Tuesday, April 26, 2011

less is more

You hear a lot these days about the decline of civilization and literacy as exemplified by the rise of texting as a primary form of communication. People are afraid that this instant, long-distance communication makes it uneccesary for people to talk face to face. And the use of texting abbreviations and acronyms surely prevents children from learning how to read and write properly. Additionally, the quick, short messages (140 characters or so) must be a factor in the ADD epidemic, making it impossible for children to focus on any real literature.

This is all bullshit.

Yes, seeing things like "l8r" and "I dnt wnt 2 do ne hmwrk" makes my teeth itch, especially when this dialect is exported from texting to other forms of communication. But what upsets me more than how people are communicating is what is being communicated. People just say dumb things, and sometimes they also say them in dumb ways.

However, that is a topic for another day. When it comes to the issue of text length and what it does to literature, i think that what we need to do is embrace this new form of communication. Great ideas can be contained in small packages. We just need to learn to harness the power of saying things simply.

Consider the six-word memoir. According to the apocryphal story, the first six-word memoir was by Hemingway. Someone challenged him to write a complete story (full narrative arc, beginning middle and end, etc) in six words or less. Hemingway came back with, "For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn." Boom. There you have years of yearning and disappointment, or perhaps the deepest anguish and loss, or maybe even a simple housecleaning. There is narrative, there is backstory, there is room for interpretation, and something has certainly happened. All in six words.

Another example of this "numbered fiction" (i might have coined that term. I no longer remember.) is the fifty-five word story. It's a similar concept, but with more words.

Both examples require an extremely high level of skill and talent. Every word must do the work of dozens, or even of hundreds. Every word, every comma, must be carefully considered. A six-word memoir is like a sonnet on crack.

I wrote a prose poem once about a long distance relationship that was only maintained through text messages. When that's all you have, you learn to make it work. If you have only 160 characters, only a Facebook status update, only six words, you have to learn to make each one count. Why is this not being embraced as a valid literary concept, as a powerful writing choice? Why aren't we teaching students to write this way?

Let's face it: no one is writing epic poems anymore. They're just not. And if they are, no one is reading them. It's time to embrace the culture. I am NOT talking about lowering standards or expecting less of ourselves. I'm talking about doing more with less.

No comments:

Post a Comment