Friday, March 21, 2014

The Long and the Short of It

Sometimes it seems that everything is getting shorter -- books, magazine articles, e-mails, and attention spans.  Recent studies suggest that many corporations are wary of investing in advertising in longer-form publications, and are looking for ways to promote their brands in "short-form media." The cost is surely less, and the question arises: are a hundred animated GIFs and sidebars worth more than a 60-second spot on what remains of "television," where the Nielsen share ratings (the % of households tuned in to a given program) has declined, along with the total number of "television households" surveyed. The miniseries Roots managed a 66% percent share, with 100 million viewers for its final episode -- whereas in 2013, the number one television show, The Big Bang Theory, nets only a 9.8 share or about 16 million viewers. One begins to feel that, even if the headline were "World Ends Tomorrow," it would be hard to get figures like those of Roots for any program today.

But of course there have always been short forms, and just because the average book seems to be getting shorter doesn't mean that only short books are viable. Elizabeth Kostova found an agent -- and a publisher -- for her debut novel The Historian.  She got a six-figure advance and the book was a runaway best-seller.  It's 240,000 words long. David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (ok, everyone but me thinks he was a genius) runs to 484,000 words; Vikram Seth's very successful second novel A Suitable Boy runs to 590,000 words, though admittedly it's exceptional. And when something "long" is made of "short" pieces, there seems to be no limit to length; I've known friends who, falling in love with a TV series such as The Wire, have managed to watch all 60 episodes in the course of a week or two -- six times the length of Roots. Like those who read the serialized novels of Dickens, we may not quite realize what all the parts add up to until we've read them -- and even then, we may be hungry for more.

But one must wonder: how will those forms that are inherently long, bulky, and bound to their physical forms -- the epic, the fantasy trilogy, the authoritative biography -- fare in the land of instant knowledge, of reciprocal mini-citations like those in the "did you read that" episode of Portlandia? What does it mean that some book publishers are launching whole new divisions dedicated to bringing the latest blog into print? Will on-demand video and YouTube, as the movie studios worried that television would do back in the 1950's, be the death knell of long-form entertainment in cinemas?

To which I can only answer, in the lingo of old-fashioned radio and television broadcasts, "Stay tuned ... "

1 comment:

  1. We've come to a point in our lives where brevity is valued highly. I have also been bitten with the brevity bug, for I don't have the concentration to read long articles or paragraphs online. I hope the future changes this, but you never know.