The volume of material competing for readers’ attention today is overwhelming. While reading an e-mail, you might notice scrolling across the top of the computer screen a headline for a news story you decide is a must-read. While reading that news story, you are reminded of your friend who would appreciate the story… a friend who has a blog that you have not checked out in a while. This reminds you of all the other blogs you are trying to keep up with, which reminds you that you need a vacation soon, so you click on a travel site to dream a bit. But you feel guilty for spending so much time reading online when you have those pricy books sitting on the shelf at home. So much to read….
And thus the idea among contemporary writers that less is more.
I appreciate this idea. I admire the power of a single line that communicates the same depth of a wordy, clumsily written paragraph (like the opening paragraph of this post).
However, I am reading Les Misérables, and I am quite certain that Victor Hugo did not believe that less is more.
Sure, he penned certain poignant scenes that communicate the meaning of the Gospel more richly than any lengthy, erudite sermon. But I should point out that the first 100 pages or so of his masterpiece describes a character with whom the main character (Jean Valjean) spends merely hours. That’s right: roughly 100 pages to describe that bishops who gets 4 minutes or so of stage time in the musical.
I read Khaled Hosseini’s The Kiterunner last year. It is a beautiful story, but I could not help but wonder if an extra 100 pages would have done the novel well. The cyclic patterns so famous among 18th- & 19th-century novels–those surprise reappearances of former characters and repititive actions–are surprising largely because the author has filled in enough space between the reappearances and actions that the reader begins to overlook and dismiss the previous hints and clues. My disappointment with The Kiterunner was with its predictability–I saw the cycles coming ’round the bend.
In contrast, dead guys like Dostoyevsky, Dickens and Hugo had no problem cramming in hundreds of extra pages in which the narrative surprises could be embedded all the more deeply.
I’m the kind of guy who steers clear of abridged versions. I admit that I do get bogged down in those long novels. I admit that had I actually purchased the abridged version of Les Misérables that I would have been able to have read several more novels this past year. And I also admit that printing a Khaled Hosseini book contributes much less to deforestation than reprinting The Brothers Karamazov.
With all this said, however, I think the most powerful documents ever written were produced out of a ‘less is more’ approach. I am referring to the Gospels. Practical matters placed rather strict limits on ancient authors–no type presses, the time consuming nature of scribal reproduction, the length of scrolls, the costs of “paper” products, etc. Also contributing to the brevity would have been the goal of producing a document that could be read in one or two hearings before (a mostly illiterate) congregation. Even if the Evangelists had considerable time on their hands and a patron who would foot the bill, they were still restrained from producing a lengthy tome by the ancient genre in which they probably wrote (involving a report of Jesus’ vocational life) and by the goal of producing a work that could be read in one or two sittings.
These limits forced an editing process just as inspired as the initial act of writing. The subtleties and the cyclic patterns are presented with tremendous literary skill, arguably developed in painstaking editorial work. So in the case of the Gospels, I would say that less is indeed more. The author of John seems to bemoan the lack of space to write of all Jesus did (see 21:25). But what that author has bequeathed to us is a theological narrative so gripping, so mystifying that we are still plumbing its depths.
So is less more when it comes to writing? I suppose the purpose and the setting determine the answer. But I will say that when you are preaching to a small Baptist congregation that expects to eat lunch at noon, then less is indeed more. When the sermon is done, though, and the time for Sunday afternoon fiction arrives, then there’s nothing wrong with a few extra details from Victor Hugo….