Putting away Chekov’s gun

Abigail Thorn
PhilosophyTube Feb 21 Chekhov: Remove everything that has no relevance to the story - if there is a gun on the wall in the first chapter it must go off by the end! Nabokov: My father owned 500 guns that I will describe obliquely and at length. None of them are relevant but they all made me horny.

Recently the popular youtuber, Abigal Thorn posted this joke to her twitter account. On the surface, this is a pretty typical Twitter-style sensible chuckle. Most people with any familiarity with the authors mentioned would get the joke easily enough; it’s hardly like Nabokov’s tendency toward baroque prose and toward sexually charged topics isn’t well known.

But she is picking at the edge of something interesting and relevant here with regard to the structural concerns of a novel. To whit: why are parsimonious novels? In the case of Chekhov, the reasons for his desire toward narrative utility and parsimony are easily identified. A playwright has a very limited time in which to tell his story, a short story author has strict length limits imposed by her style. But novels are not generally intended to be read in a single sitting like a play or a short story. And certainly the origin of the novel wasn’t one particularly concerned with parsimony. One of the earliest novels ever written, arguably the first structurally modern novel depending on how you choose to define the term, was Romance of the Three Kingdoms which was ~800,000 words. Moving forward to more modern works, many novels (the Count of Monte Cristo, David Copperfield and the first structurally modern European novel – Don Quixote) each weighed in at significantly over 300,000 words. And, of course, Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu clocked in at 1,267,000 words (I do need to get around to reading this one but it’ll have to wait until I’ve cleared out the reading back-log a bit.) Meanwhile the writing advice given to authors is to put their novels pretty carefully between a range of 70,000 to 120,000 words. This is, on its own, a strange discrepancy. But a survey conducted in 2015 demonstrated another interesting trend: book lengths on high-selling books increased by a mean rate of 4.4% between 1999 and 2015. While this survey was not academically rigorous, it does provide a reasonable benchmark to consider that the length of novels is growing. The same survey also posited that the range of possible word-lengths was growing. So we have here two obvious trends. First, sometime between the time of the 19th century classics and the end of the 20th century, the length of the novel shrank and standardized. Second, throughout the 21st century, this trend seems to have reversed as novels increased in word length, and range of length diversified.

The answer, of course, comes down to the material circumstances of novel publishing: money and distribution. The Legend of the Condor Heroes, one of Jin Yong’s most significant and popular works was published as a serial in a newspaper – its 918,000 word count didn’t have a material impact on distribution or on profit because it came out in newspapers of generally uniform size. Its column inches may have been considered, but considering the popularity of the author’s fiction in the newspaper, I doubt too many limits were put on him there. In addition, as it was published as a serial, the author was free to take his time getting where he was going.

This serial publication was a feature of many early novels. The Count of Monte Cristo and David Copperfield were published as serials. Don Qixote was printed in exceptionally small production runs and books were shipped overseas in order to fetch higher unit prices. The idea of the standard novel length wasn’t so necessary because there wasn’t yet, standardized distribution of novels or even standard pricing.

However, starting in the late 19th century this changed. We can begin to see the progressive standardization of book distribution in moments like the founding of the International Publishers Association which, it should be noted, was formed principally to protect copyright for publishers. A commodification of a market requires, as part of it, a standardization of the market. Audiences for books cannot effectively purchase books if they don’t know where to buy them and if they aren’t able to budget their cost. This process coincided with a general process of maturation of a form of epistemological framework that informed society – what Foucault would call a disciplinary society.

Disciplinary societies thrived on standardization, as much of the demands of the disciplinary society had to do with the demands for workers in assembly-line facilities. But this had a side-effect of creating a culture much like an assembly line: people would have distinct roles, like the parts of a machine. Each would serve this role and the output of one person’s effort would become the initial input of another’s. This was reflected across institutions as a process of movement from one enclosed space to another: from the family to the school, from the school to the barracks, from the barracks to the factory. And of course from any of these to the prison or the hospital when a subject needed correction beyond what could be provided by the more normative disciplinary institutions.

This can be seen as a process of standardizing and regulating bodies; is it any wonder a similar process happened to bodies of text?

And so an author would produce a manuscript that would be bought by a publisher. The manuscript would then be corrected by editors who would send it to a printer. The books would be bound and shipped to a distributor and the distributor would then apportion books to booksellers for the consumption of an audience. And all of this labour had to meet assembly-line like requirements. Publishers needed to produce enough volume of manuscript to make sales targets as would distributors and as would book sellers. And standardization is at odds with irregularity in form and in distribution. Booksellers, depending on a standard throughput of books to make their profits, measured books in shelf-inches, that is the number of inches wide a spine of a book was displayed on a shelf. Books on a shelf of irregular width made for a challenge to sell. And books of multiple volumes also introduced irregularity in purchase patterns. Rather than producing seven volumes of Proust all in a go, or for that matter one volume of Lord of the Rings, as Tolkien originally intended, it was better to apportion books into smaller, shorter, and more standard volumes. Longer works could be serialized with a relatively standard release schedule of one year per volume. Failure to meet that standard still provokes considerable distress among the book buying public. By the time that disciplinary societies were declining, this had come to be what is considered, in the generally received wisdom, to be the standard length of 75,000 to 120,000 words for a book targeting adult audiences. This was not a reflection of any sort of artistic ideal, unless we want to suggest that Proust is more artistic than Chekov because he wrote long books, or alternatively, that Chekov was more artistic in his parsimony.

Of course, nothing ever stays the same forever, and in time the patterns of the disciplinary society gave way to what Gilles Deleuze described as a society of control. Within the societies of control, this sense of moving from one enclosed space to another was supplanted by a constant process of modularity; Deleuze described people as dividual. What we were wasn’t some indivisible soul to be perfected but rather modular beings. The institution of the school gave way to lifelong learning. The factory gave way to the corporation and the watchword to the password. And the bookseller gave way to Amazon.

The arrival of Amazon to the book publishing industry was likely one of the most disruptive moments since the beginnings of standardization a century prior. And simultaneous to Amazon’s arrival came another technological change with the e-book reader. Suddenly spine inches didn’t matter. The bookseller was gone – Amazon is more akin to a distributor, selling books by the box from a warehouse. And even then, in many cases, the physical media upon which a book was printed was gone, replaced with the pure information of digital ephemera.

Of course this had its threats. The ability of Amazon to reach into a users e-book reader and withdraw access to a downloaded book was remarked upon by many people as shocking. But I suspect it would have elicited a shrug from Deleuze. Such antics are the reasons he admonished readers to search for new weapons. And so we have a narrative that explains the rise and fall of the standardized novel. It was a product of disciplinary societies that was rendered obsolete by the advent of the societies of control.

But this isn’t the only reason for parsimony in fiction, is it?

We still, thirty years after Deleuze heralded the advent of the societies of control, council parsimony in writing. The advice of Chekov, to only show those elements that are relevant to the story, and of Hemmingway, to write with careful precision and minimal extraneous language, remain received wisdom among authors. Unbound as we are from the tyranny of the shelf-inch why can’t we put down Chekov’s gun?

I will admit that I used to be very much in the camp that this was an artistically superior decision. It created a clear text, one which guided an audience through and told a story in a straightforward way that didn’t have the author’s own cleverness get in the way of the message being communicated. I largely repudiate that previously held position now. Rather, I have come to be much more firmly in favour of artistic agency. I think an artist should create the work of art they desire to create, unbound by the expectation of the audience. An audience’s response to the art is critical to the ongoing process of creation of art. But it should never be something an artist attempts to anticipate; if a dividual is operating in the mode of the artist they must set aside the mode of the critic, or the fan. This isn’t who they are in this moment. This perspective situates art as a moment within a flowing process: from artist to critic to artist to critic, art rising and falling like a phoenix. Any given work is just an explosion of fire in this cycle. Why should an artist anticipate that an audience wants a straightforward story, told without artifice? Is this not, ultimately, just a call for unchallenging and standardized art?

Adam Shaftoe, a dear friend and an excellent art critic, was talking with me about this topic recently and suggested that this is because these straightforward, easy, texts are still, ultimately, more marketable than something more baroque. Audiences enjoy the sensation of anticipating a story. They like the excitement of a clean narrative that moves like an arrow from a beginning to an ending that they can see approaching from the start.

Amusingly, this puts narrative parsimony at odds with spoiler aversion. After all, there can’t be any reversal too surprising or you’ve failed to adequately foreshadow. As one famous author recently remarked: a book can tolerate one ridiculous coincidence but if too many pile up, you lose suspension of disbelief. This is not to say narrative parsimony is anti-artistic. I’m not suggesting that a fondness for clear, declarative language or a distaste for unnecessary adverbs is corrosive to art in the way that franchise entertainment is. Rather, it’s an error of authors to treat this stylistic choice as the only right one. It is fully possible that the art an artist desires to create is a meandering and florid affair showing off their ability to navigate baroque sentence structures, piling coincidence upon coincidence and adverb upon adverb into a vast ants-nest of a story. And if the artist can execute this art in a way that pleases them and that communicates a cohesive message which is able to survive its antinomies, this is a successful work of art.

It may, however, not be commercially successful. And so, once again, we approach the point where the influence of capitalism proves a threat to the diversity and openness of artistic creation. The demands of marketing remain, as always, at odds with the demands of the artist because an artist savagely creates and destroys with little regard for little matters like ownership, markets or profitability. Bataille saw art, especially grand art, as a use of the accursed share: an output of waste. This is at odds with the corporate need to acquire, too accumulate and to grow. Nothing should be needlessly expended. Nothing should be wasted. Not even words.

A little post-script

I just wanted to add that my next blog post may be in a couple of weeks. I’m presently reading the first volume Anna Holmwood’s excellent translation of Legend of the Condor Heroes – A Hero Born – and do intend a major essay about this translation. When I last read Legend of the Condor Heroes, it was only available as a fan translation and this represents the first time I’ve had the opportunity to read two very different translations of the same book. As I mentioned previously, Legend of the Condor Heroes is a long book and I suspect the Holmwood translation, by the time I get through all four volumes, will clock in north of 500,000 words. It may take me a minute to read it all. Don’t worry. I’m not gone. I’m just reading a long book.

One thought on “Putting away Chekov’s gun

  1. Pingback: Art, qualification and risk | Simon McNeil

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