One of the latest books to find its way into my house is Stephen Sondheim’s Finishing the Hat, a collection of his lyrics fortified with anecdotes and commentary and thoughts about writing. For Sondheim, that means writing songs, of course, but right off the bat he lays out some guidelines that almost any kind of writer ought to be thinking about:
There are only three principles necessary for a lyric writer, all of them familiar truisms. They were not immediately apparent to me when I started writing, but have come into focus via Oscar Hammerstein’s tutoring, Strunk and White’s huge little book “The Elements of Style” and my own sixty-some years of practicing the craft. I have not always been skilled or diligent enough to follow them as faithfully as I would like, but they underlie everything I’ve ever written. In no particular order, and to be written in stone:
Content Dictates Form
Less Is More
God Is in the Details
all in the service of
without which nothing else matters.
The first two–“Content Dictates Form” and “Less Is More”–have been on my mind a lot lately. Last week I published a (yes, short) piece for The Chronicle arguing that more academics and publishers should consider shorter-form e-books as a sound vessel for scholarly arguments (“Ditch the Monograph,” Oct. 14, 2012). Despite the headline, which I can’t take credit for, I’m not saying we should do away with the traditional monograph. I am saying we should acknowledge that some projects and arguments don’t require hundreds of pages to bring off.
Dan Cohen of George Mason University has called this “right-sizing scholarship,” a phrase I like a lot. It doesn’t forbid or even discourage long-form writing; it calls on authors (and publishers) to pick the form that best fits the content they want to share.
There’s a naggingly persistent idea, inside and outside academe, that the longer a work is the more serious it must be. Disciplinary norms and tenure-and-promotion expectations pressure many authors to think long. (I’ve seen plenty of flabby trade-publishing books too, although sometimes the problem there is that there aren’t enough good editors with enough time to help authors get manuscripts into shape.)
Some very long books earn their hundreds of pages. Many don’t. In almost any field, you can find plenty of examples of baggy monsters that overstay their welcome and slim contenders that punch above their weight, intellectually and creatively. Many projects might land happily in the middle–longer than essays, shorter than the monographs traditionally prized in humanities disciplines.
In part because of the headline but also because others have been thinking along these lines, my “Ditch the Monograph” essay has attracted some attention. It got a lot of “hell yes!” reactions. It drew some fire, too. Andrew Piper called it “wrong on all counts” (“Is short the answer to scholarly publishing?“). On his blog he wrote, “The problem is when this becomes the only model or the leading model for academic publishing.” But I never said that shorter e-books should be the only or leading model in the scholarly arena. I said they should be a respectable, intellectually sound option for scholarship. And soon, perhaps sooner than some are comfortable with, I predict they will be.
Piper calls for “diversity rather than brevity.” I vote for diversity that includes brevity as a strong option. As Sondheim knows, sometimes less is more.
Note: Another story I published this week, a Hot Type column on digital art-history publishing, touched on the content/form question as well (“Art Publishers Look to Yale Press for Glimpse Into Their Digital Future,” CHE, Oct. 15, subscription req’d–sorry). The University of Chicago Press’s blog used that story and “Ditch the Monograph” as a jumping-off point for a discussion of the current digital/print zeitgeist and how publishing has always and forever been in flux.