THERE'S an ancient Woody Allen joke that still makes me laugh.
"I took a speed-reading course," says Woody. "Read War and Peace in 10 minutes... It's about Russia."
This is factually true, of course, and a reminder that Count Tolstoy's novel is one of those cultural chores you are supposed to accomplish – someone has decreed – this side of the grave. War and Peace is an undisputed masterpiece; indispensable to an educated mind. It also goes on a bit.
Depending on the translation in question, the novel in English comes within touching distance of 600,000 words. Tolstoy did a lot of research – he walked those battlefields – and he didn't mean to waste any of it. One result is that those who start reading War and Peace vastly outnumber the plucky survivors who reach the epilogue.
But here's an oddity. Four or five years ago I came across a new translation of the novel by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It was as though a grimy window had been wiped clean. In contrast to the old 1904 Constance Garnett version, it was like reading another War and Peace entirely.
Why was that? My attention span hadn't perked up, as best as I could tell. The new translation didn't seem to compromise with modern tastes. No attempt had been made to ditch all that Tolstoyan research. The count's notorious digressions were intact. But his voice was no longer muffled. I didn't quite get through the novel in ten minutes. Still, pages flew by.
What's the problem then – the familiar, ineradicable problem – with Walter Scott? I go back to him every few years with the odd feeling that the tedium is somehow my fault. Was I mis-educated, once upon a time? Have TV, the internet and the mobile phone messed up my wiring? Since we are talking about a novelist held to be central to Scottish culture, the real issue is this: how could the Shirra be an international sensation in his day yet now be deemed unreadable?
Professor David Purdie, chair of the Edinburgh Sir Walter Scott Club, has taken a crack at the problem by cutting 84,000 words from Ivanhoe's 179,000 word girth, by cleaning up the punctuation that falls like hail on the original, and by curbing Scott's "excessive description". If you've tried the book, you understand the motive. For long stretches, Ivanhoe is a handy alternative to anaesthesia.
Whether what emerges from the cuts still counts as a Scott novel is for readers to decide. According to the professor, as we reported yesterday, the modern "non-academic educated reader seems to find him prolix in dialogue, rambling in description, meandering in plot and, well, just too long". Prof Purdie also reckons that the book was written "when attention spans were longer, distractions fewer and the historical novel a brilliant innovation".
Is that the diagnosis? Is it simply the case that in the age of Twitter we can't or won't cope with a 179,000-word slab? Many publishers think so. A first-time novelist presenting a manuscript running much beyond 100,000 words is liable to get a lecture on this very topic. Reviewers, equally, don't care for fiction that is likely to take up more time than they can afford to spend. But that can't be, so to speak, the whole story.
Prof Purdie's background is in medicine rather than literature. Perhaps he is less squeamish than the average academic when it comes to radical surgery. The simple fact remains, however, that he is in one regard mistaken: Ivanhoe isn't especially long. By some measures, it's a model of brevity.
Apply the Purdie method to Dickens and, outcry aside, what would be the result? Pickwick, Chuzzlewit, Nickleby, Dorrit, Dombey, Copperfield and Bleak House each exceed 300,000 words. Most head towards the 400,000 mark. No-one suggests seriously that Dickens is entirely unreadable. Nor, despite the prejudices of modern publishers, is conspicuous length a peculiarly 19th century phenomenon.
At the risk of brain-rot, I used a little of my attention span on the internet. A 179,000 word book is "just too long"? Where does that leave Catch-22 (174,000 words) or The Grapes of Wrath (169,000)? Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections tops 216,000 words. Infinite Jest, by the late David Foster Wallace, runs to 484,000. Stephen King has approached half a million words. J K Rowling's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix hits 257,000.
It seems not to matter whether a novel is "popular" or "literary". Haruki Murakami's labyrinthine 1Q84 extends to around 425,000 words. Stieg Larsson's uncomplicated The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, just one part of a trilogy, approaches 200,000 words. The idea that the modern reader has lost the ability or the desire to concentrate on long strings of prose doesn't stand up.
The belief is accepted, though, as a fact of modern life by teachers, publishers and distinguished members of the Walter Scott Club. That's why we have textspeak and tweets, so they say. That's why the likes of Professor Susan Greenfield can speculate on the infantilising effects of a "sensory-laden environment". That's why, supposedly, there is an increase in attention deficit disorder in children and a corresponding decrease in attention spans. That's why exams – a well-known fact, this – grow ever easier.
In 2008, Nicholas Carr wrote an article for The Atlantic under the headline "Is Google Making Us Stupid?". The author's intention – explained in a mere 4000 words – was to show that the internet is doing "something" to our brains. Carr reported experiencing the "uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory".
Above all, he felt he was losing the ability to read. Once "immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy... Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do... The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle".
So much, then, for Walter Scott. But so much, too, for Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, George Eliot, Stieg Larsson and Harry Potter. So much for the Scientologists who struggle through a 1.2 million-word L. Ron Hubbard confection, the American right-wingers who find inspiration in the 565,000 bonkers words of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, or those scholars who think Samuel Richardson was stingy when he confined Clarissa to a paltry 969,000 words. So much for reading: full and final stop.
But it's not true. The addiction to narrative persists. Plenty of people buying their fat thrillers for the beach would feel short-changed by a slim literary masterpiece. Those devoted to literature can still cope, it appears, with a Lanark or a Docherty. The explosive growth of e-books downloaded from the filthy internet meanwhile says that Carr's neural difficulties might be a local problem. Or the makings – as it transpired – of a well-received book.
Perhaps the real problem with Sir Walter involves a heresy. Perhaps he just wasn't much of a writer. That "brilliant innovation", the historical novel, distracted readers for a while. When the novelty wore off, you might argue, only dull prose remained. If so, knocking lumps out of Ivanhoe won't help.
Alternatively, prospective readers could trying ignoring the old boy's fearsome reputation. Some of his stuff is better than you might think. The trick isn't new or suddenly beyond our reach: pay attention.
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