily start a rock band?"

      I floated this by another acquaintance recently, a slightly younger individual with a background similar to my own. Why aren't kids these days aspiring to create literature? Will music claim them all?

      "I've seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by organic farming," he said.

      End of quote.

      UPDATED NOVEMBER 23, 2009: This post inspired an unusual level of response which continues on Clusterflock & my simulcast at Teenage Kicks.

      Alec Hanley Bemis's picture
      Alec Hanley Bemis lives in Brooklyn, NY but spends a lot of time in California. He obtained his B.A. in History from Yale University. His writing has appeared in LA Weekly, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Spin,, the Los Angeles Times, and many other publications. In 2001, he co-founded Brassland, a record label that documents the work of a growing community of musicians, including The National and Nico Muhly. Currently he continues to run Brassland, consults for the UK-based music company All Tomorrow's Parties, co-manages The Dirty Projectors, and acts as general manager at Cantaloupe Music. In the past, he has taught in New York University's graduate journalism program, produced projects for the new media-design firm, Funny Garbage, and written for Faith Popcorn's BrainReserve.