Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Long and the Short of It

Mark Ravenhill writes about the ‘hunger for the epic’, the apparent need in a world devoted to the soundbite and fleeting images, a world where ‘brevity is everything’, for something meatier: the doorstop novel (he cites Harry Potter), the epic movie (Pirates of the Caribbean) and the hours-long stage play (David Edgar’s popular adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby for the RSC).

Ravenhill has been presenting a series of breakfast-time plays at the Edinburgh festival. The fact that people have got up early (after late festival nights) to pack out his houses he sees as another example of this hunger, because the plays are interconnected and thus episodes in what he views as an epic project.

I think he’s looking at this the wrong way round. As Ravenhill himself comments, ‘Many critics pointed out how much the Harry Potter books would benefit from an editor’s pencil’. What does this mean? It means that those who read Harry Potter don’t mind this, probably don’t notice it, they read it passively, even unthinkingly, rushing on through the narrative in a way which is not at odds, as Ravenhill would have it, with an accelerated world and an impatient culture. It’s the short thing, the tightly-packed thing, the short story or the short play, which requires the leisured and thoughtful response and close attention to language, not the longer work, as Ravenhill claims.

Maybe Ravenhill is right that people are now hungering after more intellectually-challenging literary or theatrical experiences. But could it not be that the popularity of his festival plays is down to their shortness and the linguistic compactness which this allows, the piecemeal presentation which gives the audience the chance to breathe and think and ‘gradually see the rules and patterns’ of the larger project? And could this be why short stories now seem to be on the up?

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