Friday, March 4, 2011

The Long and Short of It

There was a time when you worked for a particular publisher who loved such phrases as "hands-on," "micro-management," and "ROI," by which he meant return on investment.  Having come from other publishing venues before this particular one, you understood from the beginning that he would be a pain in the ass and at odds with your own style of activity.  In accordance with your understanding and your added awareness that your direct supervisor, the person who had in fact hired you was at some considerable pains to keep you and the publisher from spending much time together, you arranged for monthly "tours" of your department, in which the publisher got an up-to-the-minute report on the progress of all books in production, including those in peer review and content editing stages.  Given the disparity in height between you and the publisher, it was no surprise to you when, during these tours, you heard in stage whisper from your editorial team the expression, "The long and short of it."  Since you were about sixteen, your nickname had morphed from "Shorty" to the Yiddish translation of a term that meant long noodle.  It is not that you were by any means approaching professional basketball altitude, but your father was six feet one inch, and in this way only you were able to look down toward him.

Although your tour idea was a good one, the publisher was not satisfied, demanding as well a weekly walk that began at six thirty of a morning; not your favorite time but no problem until the publisher began to refer to them as "walkie-talkies."  So far as the ROI factor, you with some regularity based your pricing decisions for the various titles on an index that ran ten percent higher than the current money market certificate of deposit interest rate.  Thus you were able to respond to such questions at editorial meetings as "Such a high price on this title?" with the merest flicker of a shoulder shrug.  "If we had more sales support, we could, of course, adjust out price from the beginning."  This last was a deliberate taunt at the sales department which, you believed, would have had problems collecting money at a tent-show religious revival or an NRA convention.

Long and short.

You like short--except when you feel yanked in by the trickle of enthusiasm into your brain pan and autonomic nervous system.  Then you love long; swooping, baroque sentences, lacing about distractions and subplots, more intricate than a formal garden, their particular joy being a grammatical and syntactical carpentry by which means the reader never lost track with the main subject, before all those ancillary ones began crowding in line.  You admire the ease with which clauses, phrases, and entire cadences attach themselves to a sentence, thrumming their way into paragraphs in a manner reminiscent of the lines outside Apple stores the day after a new model of something is introduced.

A favored story comes from a book-length reflection of modern jazz, wherein the legendary tenor and soprano saxophonist, John Coltrane, was heard complaining to Miles Davis, his sometimes employer, that he did not always know how to end a solo because the ideas continued to arrive.  Davis' response was the essence and spirit of short.  "Have you tried taking the instrument out of your mouth, John?"

Short is when everyone who reads or hears it wants more.  Long is when everyone who reads or hears it begins shuffling feet, scratching at imaginary itches, casting furtive looks at cell phones to see if there is a life line in the form of a message.  Urgent.  Rescue me.  From this!

Short comes to you almost on the spot, before you have had a chance to think about it.  Long comes to you when you have some agenda, particularly the one of thinking you have nothing to say on the matter and, thus, intent on wanting to make clear that you indeed have not only something to say but something of immense value.

You are writing this now because your editor has asked you for more on something you believe you have already said quite enough.  Thus, sometimes long is a manipulation, a gambit for not being able to be the short of it, which takes you back to your opening, in the mischievous manner of Mozart, embarking on one of his remarkable chamber pieces.  The publisher with little or no variation knew the long way to anything, thus calling attention to himself for the ironic comparison when he visited your book department to make his rounds, the long and short of it, writ larger than necessary.

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