This is a response to D.R. Haney’s essay, “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth.” I’m including it here, so as not to leave a thousand-word comment.
American film, generally, has devolved into the stuff of teenage fantasy, as Duke suggests. This is irrefutable. We might even say the industry has, ahem, transformed. We go to the movies now to watch stuff blow up, to witness orcs battling halflings, to behold wizards-in-training cavort around on broom handles, to marvel at comics come to life. I indulge in this pleasure myself, from time to time. I enjoyed Iron Man — more for Robert Downey’s suave performance than anything else, but still. And yes, these movies are devoid of sex. The closest we get to carnality in these blockbusters is Megan Fox running among the robots-cum-Dodge Durangos.
But sex is hardly absent from the culture; it’s just not much discussed. Was it The Onion that described the Internet as the “masturbation superhighway”? The sheer volume of porn, its staggering variety, its mouse-click-away availability, its shadowy ubiquity, was unheard of to someone living in past decades, who had to physically shop for X-rated material at adult “bookstores,” where the merchandise was wrapped in discreet brown paper bags, to stimulate the lustful part of the mind. The relative scarcity of porn—and its confinement to a handful of magazines, as TV was once limited to a few channels—meant that lust was more sublimated, and thus more apt to find its expression in other avenues, like film.
Do we require the hulking presence of the oversexed Brando these days, when we are no longer called upon to imagine, as Duke eloquently phrases it, he and Stella “rock[ing] the bedsprings hard”? Internet porn has obviated that need. Just as memoir has supplanted the novel as the “it” literature, so those with a desire to cut to the bone, so to speak, can easily watch actual people actually fucking (or anything else on the pansexual menu), from the comfort and privacy of their own bedrooms (or mancaves, as it were).
What we do need, that those old films provided, is vicarious thrill. Modern movies focus on that aspect, content to cede carnality to the world of porn. (There is some overlap—Boogie Nights, an art film about the porn industry; Sasha Grey as a “serious” actress—but mostly, the streams do not cross). In short, the function of our entertainments has become more compartmentalized. If we want spank material, we go online; if we want spectacle, we catch Avatar at the IMAX.
This is all part of another societal trend, which Duke laments: the shortening of the attention span (notice how he broke up those daunting paragraphs with images of gorgeous people, as I dole out candy to my kids after they’ve eaten their vegetables!). This results in newspaper articles no longer “jumping” to interior pages, the death of the album as a listening experience, Romeo + Juliet as a two-hour music video, the tweet. Even Facebook updates have become too much work—the new newsfeed is dominated by images, often “inspirational” quotes. We are now too A.D.D. even for status updates!
It’s affected novels, too. Madison Smartt Bell’s The Color of Night, probably the best novel I’ve read this year, is mindblowingly, enviably good. It’s also short, with short chapters, short paragraphs, lots of white space. This is where the novel is right now. Nick Hornby wrote an essay in The Believer extolling the virtues of the short novel—after all, as he says, you can read two short novels in the time it takes to read one long one. He makes a good point. I love to write long, complicated sentences—there are several in Fathermucker that are a good page long—but my books are short, and I’m always conscious of losing readers as I write.
David Shields discusses this in Reality Hunger. Baz Luhrmann, he says, in Moulin Rouge, takes the handful of moments in old musicals where the leads burst into ecstatic song, and makes a whole film of those moments. Gregg Gillis, the mash-up maestro known as Girl Talk, does something similar with snippets of music. All Day has been in the CD changer in my car for a good year; I listen to it all the time; it’s a masterpiece. Does this mean I no longer have the attention span to listen to a three-minute song? That even a single is too long?
And this is where the importance of the novel comes into play. In France on my book tour, at the Quais du Polar festival in Lyon, I was a panelist with the American noir author Megan Abbott and the French novelists Dominique Sylvain and Sylvie Granotier (on this particular panel, I was outclassed). The discussion veered into this terrain, the shortening of attention spans, the death of the novel. Granotier argued, quite eloquently, that the novel was immune to this—that when one chooses to read a novel, one submits to the pace set by the author—and the novelist alone, apart from the filmmaker, the musician, the painter, has the power to arrest time.
I have needs, too, and one of them is the need to focus my attention—to lengthen its span, which the rest of the world seems determined to chip away at; to develop its intensity. This is the appeal of the long novel. Joyce, Proust, Dickens, Jonathan Littell, D.R. Haney: I want them to make the other voices go away for awhile. I want to lose myself, in the way that no one has ever been lost in the sublime artistry of a tweet.
I’ll end with a line from William Carlos Williams, which I found in a Times Magazine essay by Bill Keller on why poetry is important:
It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
of what is found there.
[I’m closing comments; if you are moved to leave one, please do so on Duke’s page, to keep the conversation where it belongs]