x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Stories both long and short have our attention

David Mattin shares a theory on why, from 800-page novels to months-long television dramas, we’re increasingly seeking solace in long-form narratives.

The Luminaries, at 832 pages, is the longest book to win the Booker Prize.
The Luminaries, at 832 pages, is the longest book to win the Booker Prize.

Last month, the 28-year-old novelist Eleanor Catton won the Man Booker Prize. In the media storm that followed her victory, most commentators focused on her youth, or the fact that Catton is a New Zealander (the only other New Zealander to have won the prize is Keri Hulme). A few zeroed in on a more intriguing element of the novel. Catton’s historical thriller, The Luminaries, is huge. At 832 pages, it’s easily the longest novel to win the Booker, and rivals (in length, at least) War and Peace.

Then again, industry insiders have long known that there’s something curious going on when it comes to time and contemporary reading habits. We’re encouraged to think of this as the age of the now, the instant, the bite-sized; human attention is at a premium and no one, we’re told, has more than a few microseconds to spare.

Any publisher will tell you that, these days, weighty, doorstopper novels are a far easier sell than short stories, which hardly sell at all. When it comes to narrative fiction, it seems that we want to invest vast amounts of time. And more recently, the phenomenon has spread to television. Of course, there are still plenty of bite-sized, stand-alone 30-minute sitcom episodes zipping across the airwaves. But the real attention is being lavished on long-form television drama with storylines that run for months, even years: think Breaking Bad, The Good Wife and Homeland. Interestingly enough, in interviews, Catton admitted that the writing of The Luminaries was “influenced by long-form box-set TV drama”.

So what’s going on? Why – cultural commentators are asking – in the age of the instant, are we falling ever more in love with long-form narratives?

Look closely, and the answer is contained within the question. When so much of the world around us has accelerated to an inhuman pace and when information overload is no longer an adequate expression to describe the fleeting words, images, sounds and ideas that wash over us each day via the digital space, is it really so surprising that we are seeking solace in long-form narrative? Our lives are not just becoming faster, they’re becoming more complex, too.

Perhaps only in long-form narrative can we find an art form complex and subtle enough to accommodate those new complexities. Has a 90-minute film ever captured life in all its glorious, terrifying, mundane complexity as The Sopranos did?

Right now, though, a new trend is intersecting with, and complicating, this trend. That is a contrary and yet coexisting trend for the super-short form, as exemplified by the Twitter app Vine, which allows users to create endlessly looping videos that are just six seconds in length.

Vine has given rise to a wave of user-generated creativity that is reminiscent of the unleashing of creative force that occurred when YouTube first launched. In so doing, it’s proven that there is no necessary connection with long-form content and high quality: super-short can be (in a different way) great, too. Perhaps, then, we’re finally starting to adjust to accelerated living, allowing us to cherish the long form, for the relief that it provides from speed, and the short form, because of its imitation of the pace of our inner lives. As our relationship with time becomes ever more extreme, we may just be entering the age of super-long and super-short.

David Mattin is the lead strategist at trendwatching.com