Sentenced: Why Writers Need To Be Brief
Our default Prime Minister has called for all documents under submission to be no longer than two pages.
While some have called this the ‘first ADHD government’ (the condition is now being linked to maternal obesity) I think it’s probably a good idea. The sheer volume of docketed briefs must require the initial application of brevity and concision. And it fits alarmingly with the PM’s personality, where he stops listening to you the second he sees something shiny out of the window.
Press articles have lately been getting much shorter, some pieces amounting to no more than a single paragraph summary. Compare the modern press to newspapers from the late Victorian era and you’ll find it very hard to wade through an 1890 copy of The Times. We are impatient with Victorian verbosity.
So how do we feel about this now? It’s the longest of the many long sentences Henry James ever wrote.
The house had a name and a history; the old gentleman taking his tea would have been delighted to tell you these things: how it had been built under Edward the Sixth, had offered a night’s hospitality to the great Elizabeth (whose august person had extended itself upon a huge, magnificent and terribly angular bed which still formed the principal honour of the sleeping apartments), had been a good deal bruised and defaced in Cromwell’s wars, and then, under the Restoration, repaired and much enlarged; and how, finally, after having been remodelled and disfigured in the eighteenth century, it had passed into the careful keeping of a shrewd American banker, who had bought it originally because (owing to circumstances too complicated to set forth) it was offered at a great bargain: bought it with much grumbling at its ugliness, its antiquity, its incommodity, and who now, at the end of twenty years, had become conscious of a real aesthetic passion for it, so that he knew all its points and would tell you just where to stand to see them in combination and just the hour when the shadows of its various protuberances—which fell so softly upon the warm, weary brickwork—were of the right measure.
James creates wonderfully subtle stories and the complexity of his sentences is enthralling. The clauses, digressions and qualifications allow for temporal compressions and expansions, but to the modern reader who is not an academic it merely becomes exhausting. To read James thoroughly now requires a lot of free time. The modern style would take that sentence apart and turn it into a dozen or so.
Yet in Europe and Britain this ornate, delicately shaded style was abandoned after the WWI. From Kafka, Woolf and Waugh to Simenon and Spark, simplicity became paramount. The revived reputation of Stefan Sweig, once one of the world’s most popular writers, must partly be down to his controlled clarity and brevity. The first two pages of ‘The World of Yesterday’ (newly translated by Anthea Bell) are a description of orderly life in Vienna that contain more than you’ll learn from most novels. Ostensibly a biography, the book fulfils its title promise and contains a world. Sweig favoured the long short story as his ideal mode of writing, and I wish others would too. In a skilled writer’s hands, short does not mean shallow.
The comparison between these two writers makes a simple point; two cabinet makers can produce entirely different pieces of furniture, elaborate and simple, that must still fulfil the same function.
While readers and writers may desire briefer, better books (any idiot can write long) the mass market publishers don’t. They charge by the pound; never mind the quality, feel the thickness. That way the punters get value for money, in the same way that some value a giant plate of KFC over a small filet mignon.