Thursday, 10 September 2009

"The best things in life are short."

“Why take five hundred pages to develop an idea whose oral demonstration fits into a few minutes?” – Jorge Luis Borges.

There’s a lot to be said in defence of shortness in creative works. Short fiction of any medium – literature, cinema, video games – is good at expressing ideas: offering perfect little jewels that manage to capture a thought in a small number of words, film, or data.

Long works can be excellent. Long pieces of fiction give the reader the opportunity to experience a different world, explore the depths of various characters, and immerse oneself in the work’s theme. The Lord of the Rings, the complete Harry Potter, Gaiman’s The Sandman, Neal Stephenson’s novels, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, RPG or MMORPG video games, film trilogies: they offer the reader/viewer somewhere to escape to. Long novels often come complete with a fully-realised world replete with appendices, glossaries, atlases, and histories. Extended film series get filled with canonical extras, important secondary and tertiary characters, and in-depth systems of how that world operates. Long works offer experience.

Short works on the other hand offer ideas. Short fiction gives a central idea without burying it under mountains of character development, unnecessary exposition, or excessive world-building. They offer a thought for the audience to consider, often made all the more potent for being expressible in brief.

“What can be said at all can be said clearly” – Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities stands out as a showcase of skill in short writing. The novel consists of chapters about a page long, each one giving a meditation on an imaginary city which possesses a unique feature. The novel works because of Calvino’s ability to evoke a pristine image in a small number of words. Jorge Luis Borges’ fiction is another example of short but near perfect works. The beauty of Borges is that each story can be summarised in a simple sentence or phrase: ‘the infinite library’, ‘the man who never forgets’, ‘the world based on idealism’. The stories work because the basic idea is never overburdened by excess: the reader is invited to meditate on the premise and draw out the conclusions of it by themselves. The same applies to short novels such as Einstein's Dreams, The Third Policeman, Fahrenheit 451, and Candide.

Masterpieces of philosophical writing are often short. Wittgenstein’s first opus, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus is an amazing achievement precisely because of its brevity. Describing the logical foundations of the actual world and all possible worlds is astounding but the fact that Wittgenstein does it in only 80 pages magnifies the accomplishment. In existentialist literature there are short classics such as Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, Camus’ The Plague, and Sartre’s short lecture Existentialism is a Humanism. The impact of Existentialism is a Humanism comes from its lack of heavy metaphysics and phenomenology. The lecture is really a précis of Sartre’s massive Being and Nothingness – it gives the moral and theological implications of existentialism in terms suitable for an amateur or a layman. It offers a window into existentialism’s alternative view of the world without being shrouded in technicalities and jargon.

The most striking video games of the past few years have been those that sought to express an idea without excessive elaboration. Braid and Portal are short, satisfying puzzle games which exercise the brain rather than the reflexes. The creators recognised that 10+ hours of gameplay would be superfluous and so included no unnecessary filler thus creating a fulfilling game experience.

Finally there are short films which possess a charm of their own. io9 has an article up listing short films which could be extended into feature length movies. But do they really need extending? They put forward an idea succinctly and do not wear out their welcome. Isn’t that to be admired?

Short works are about ideas. They offer up a single thought and ask the audience to do the leg-work themselves. Short works don’t patronise – they encourage us to think and use our intelligence to draw our own conclusions. Long works give experiences; short works give ideas.

Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone. 'But which is the stone that supports the bridge?' Kublai Khan asks. 'The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,' Marco answers, 'but by the line of the arch that they form.' Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: 'Why do you speak of the stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.' Polo answers: 'Without stones there is no arch.' – Italo Calvino.

No comments: