People talk a lot of our modern lack of concentration. It’s a given that we of the new generations can’t be trusted to sit though anything as time consuming as a novel or a play. We need constant novelty, stimulation. This is assumedly why we all sit in front of computer screens for hours and hours.
Still, media bullshit aside, the question of the length that “art” should be is an interesting one. A visit to a recent Picasso exhibition saw me tired out after about an hour, and there was still four roomsworth of paintings left to go. I couldn’t help feeling the entire experience would have been far more enjoyable if I’d spent the entire time with perhaps two true masterpieces and done them justice proper; rather than nod, read the title and give an internal thumbs-up or down.
Filmwise, Hitchcock always made films “in direct accordance with the size of the average human bladder”. The great silent comedies are even shorter; the length of a premise and a pie-gag. The cinema’s inherent compromises between populism and quality make duration something essential in a film’s success. Australia, for example, seemed a successful (if eccentric) movie for the first 90 minutes before, inexplicably, deciding to carry on for another 90 – turning itself into a universal flop in the process.
Novels, however, are something else entirely. BS Johnson believed the modern novel should be short as Victorian epics were stuff of a different time. Of course, we also forget that most Victorian novels were serialised and, similarly, the proliferation of speeches and sermons would no doubt have given readers an ear for the windiest of prose styles.
The average size of ‘blockbuster’ modern fiction then (eg/ The Da Vinci Code) seems a curiously post-modern mix of these two approaches to novelistic length. In word-terms it’s unusual to find anything pushing the 100,000 mark, but page-wise anything less than 500 is quite rare. The amount of words on a page can at times be half the amount you’d find in a Penguin Classics. This phenomenon is perhaps indicative of the idea that a longer book makes for a more “engaging” story, or even just that people enjoy turning pages. The highest acclaim on any poster tends to highlight the books kinaesthetic appeal – “A great page turner”.
In essence, there can’t really be a perfect novel size. On the other hand, there can definitely be wrong novel sizes. David Mitchell’s novels tend to drag an extra 200 pages from a 300 page premise. Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night could have even been a classic given a good editor. Richard Brautigan, on the other hand, always puts me off as I’m effectively paying £8 for 30 paragraphs. Great paragraphs, yes, but this is the “Age of Austerity”!
The length issue is indeed a tough one though. Many’s the time I’ve brushed off a book that I could have liked were it shorter; elaborate lengths oft reek of vanity. On that note, my intrepid imaginary reader, I should best end it. Of course you’ll never have reached this point anyway, you fickle thing, but it’s nice to know you tried.
(PS – I’m writing up my dissertation at the moment, fairy audience, so don’t expect much in the way of blogs for a good while yet!)
Being poor as I am, and most likely always shall be, I tend to keep up to date with things via familial cast-offs. Witness my great genius then, in buying my brother season 1 of The Venture Brothers on DVD for his birthday two years ago – I now have access to seasons 1, 2 and 3, with 4 on pre-order. Perhaps the finest cartoon of recent years and possibly the best written TV show of any genre, especially now that Lost has finally admitted to being one long MacGuffin.
What makes The Venture Brothers so important, in my opinion, is its uncomfortable positioning between parody and pastiche. The “self-conscious” or “realist” take on the superhero/boy adventurer genre refuses to rely solely upon its own fallacy for content. Shrek gains its laughs from placing a relatable character within a fairytale world, thus creating the bathos inherent to parody, whilst The Incredibles pulled the same manoeuvre only with the superhero characters being placed within a relatable world, suggesting the ‘knowingness’ of pastiche. Despite these both being reasonably decent films, The VentureBrothers (and the same goes for the brilliant The Watchmen) can only be seen to play to this self-conscious distancing within a self-contained diegetic world. It’s this consistency that lifts it above the kitchities of 1980s po-mo and into the realms of a true work of art.
It is this element of distinct “worlds” and their interaction that is so central to The Venture Brothers’ narrative. The public and the private spheres are intermingled effortlessly; from Brock Sampson, Hank’s bodyguard-cum-father figure, to Dr.Venture, the “super-scientist” who inherited the position from his father. The world of heroes and their “arches” is acted out like a job, a business commitment. At no point does this reduce the seriousness of the conflict (Brock’s violence as a “walking Swedish murder-machine” is undoubtedly the work of a sadist) yet the characters’ humanity is equally visible without at any point becoming mawkish. One couldn’t imagine the father in Johnny Quest complaining about the electric bill, for example.
The great hero of the show, for me, is somewhat ironically the central arch-nemesis, “The Monarch”. Emotionally dependent upon his “second-in-command” Dr.Girlfriend and neglectful of his Henchmen rather than tyrannical, he is nevertheless the character that most embodies the opted-into world of supervillainy. In Freud’s “Creative Writers and Daydreaming” he writes of the seriousness of children’s play and how writers continue this into their created worlds. In The Monarch we see how this attitude of “serious play” isn’t necessarily limited to fictional worlds but is equally applicable at any level of the “social game”. The Monarch acts out each of his attacks upon Dr.Venture with a hysterical fury channelled through melodramatic staged-ness. The very seriousness of his enthusiasm is what overcomes the fact that he is simply “a guy in a giant butterfly costume”. The Monarch’s commitment to his role is total, yet he himself is only a “supervillian” during the times that he is “arching”. His passion is in complicity with the social game and acts out its potentialities within that sphere, outside that he remains unquestionably human.
This perspective of a psychological “social game” is perhaps best highlighted by crossing the Parallax gap over into economy and referring to Marx’s commodity fetishism. The ultimate proponent of commodity fetishism within the context of arch-villainy is Sgt.Hatred, Dr.Venture’s one-time nemesis who offers “more bang for your arching buck”. Where The Monarch actively engages with the social game (investing huge amounts of energy into it, taking it as seriously as possible), Sgt. Hatred treats his complicity as an inevitability; “Hate to live, don’t live to hate” is his “almost sane” philosophy. This “professional” attitude to arching of course results in the banalities of bureaucracy as without the “passion” Sgt. Hatred is reduced to going through a questionnaire with Dr. Venture and asking him to “state from 1-to-10, how much terror you experience”.
In this way, The Venture Brothers almost allegorises the situation of the individual within capitalist society. As Sgt. Hatred engages himself only superficially he mistakes the surface machinery, the charts and graphs, of the system for its very being – commodity fetishism at its most fatalistic. However, as an active participant in a social game, The Monarch utilises the laws of the system to achieve his own ends (eg/ in his arching of Jonas Venture Jr. in order to manipulate a Guild-law permitting him to return to arching Dr “Rusty” Venture). The bottom-line of course being that both are two sides of the same coin and at no point in The Venture Brothers does anyone ever question why they dress in strange suits and kill each other for a living.
One of the best episodes, “Hate Floats”, demonstrates the effects of this social complicity by staging an invasion of its closed “world”. The world of superheroes and supervillains is organised within the “O.S.I” and the “Guild of Calamitous Intent”, respectively. Each action takes place within the remit of distinct “levels” ranging from Jonas Venture Jr.’s death rays to Sgt. Hatred’s “going full Nerf”, essentially stabilising the arching market. During this episode, however, 21 and 24 employ gangsters as last minute replacements for The Monarch’s crew of Henchmen. As agents outside regulated capital, black-marketeers, the lumpenproletariat, these gangsters immediately pull out their guns and flaunt all the guild regulations in taking Dr. Venture before staging a violent uprising within The Monarch’s cocoon itself. Any revolutionary potential within this action is negated by the gangsters’ individualist attitude, each claiming “I’m no.1”, “No, I’m no.1” respectively. Similarly, once both the OSI and the Guild recognise the situation as one disruptive of their monopoly, they have no problem in uniting in order to defeat the threat to their world. As usual, my lovely non-existent reader, I carry on a little too long. Not wishing to try your purely theoretical patience I can only stop here in order to highly recommend the show if you haven’t, and you won’t have, seen it. I could no doubt analyse it all day, and probably will do. But until next time – GO TEAM VENTURE!
It strikes me that people don’t grasp post-modernism. The term itself is overly laden with values, much of which conflict and most, without sympathetic reception, appear superficial, pompous and banal. Yet at the core of the truthless meta there is a distinct set of quasi-truths that are central to the future of social understanding. I don’t necessarily argue for them, people have been doing that since the 70s and have gotten nowhere - I simply illustrate them, highlight, foreground, and unambiguously narrativise them.
Post-modernism is perhaps best summarised by its own hyperbolic suicide note, Fukuyama’s “End of History”. Once we realise that the process of compiling history is purely speculatory self-justification, then surely it must “end”? But no, I’d suggest that the more mature attitude would be one that continues regardless, a stiff-upper lipped historical detachment that is finally prepared to approach foreign narratives; be they class-based, geographical, genderly or any of a million others. The post-modern attitude is sceptical through its fragmentation (for every Reason there are a thousand more passing as Coincidence) and believability is reduced to an aesthetic quality.
To return to my favourite novelistic example, Earthly Powers, the process of 20th century history is monitored through a set of fictional characters. These characters remain reasonably marginal, leaving room for the introduction of real historical characters such as James Joyce, until the narrative reaches a point of relative contemporary nearness, lending a “modern” relatability, when a fictional character is then made Pope. In this capacity, the novel seems to span both the traditional historical novel and post-modern “historical metafiction” genres; characters fit seamlessly into the gaps of history before overwhelming that “objective” history with their personal narratives.
The conflict between the presentation of history and meta-history can be seen in comparing a couple of war films; a genre almost a priori bullshit laden. Saving Private Ryan, aiming at realism, will stand for history – Inglorious Basterds, patchwork pastiche, will stand for meta-history. In Saving Private Ryan, the rest of the Allies are famously ignored in favour of a “heroic” storyline. The heroes follow a singular line of identity-thought that posits the Self as Good, the Other as Bad, Nation as Self, Foreign as Other. Compare this to the identity relations of Inglorious Basterds: the Americans are Jewish, they play the role of the Indian (traditional enemy of Aryan American Cowboys), and fundamentally, their narratives rely upon those of Others within the film’s progression. The ending of both films is the death of Hitler – but only Tarantino’s meta-history is free to make this visible. Perhaps the key to understanding post-modernism then, lies in a mix of irony and obviousness. An awareness of narrative-as-narrative does not undermine its content - in the right hands it can even improve it. The last South Park episodes, 200, and more obviously 201, operate only on the meta-level. When Buddha is told to “stop doing coke in front of kids”, the joke exists only in the context; no Buddhist would complain of this joke, nor would any of the million other real people that South Park has offended during its time on air, yet the imaginary threat of Muslim “fundamentalism” is enough to get the show banned.
The conclusion of episode 201 is intentionally edited out. The traditionalist mode of exposition that South Park does so well with its “today I learned a valuable lesson…” speeches are reduced to their announcement, the rest removed under the guise of “censorship”. The incomplete content remains a completed narrative; the joke being its very incompleteness. It’s in this capacity that post-modernism completes itself. The other underlying joke of the episode being that South Park had already shown Mohammed in an earlier episode shows how societal reception is as essential as content. The artwork exists only in the process of its reading, or watching, as an Art Event. Our Aion-Chronos constant present is the variable scope of the post-modern; post-modernism is its utilisation in the fullest sense through Events that function, rather than simply happen. Event-functions expand beyond their borders and reterritorialise other narratives, something traditional forms can only express within their own happenings whilst remaining fixed, territorialised themselves.
“What is an Author?” Foucault asks before promptly answering that it is purely a ‘function’, separate from the work; not quite as dead as Barthes’ author but not quite as involved as Freud’s “creative writer”. Yet Foucault’s “author-function”, like much of his theoretical creations, seems to exist purely to lead us away from any dark philosophical forests that such a question may send us wondering into. The prickly issue of ‘identity’, for example, which is very much the house made of sweets at the centre of our tenuously metaphorical wood.
The ancients had the handy dilemma of Theseus’ Ship to summarise this notion of identity. Theseus, being an all-out hero of the Herculean mode, went out travelling the Mediterranean, getting into fights and generally being a nuisance for a number of years. In each battle a part of his ship would be hacked off or burned and thus needed replacing. Upon returning home and pulling his ship in at the harbour, Neptune dredged up all the parts of the ship that had been replaced and made another, identical ship out of them that sat in the port next to the other one. Which one deserves most to be called Theseus’ Ship?
It’s a question very much in the Platonic mode – tempting us to consider the “form” or “Idea” of the ship as either initial or final product of a work (voyaging). Interestingly, we can ask the same questions of many of the great Renaissance paintings. Is a Raphael actually a Raphael? He certainly didn’t paint all of it originally, having a collection of apprentices eager to chip in. Since then, each of these works has been constantly re-painted by restorers too. Empirically it’s doubtful if a single brush-stroke of the great masters’ still exists on canvass.
Yet surely this is a case of over-materialisation of art? We don’t demand that every Dickens novel be hand-written by the man himself; it’s the ideas that count. But whose ideas are these then? Are they the artists, or are they the wealthy patron’s that demanded the paintings in the first place? Pindar’s Odes were written solely to celebrate athletic victories, so his mystical “artistic inspiration” existed purely in reproducing something that everyone hearing the poem has already seen in reality. In fact, such “artistic representation” (Spivak’s “re-presentation”) could be seen to “authorise” reality (as political “representation”) by elevating it to the notion of “form”.
Whilst dealing with authorship and authorisation, it would be lax of me not to comment of Hollywood. The reliance upon marketing demographics means that the producers are very much the “authorisers” of the films. The Kubrick-esque “auteur” doesn’t write the film (like his French “auteur” namesake) but simply exerts a single-minded control. Such authorship then relates directly to authority – the director’s authority extending even as far as how the characters are “written” in the actions of the actors. Indeed, in the process of group creation in general the “author” seems to relate directly to the “authority” in charge; in commenting on the myth of great singular inventors I also reached something like this conclusion.
To change tack, I was alerted to an odd case the other day by a friend of mine. Vonnegut’s inimitable character Kilgore Trout (himself based on Theodore Salmon) was used as a pseudonym by another writer. So now we have a novel by an author-character that Vonnegut authored, who is actually a different author entirely – an author who then got in trouble for presuming he had the authority to author as this character-author. The only way we can resolve this dilemma is by forgetting entirely the concept of the “author-function”… lawyers 1 – literary theorists 0.
But compare this situation to that of the goodly parson Yorick. First appearing as a bit-part character in Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, in which he is widely seen to represent Sterne himself, to the main character of A Sentimental Journey that is also by Sterne but here Yorick is distanced from the author as a fully-fledged character of his own. This would perhaps represent an interesting parable of how writers develop truth into fiction; splitting off elements of the Ego that eventually begin to grow into miniature Egos of their own. It would… but that Sterne released a collection of his own sermons (perhaps the most authorially-direct form of writing possible) under the name of, alas, poor Yorick! Who is speaking, dear structuralists, who?
“What does it matter who speaks?” answers Christine Brooke-Rose. I guess it doesn’t, but in an era of late-capitalism where ideas are worth more than anything physical the “author” can be seen, not in the question of “who speaks” but in “who owns that speech”. Von Trier’s The Boss of it All is a great film for demonstrating the effects of deferred authority and how without ultimate authority one cannot be deemed ultimately responsible (“just doing my job mate”). Perhaps by killing the author, the responsibility of literature is in the reader? But once we start to blame ourselves, paradoxically, doesn’t “authority” return straight back to the “author” - only the author is now liberated from the threat of responsibility?