We’ve all sat through movies, or slogged through books, that are too damned log. Did Uncut Gems really need two hours of shouty Adam Sandler? Wouldn’t 90 minutes have done the trick? Do any of the Song of Ice and Fire books need those long descriptions of food?. Couldn’t most of those Netflix true crime documentary series be cut to a feature length doc rather than four or five TV episodes? Isn’t in the obligation of the creators of these entertainments to be as efficient as possible?
Not so fast, argues author Lincoln Michel. Last month he made a strong argument that it’s the “unnecessary” stuff that makes art worth doing. I’m not sure that he’s completely correct, but he’s certainly not wrong.
Michel references people who complain about scenes of sex or violence, or, most hilariously, “those damn whale chapters” in Moby Dick, because “they don’t move the plot along.” Dubbing these folks “consumers” rather than readers, he suggests that their “ideal story seems to be a Wikipedia plot summary.” This might have many causes, from a modern obsession with efficiency to artists seeking short cuts to satisfy an increasingly fragmented audience.
For Michel, this is not a good thing:
Yet I would like to humbly suggest this thinking is entirely wrong. The unnecessary is most necessary part of art. Art is exactly the place to let your eye linger on what fascinates it. Art isn’t an SEO optimized app or a rubric for overworked teachers to grade five-paragraph essays. Art is exactly the space—perhaps the last space left—where we can indulge, explore, and expand ourselves. If we can’t be weird, extraneous, over-the-top, discursive, and hedonistic in our art, where can we be?
While recognizing that the seemingly extraneous stuff can have meaning in the work (by deepening understanding of a character, for instance), Michel goes so far as to claim that “I don’t believe art has ‘a point.’” In other words, for Michel, art is about the journey itself, not the destination and the tangents and dead ends that are explored along the way are as much a part of that as the jaunt down the proverbial Yellow Brick Road.
I like a lot of what Michel is saying here. I write fiction, but I also write briefs and other legal arguments in my day job and in that role, there is no doubt, brevity counts. Lawyers are famously long winded, I know, but you really want to convince the judge (or law clerk) reading your brief in the most efficient way possible, so you trim down the issues, trim down the facts to the bare minimum.
Fiction can certainly be different than that, but does it have to? I’m reading a book right now (no names – I’m not finished yet and it might turn around on me) that has a great idea at its center and would make for a really good short story or novella, but as a novel there’s just too much padding. What should be tense and horrific is instead kind of dull and plodding.
In a way it reminds me of the bloat albums went through when CDs took over as the main music format back in the 1990s. Whereas single LPs couldn’t handle much more than 45 minutes of music without quality issues, CDs can run all the way up to almost 80 minutes (a time chosen, apocryphally, so as to allow for the inclusion of all of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on one disc) and lots of artists took advantage of that. Here recently we’ve seen albums shrink again, back to where they were in the LP days and that seems generally like a good move.
That said, some of my favorite albums of that era are full to bursting and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Marillion’s Brave trimmed down to fit on one LP would be a travesty. I wouldn’t shave a moment off of the early Mike Keneally albums, all of which push the boundaries of CD capacity. And to the extent that other albums have filler, that doesn’t really diminish from the enjoyment I get from the really good stuff.
Heck, progressive rock writ large could be thought of as a celebration of what is “unnecessary” for rock music. Rock and roll, after all, is supposed to be direct, to the point, and emotionally blunt. Prog flouted that ideal, most obviously in songs that sprawled across entire albums sides (or more!), rather than be limited to 3 minutes or so. It’s that embrace of the excess, the unnecessary, that I love about prog.
That said, there’s an awful lot of lengthy prog that does nothing for me at all, same as books or anything else. Michel recognizes this, following his discussion of a favorite novel of his that is “plotless and essentially character-less” with the recognition that “[o]f course, it might not be interesting to you. If you don’t enjoy an artist’s vision, that is of course well and fine.” The problem, he argues, is transferring that personal dislike to objective truths about the quality of a work.
With that I agree 100%. As I’ve said here before, the reaction to art is inherently personal and what is one person’s work of genius is another’s pretentious twaddle. Where I part company, I guess, with Michel is that when I hear people say something is boring or slow or has unnecessary parts what I’m hearing is that the art, whatever it is, isn’t working for them and isn’t interesting to them. Because I don’t think there are objective truths about art I don’t take any one person’s reaction to any particular piece of it as being an attempt to deliver any truth other than their own. So I wouldn’t be as hard on people who think parts of books or movies or whatever are “unnecessary” because, to them, they are.
What’s most important, in the end, is that, as Michel concludes, there are spaces where artists and those who experience art can be free to be as excessive and unnecessary as they want to be. Not every work of art is for every taste and that’s not only okay it’s fucking fantastic. Find what you love and dive into it, then hope whoever is making it is willing to explore the unnecessary or the “boring” because when they do it you might think it’s the best thing ever. And creators – keep in mind that not everybody is willing to follow you down your creative cul de sacs – but I bet some folks will.