I’ve often been relieved when a blogger I like gets a gig at an edited online publication, because this means they’ll stop writing quite so long. There’s a kind of blogger who writes seemingly five- or ten-thousand word screeds several times a week, or even multiple times a day. That’s just too long for me to read, and I don’t see how anyone could read more than a few of those in a day and still have time for work, much less their own writing. Even publications that appear only online usually don’t permit that kind of length, or the kind of rambling that usually goes with it.
So although I was intrigued by Forrest Wickman’s recent piece in Slate (he’s long been a TV and culture critic there), on subtlety and heavy-handedness, I was also dismayed as I got towards the middle of the piece and realized it was only the middle, with half as much, at least, more to go, and at least twice as many new topics. A journal like the London Review of Books publishes pieces of this length, but they are constructed much differently from what you see in Slate. I’m all for long-form and the leisurely exposition, description, explanation, and so on that traditional form allows. But this isn’t long-form, it’s no-form: just the rambling blog post all over again. I’m pretty sure I could have stopped halfway through and not missed anything about the part I was interested in. Or I could have started halfway through and read an entirely different, fully complete essay, on a completely different topic (which might actually have interested me more, if I’d encountered it first, I suppose). Wickman’s piece, in spite of its annoying form and length, is pretty interesting, though, and worth reading (to the end).
The subject is our changing views of “subtlety” and “heavy-handedness” in art. Wickman says a lot of interesting things, and gives a lot of good examples, especially of historical support for opinions in past literary criticism. He doesn’t stick too narrowly to the argument, which might seem like logic-chopping, or might just be boring, but digresses just enough to be interesting, getting into the history of TV criticism on the Internet and lots of not-necessary but still entertaining subject matter. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear what his argument is supposed to be. And one thing in particular struck me as not-quite-right.
As he presents it, it sounds like any piece of writing has only one meaning, and it’s either overt or beneath the surface. This seems a little dubious and oversimplified. Even more than that, it means there are only two kinds of writing. A book or film is either “subtle” or “on the nose,” and once you know which it is, you know what the meaning is. If you took a heavy-handed movie and found a hidden meaning in it, you’d look ridiculous: you know what the meaning is very easily with just a basic ability to comprehend English and the world on the screen. If you looked at a deep or subtle film and acted like the overt meaning was the real one, you’d look similarly ridiculous, and kind of dumb. But beyond that—beyond those two straightforward alternatives—it’s really not too hard. The hidden meaning even of a subtle work, Wickman suggests, doesn’t take that much work to figure out: because it’s only hidden just enough to conceal the fact that it has a message. To me, it seems like a pretty limited way to think about art, however.