Like many others who don’t watch
much TV, I am inordinately attached to the few shows I watch regularly. At present my favorites are both
British: Doc Martin, a sitcom about a
country doctor who is utterly and hilariously devoid of “people skills,” and Foyle’s War, a dramatic series featuring
a police inspector during and after World War II. Except for the superb
performances, the two have nothing in common but the reaction provoked in me by
the end of each episode. Namely, a deep sigh of disappointment that it’s over.
This is a discouragingly rare experience. I almost never encounter anything
else these days that I wish would go on longer. Usually it’s just the opposite. All our media of expression
seem to be running out of running time. Books, articles, films, speeches—everything is too long. This article, I’m
afraid, is no exception, or won’t be by the time I finish. (Sorry.)
The ways to express sufficiency are
legion. Alright already. Knock it off!
Basta, basta. Nuf said. Period. Finis. That says it all. The last is an accomplishment both
impossible and unnecessary; nothing says it all, which does not keep anyone
Even lands of scarcity have terms
for enough, but they rarely need
language for saying too much. In the
west we have plenty of ways to say that, but today we all too seldom translate
the thought into action. Length in
itself is not the problem. Few modern novels are longer than Remembrance of Things Past, Moby Dick or
War and Peace. Not many current films
are longer than Citizen Kane; few
murals stretch on for as long as Guernica.
No, our current proclivity for running on has to do with something more
profound—maybe we’re afraid to end anything, lest we are then left with what
follows, when we don’t have any idea of what does.
Consider the event coverage when a
celebrity dies. Instead of dying a thousand deaths, the person dies just one,
and the media make it seem like a thousand.
Paradoxically, the cause of all
this excess is omission: We have too much because something is being left out. The
absent ingredient is editing, a
function omitted at our peril. Anyone who has ever performed before an audience
knows the wisdom of the dictum, “Always leave them wanting more.” But that
requires the sensitivity to know when they are about to be sated, and the
discipline to end the act at that point.
I was discussing Twitter recently
with a very fine online magazine editor. “It’s an invaluable professional tool,”
she said, “but, as with everything else, you have to filter.” Perhaps that is
one of the changes brought about by the free, unstoppable flow of information today.
The editing function has been replaced by the filtering function. The former,
addressing communication before it is released, is the responsibility of the
creator or someone acting on her behalf. The latter is left to the reader or
audience. Filtering is the ultimate expression of caveat emptor.
The lapse in editing became conspicuous
first in publishing, which until fairly recently had ranked it as a major
industry activity and editors as key players in book and magazine production. Editors
like Maxwell Perkins, Hiram Haydn and Robert Loomis, while never as celebrated
as the authors they worked with, were famous in their own right and
acknowledged as contributing significantly to the work. Writers depended on
them, in some cases probably too much. Equally important, readers depended on
them. Gradually, however, one began to become aware of previously unseen gaffes
in books—typos, awkward phrasing, repetition, over-written prose,
under-developed characters, and syntactical errors so egregious that people asked,
“How did that ever get past them?” In time it became clear that there was no
longer any of “them” to get past.
Oh, there were and still are people
called editors and their job is at least as important as ever. But it isn’t the same job! An editor
used to be a person who prepared a manuscript for publication by helping to make
it as effective as possible, balancing what writers wish to say with insight
into what readers need to know. This meant correcting errors, and helping
authors refine ideas and improve passages or scenes, often by deleting
extraneous material. It involved careful reading and close collaboration with
writers. Many editors today are charged not with making books better but with acquiring
promising material and identifying subjects that might be turned into
profitable books or films. Consequently, works are issued essentially unedited,
with the reader responsible for filtering.
Our addiction to excess may
actually impair our ability to judge when we have reached it, just as the danger
of alcohol is that drinking enough diminishes your capacity for assessing when
you have had too much, until at last your body or the law or tragedy does it
Ironically, our tendency to
increase the length of what we create comes at the very time when brevity,
efficiency and economy—in such forms as the tweet, the haiku, the bottom line—are
universally recognized values.
Mies was at least half right. Less
is not necessarily more, but it is often plenty.
Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design
and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of
I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt
and is the recipient of the
2011 AIGA Medal.
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