Cuts Both Ways

I heard a story on Monday morning listening to the BBC in the car. Of course, I can’t find it anywhere, now, but the story sparked a strong reaction from me. The story was an interview with an editor that makes his life’s work of abridging fiction, most notably the classics. His stated reason for doing this during the interview was because attention spans in our culture are decreasing rapidly, seeming to infer that most people don’t have the patience or motivation to read a full length literary novel.

My knee-jerk reaction was not a pleasant one.

Now, a more thought-out response. Abridging is nothing new in the world of fiction. I don’t read abridged fiction in written form, but I occasionally read it in audio form. Whenever we travel by car, Karen and I listen to audiobooks. Depending on the nature of the trip, and on the genre, I haven’t been opposed to buying abridged audio versions. Typically, though, these are genre novels, not literary novels. Sometimes, though, I’m amazed at just how condensed the books are, and sometimes the abridged novels accomplish what an editor seems to have missed the opportunity to accomplish.

We’ve all read books in which the author became a bit verbose in descriptions of mundane details…books in which we find ourselves thinking, “was it really necessary to know the full and minute details of every meal that character ate in a week?” Worse, when you read this during a murder mystery, you find yourself taking copious notes of minutiae in case it becomes a critical factor in determining “whodunit,” only to find out that these facts had nothing to do with the story.

I’m all about character development, but every author makes the mistake of spending too much time describing some things, and not enough time describing others. Sometimes that makes it into the book.    Larsson, for example, strays a bit into verbose-ness in the Millenium trilogy. To give an example of the unabridged vs. the abridged versions of Larsson’s work: the abridged audio version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo weighs in at just under 8 hours; the unabridged version of The Girl who Played with Fire was nearly 19 hours of audio.

So, perhaps I’m being verbose in saying all that, but I’m pointing out that abridging fiction isn’t necessarily a bad thing.


I think the issue is motivation. To abridge a novel, especially a classic work of fiction, because the attention span of the average individual is too short to handle reading a full length novel, is problematic. The reason is because it is catering to the symptoms of a problem…adapting to a dysfunction…rather than working to solve the problem, to address it. The fact that the average person doesn’t read a book for pleasure in a year, or that their fractured attention span won’t permit them to focus on anything more than the length of the average Twitter update, is an issue that needs to be solved.

Which leaves us with two possible alternatives at a basic level: admit that stunted attention spans is a problem that needs to be addressed, or pretend that its acceptable instead of wrong and re-adjust our lives around it.

So, I could abridge my post here by saying that hacking up works of classic fiction in order to cater to the psychological trauma done to the average reader by a media-saturated culture is wrong. Classic literary authors are considered such for a reason. Their works were crafted the way they exist for a reason. To cut appendages off of them because we in our judgement deem them “too long” is tragic. Those texts, which frequently have been foundational to our culture, deserve more respect than to carve them into pieces.

Just so we can multi-task better while saying we’ve read them.

140-character thoughts have their place. So do 50,000 word ideas. We need to be able to engage, and appreciate, both.

Photo Attribution: misteraitch 

Flexibility and Inspiration

I listened to a reading of this poem by a dystopian science fiction writer who also wrote children’s literature. He wrote a poem that is a primer for the alphabet for small children. It was absolutely adorable. I cannot wait until my daughter is old enough for me to read it to her. I was so inspired by this writer’s artistic flexibility. I write science fiction, frequently dystopian science fiction. But I want to write children’s literature, as well. I want to write the things that inspire children to love with the same virtual pen that I write the portraits of a society potentially gone wrong. I want to have that flexibility. My daughter inspires me toward it.

Inspiration is a beautiful thing.


There was a point in the history of Western culture in which it was fashionable for everyone to keep a journal. In our new age of social networking, journaling is, of course, more popular than ever…its just that we want everyone else to see our thoughts, instead of keeping them private. We invite their comments. We want their opinions. We want to challenge their opinions. Thus, nearly everyone I know posts status updates somewhere. They share links to the things that interest them. Whether in the compact form of Twitter, the more creative palette of Tumblr, or the long-form written expression of a blog, we’re all about letting everyone else see our thoughts.

Blogging, of course, has brought about its own debates in the cultural sphere. Specifically, we wonder, are the blogs of anyone who witnesses a specific event and decides to publish the details as they witnessed them to be considered journalism? Most bloggers are not trained journalists, and neither are most social networkers…yet its not an exaggeration to say that we learn news from Twitter more quickly than any formal news media outlet. And, news media outlets are making it much easier to post eye-witness video and accounts to their websites.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily include the so-called “elites.” No direct eye-witness accounts or opinions of Joe Public in the pages of the New Yorker, for example, or the bylines of the Washington Post. Some publications and media hold to a higher standard. They want to be gate-keepers, filtering what goes through their sites to their readers and viewers. Societies have always, and likely will always, have these elites.

Yet, our information age has brought about a new distaste for the elites in favor of the common person. Not only is it easier to find out what someone just like us thinks about a situation, but it is also possible for any of us to publish our own books, record and produce our own albums, shoot our own films, and then to circulate them to a worldwide audience. Albeit a small worldwide audience at first, but…you never know what will go viral tomorrow.

Interesting, isn’t it, how this invention of the Internet has brought about a lack of tolerance for the elite gatekeepers? We are no longer as interested in what the publishing houses and record labels think is worthy music. We want to hear the album made by the guy on the other end of town that just posted his first music video on YouTube, or read the novel self-published by the author we’ve connected with on Twitter.

Yet, we still respect the elite in most areas. When push comes to shove, we trust a news report from the New York Times over a more amateur news blog. We value a degree from an Ivy League institution over an online school. We respect great literature over a print-on-demand novel. There’s value to the excellence brought about by people who have a reputation for doing it the best, yet there’s value to the fact that anyone can do it.

So, where’s the reconciliation of this conundrum? I respect novels published with well-known publishers. I respect authors who self-publish, and, in fact, intend to self-publish some of my own work in the near future. That’s where it hits home for me. Writing, musicianship, acting, film directing, are all difficult crafts that require much work to achieve any level of competency or excellence. Yet, all of these gifts can fall by the wayside, regardless of their level of excellence, because of business decisions based on executive profit or the lowest common denominator of the audience instead of the quality of the art.

Do you read self-published books? Watch independent films? Listen to indie bands? The technology is there for these artists to do excellent work, and the information pipeline is there for them to distribute it as they please, without working in connection with agents or executives. This is an exciting time to be creative. Ironically, I wonder if the so-called “entertainment industry” will implode, or at least be forced to alter drastically, as a result?

And, I wonder if it would be such a bad thing if it did?

Photo Attribution: goXunReviews

Bits and Bytes

Somewhere in the middle of a hectic Monday morning, Karen sent one of those email forwards that are meant to brighten your day. The email was (supposedly) written by an older gentleman who had operated a business for years while content to keep his mobile phone in his golf bag in the garage, who became annoyed with a GPS telling him what to do, and who certainly didn’t comprehend Twitter. It concluded with an emphatic statement that many older people are content with what they still consider to be the advanced technology of cordless telephones and garage door openers, and that those younger and more technologically adept should accept this and move on.

It was a good laugh.

I remember the jokes that used to circulate about how friends and family had difficulty programming their VCRs. I remember thinking that it wasn’t that complicated. I listen to Karen periodically muse to her friends that she can’t keep up with which social network is my current favorite, because I have too many. I pounce on the latest updates on my iPhone, and she shrugs her shoulders and contents herself with what she needs to know. I listen to myself with amusement as I lapse into geek-speak when one of my friends has a technical issue, to which I typically know a solution.

My parents, however, don’t understand the concept of Facebook.

It occurs to me that my generation has, arguably, seen the greatest number of life-altering technological advances of any in human history. Actually, let me qualify that: we’ve seen the greatest number of information-based technological advancements of any in human history. I can trace back with wonder the changes in the way I live my day-to-day life through my 30-ish years on the planet. When I was an undergrad, having a computer in your dorm room was unusual. Most of us walked down to the computer lounge that was in the wing of our dorm, plugged a 3 1/2″ floppy into the drive, and hacked away at our term papers with software that was either nameless or whose name escapes my memory. And we were glad we no longer had to do it on typewriters while slinging whiteout.

By the time I was a junior, I had a pager. My grandmother used to try to leave messages on that number like an answering machine, and couldn’t understand why it didn’t go through. Then I had a huge bag-phone in my car with an antennae mounted on the back glass and was feeling pretty spiffy about 60 free minutes…you get the idea.

Now, my phone literally can manage my entire day. I’ve heard that the average iPhone, in fact, has more processing power that the computers used to generate the special effects for the original Star Wars films.

While I joke with my friends and family about what I perceive as their technological ineptitude, however, I feel concerned for those older than us. I feel concerned because I wonder if there has ever been a time in our history in which our elders have been left behind so quickly…disregarded as though they have no idea about life. I wonder if, in our quasi-arrogant self-assurance of possessing and being intimate with technology that our parents could never have imagined, that we de-value the wisdom about life that our parents and grandparents have.

After fussing with email and weather forecasts and so forth on my iPad Monday morning, I settled into the beginning of the week by looking at my daughter. I watched her sleeping face, and thought about how wonderfully superior a creation she is to any metal and glass device that I hold in my hand. I think about how the wisdom of those who have gone before us is invaluable to how we raise and treat those who come after us. I think about how the core of the human condition hasn’t changed, and about how we endanger ourselves of repeating the mistakes of history because we are so obsessed with our present.

I think about all of the times that I couldn’t be bothered with my elders, and how I’ve lived to regret that choice every time. Every. Single. Time.

Progress is a beautiful thing, when taken as a next step to our humanity, our arts, our culture. Should we attempt to replace those things…to replace our history…with the progress of today and dreams of tomorrow, though…then we’ve torn away parts of our souls. We need to be careful in discarding those pieces of ourselves so flippantly, because I’m not entirely certain that we can get them back when we do.

Should a day come when our technology is no longer with us, we will still be with each other. Humanity can’t be fixed with software upgrades and new apps. Its much deeper in its problems and its beauty.

We need to know what to do with that.

Photo Attribution: brendahallowes