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Stretching Out or Noodling?

Errol Morris has a blog over at the New York Times, to which he seems to post about once a month. A few days ago, he posted an essay called Which Came First, the Chicken or the Egg? (Part One). It's a fascinating piece.

It's also about 7,500 words long. I think it's safe to say that the New York Times doesn't print a lot of 7,500 word essays. Or 5,000 word essays, come to that. The New Affirmative Action, by David Leonhardt, is just about 5,000; it's the big article in the Sunday Magazine. So, maybe one of those articles a week. This is half again the size of that.

Of course, it's not printed. The Times didn't have to carve out a 7,500-word hole to slip it into. Mr. Morris didn't have to decide early in the process how big the thing would be, nor once the total size was negotiated did he have to carve his writing to fit into the hole. No, he seems to have written pretty much what he wanted to write, and the Times could stick it up on the site without affecting any other item at all. No trade-offs. Win-Win. This is new.

Mr. Morris could, five years ago, have written a 7,500-word essay that was part one of three or four such essays and put them on his own blog, or photocopied them and used the copies to raise money for a new movie, or he could have saved them up for a book, or he could have found one o the handful of magazines that specialize in 7,500 word essays. Now, he has another option: a blog, but under a major news organizations banner. And the major news organizations can post 7,500 word essays by major cultural critics. It's all good.

I have to admit, though, that I wonder if the ability to write extended pieces for major outlets in that fashion is an unmitigated good. Mr. Morris, for instance, leaves in bits of interviews which might well have been elided in a format where space was at a premium. Is making Mr. Morris the editor of his own work a good idea? Yes, because he's damn good at editing. But is making, say, Your Humble Blogger the editor of his own work a good idea?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


on the length, i agree with it, to get the flavor of the conversations. interruptions by dogs and fix-it people might have been overkill, but funny, from the POV of the material.

also funny, if i were writing, that'd've been maybe 100 words. i guess seeking out the nuances in people's baggage is a good thing. and for him, a professional concern (which undoubtedly leads him to shoot advertisements that are more open to interpretation than most). but there's that danger of going too deep into unuseful material.

OTOH, it's good to talk about logic and truth-seeking in public. forensics are eternally interesting. stuff like that.

forgot: i use "obviously" frequently. mostly either ironically, or as an unrestrictor, suchly: "obviously this is not the only way to look at the problem, but blah blah blah blah."

I agree that this is a fascinating piece, though I only skimmed it. I think Morris may be making a point about editing; much as one of the interviewees says it's too bad that the endearments were left off of Fenton's letters, Morris is implicitly saying that the little interruptions and such -- and, in fact, the detailed inclusion of the interviews themselves (rather than "I spoke with X, who said [10-word summary of what they said]") -- are relevant in interpreting what's being said.

I also think it's interesting that the piece contains so much Sontag-bashing. If this were meant to be a piece solely about the question of whether one of those photos was staged -- or even about the general issue of staging photos -- then Sontag's name wouldn't have had to appear in it at all, much less a couple dozen mentions of her, at least three of which are negative.

So there's a question in my mind as to whether Morris intended this to be a tightly focused piece on a particular topic and just didn't do a very good job of tightening it up, or whether he intended it to be a discursive piece on several topics (including subtextual metacommentary on editing and a critique of Sontag) and did a fine job of it. I don't know anything about Morris, but I'm willing to trust your judgment that he's a good editor, which suggests that the latter interpretation is more likely.

...The subject of staged or manipulated photos always brings to my mind the Diane Arbus photo Child with Toy Hand Grenade in Central Park, though I don't know whether Wikipedia's description of how she got the photo is accurate.

On the topic of how loooooong a blog-essay can be, I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Stephen Fry's Blog. Two entries so far: the first clocks at 6,500 words and the second at 9,000. Hurrah for the web!


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