PURSUIT OF PERFECTION
IAN McEwan's new novella, On Chesil Beach, is just 176 pages long, and has been widely praised as a tightly focused human drama and a model of concision. It is a form at which McEwan excels, being his fourth novella after The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers and Amsterdam (which won the Booker Prize in 1998).
A novella is a deceptively simple form: it makes far more demands on the writer than a full-length novel. The perfect novella should be read in two to four hours - the same length as a movie or play - and the author has to hold the reader's attention from start to finish. There can be no room for digression. Nor can the writer indulge himself and spend 50 pages on one scene. Authors have to give space to their characters to breathe - but not too little space, otherwise the characters don't come alive on the page.
The economy of style should speak volumes. In his latest book McEwan describes sea breezes as "an enticement, a salty scent of oxygen and open space". George Orwell (inset), author of the masterly novella Animal Farm, said you should never use a long word where a short one will do - and if possible, always cut it out. Writing should be clear like a pane of glass.
At first glance it might seem easy to achieve. But writing streamlined prose actually takes years of practice. Many mature writers have arguably turned in some of their best work in short form - Kafka's Metamorphosis, Henry James's Turn of the Screw, Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, Ernest Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea and Annie Proulx's Brokeback Mountain.
Indeed, some writers have only turned in work in short form - and they are none the worse for that. Jorge Luis Borges is a classic example of a great 20th century writer who never wrote a full-length novel. He always toyed with the idea of writing one but never found the time to get round to it. It is just as well: imagine the damage to his posthumous reputation if he had written a duff novel. A paradox of literature is that many practitioners of the short story form fare less well at full length and novelists don't always make good short story writers. Few excel at both.
As a mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal knew all about the art of concision. "If I had had more time I would have written you a shorter letter," he wrote in his Provincial Letters. If I had more time I would have written a shorter column but, sadly, journalism doesn't work like that.
OH RICHARD, SAY IT AIN'T S0
WHO are we quoting here? "It has been suggested we do some [reunion] gigs but, come on, I'm 46. I was in the band when I was 16. Besides, I've got my views on bands who reform after 20 years. It's always naff."
Yes, it was Richard Jobson, interviewed a mere month ago in this very magazine. The same Richard Jobson who, as of this week, is to play a presumably naff Skids reunion gig at July's T in the Park.
There was a time when such a comically swift discarding of one's punk principles would invite widespread derision from those who feel - much like Jobson appeared to, four weeks ago - that bands' youthful pasts are best left alone. Now, increasingly, we are too busy struggling to keep up. The Police, the Who, OMD, the Jesus and Mary Chain, the Jam (minus Paul Weller), Roxy Music (with Brian Eno) ... We've reached a point where arguing over the creative value of such enterprises just seems futile. This ship has long sailed.
Or has it? If this sort of thing annoys you, the time has come to stop ranting in a general way about it, and start lobbying specific bands who have yet to yield to temptation. There aren't many left, but two leap to mind - Talking Heads and Josef K. Both much-loved, both influential, both still dead and buried (even if the actual band members are still with us). Both have said they won't do it, but frankly you can't trust bands on that these days (see above). Write to their managers. Threaten boycotts. If necessary, ensure the various members are never in the same room again until they are dead. All of them, that is. One or two dead members is clearly not enough. Ask the Doors.
MACHO AND NOT AFRAID TO HIDE IT
IN Blades of Glory, in cinemas this weekend, a macho man (Will Ferrell) and a pastel-wearing girlie man (Jon Heder) feign romance on the ice as a figure skating pair. They lock legs and hold hands, and plant their faces in each other's crotches. The joke, which deftly avoids gay baiting, is on straight men.
Straight men and male bonding, it turns out, make for richer comic ground these days. Blades of Glory may start with a predictable setup - they must be gay! - but the humour is more nuanced. The performances are inherently homoerotic, but the duo bicker, killing much of the potential for innuendo.
Straight men acting "gay" is an old joke. Every generation gives it a try, from Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon to Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott kissing in Dude, Where's My Car? The difference now is context. Sexual identity is more of a public and political issue than ever. Hence the absurdity in Ferrell's Blades character - a straight "sex addict" who parades around bare-chested in a leopard print towel.
Film-makers depicting such scenes say the punchline is rooted in straight men struggling with intimacy and emotion while stuck in some retro notion of manliness. Judging by audience reactions, there's nothing more discomfiting than watching "manly" men cringe and squirm after an encounter with their soft side. And the examples grow ever more ridiculous. They wrestle nude (in Borat) or rub backsides and sing of "Guy Love" (in TV show Scrubs) or snuggle up on an air mattress (in the upcoming film Wild Hogs).
For a time, the women's movement so discombobulated men that hordes of them escaped to the woods to beat their chests. Today two straight men can't even share a bottle of wine at a restaurant alone without the act being declared some sort of Zeitgeist indicator. So the time is ripe for a little levity on the subject. But comedy is a tricky business. Just ask the makers of a US Snickers TV ad, pulled after gay rights groups complained. In the ad, two mechanics accidentally kiss while rapturously eating a chocolate bar, then, mortified, rip out their chest hair to prove their manliness.
Blades of Glory works by lampooning the whole manly/non-manly thing as irrelevant, the characters' drive to win overshadowing all the other issues. "They're classic rivals and really don't like each other," says director Josh Gordon. "What that allows us to do is play that line of a very uncomfortable subject. They're unwilling participants in this sort of effeminate situation."