Running Out of Running Time

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice , critique

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 from trying.

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 for you. 

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.

About the Author:

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.