Censorship by Word Count

As my post before last reported, a fellow critic brought me up short for tossing off the brainless comment that Boulez’s and Carter’s music is no good because it’s unmemorable. That I could utter such a thing shows what many years as a newspaper critic can do to a writer. As atonement, it took me 1642 words to accurately convey the nuances of my long-evolved opinions of Boulez and Carter.

Now, if I wanted to publish 1642 words in print today, where would I go? Nowhere I can think of. When I started at the Village Voice in 1986, my column was 950 words long (though I could get a luxurious 1700 by asking in advance). It shrank to 900 words, then 750, and lately 650. When you’ve got only 650 words in which to express the distilled experience of a lifetime, you start writing in shorthand. Opinions and principles that are not your central focus get squeezed into a sentence, and then lose a couple more words in editing. So if you’ve spent a lifetime going back and forth about the music of Elliott Carter, charmed by some pieces and bored by others, and after much analysis, listening, and soul-searching deciding that he’s got his strengths but is not the Great American Master he’s cracked up to be – and you’re referring to him in a 650-word article that is not about Elliott Carter – all that accumulated wisdom gets boiled down to: “Carter’s music isn’t memorable.” Because you’ve got four words to spare.

Tragically, you can get used to writing this way.

This is what music criticism is reduced to today. We critics are told that it’s up to us to defend classical (aaaaaaaaand postclassical) music in the public marketplace – but the newspapers have taken away our tanks, bazookas, and machine guns and left us armed with garbage can lids and pea shooters. The space crunch is everywhere, in every publication. It used to be, when I’d write for the New York Times, they’d ask me one of the sweetest questions a writer can hear: “How many words do you need?” No longer. Articles that would have once garnered 2000 or 2500 words now get half that. And according to what editors tell me, this is true across the board. In the mid-1990s, the Times cut its arts coverage by 25% and the Voice laughed at them; then the Voice did the same thing. Arts sections have shrunk still further since then. Photos get bigger in search of allegedly nonliterate young readers, sidebars supposedly attract net-heads, advertisers buy up more and more space, and we critics cling to the edge of the printed page by our fingernails. I don’t blame my editors, who appreciate good writing and hand down such fiats with manifest regret. I’m told paper tripled in price during the 1990s, putting column inches at a premium, and in today’s “cultural atmosphere” (if I may so dignify it), arts coverage is given a priority somewhere below women’s jai alai.

As my elliptical Carter comment makes clear, it’s not just that arts coverage in city newspapers has decreased anywhere from 33 to 83 percent, but that as quantity declines, quality erodes even more precipitously. There are so many points that can?t be made in 650 words. A substantive argument squeezed into such a small space is a leaky vessel put to sea without its holes plugged up. If the writer knows what the potential objections to his argument are, he can counter them in advance – but not if he only has three or four paragraphs to work with. And when I know I won’t have enough space to make an argument air-tight, I will generally just not make it, and restrict myself to more superficial points. Lack of enough space to consider an argument from all sides encourages – almost forces – the writer to censor himself, and not say controversial things because he can’t fully back them up. Limiting a writer to just a few column inches may not seem like censorship in principle. But it is in practice.

That’s not to say that word count limits can’t have a salutary effect on writing, especially early in a critic’s career. I started out at the Chicago Reader and at Fanfare magazine, neither of which (in those heady days, at least) imposed space limitations at all, and my early articles of 2000 words and more probably weren’t as disciplined as they should have been. Coming to the Voice and having to stay within my 950 words a week was a good tonic – it taught me to prioritize what I most wanted to say, stick to colorful points, avoid academically roundabout ways of speaking, and resist the temptation to settle scores with impertinent asides. But after several years of such discipline a critic gets in the habit of going back over his work, striking out adverbs, activizing passive verbs, cutting the longer and less colorful example of an idea stated twice. My editors are now in agreement that I turn in clean copy, and since I’m not edited (by others) here, you may judge the results yourself. Even so, when I read some old newspaperman from the early 20th century like George Orwell, back from when newsprint was considered a worthless enough substance to be prodigal with, I enjoy the roominess of his prose style, his ability to reinforce and round off his points rather than check them off like a grocery list. A comfortable redundancy in prose style is not necessarily a bad thing.

Now, in a print page of limited word count, this paragraph I just completed would have been the first to go – it contradicts my main point, after all. But without it, a journalism-savvy reader could look at the remainder of this essay and respond, “Bullshit, strict word count limits make a writer sharpen up his argument,” dismissing my article and passing on. I would have lost the chance to answer, to make the reader aware of my partial concessions and the contradictory lessons long experience has taught me. And that’s exactly what happens to arts criticism in print these days. The critic states an opinion and doesn’t have space to contextualize, to show that he’s aware of secondary virtues or has already considered opposing points of view. Discussion then starts from the unnuanced clash of naked competing opinions, and never reaches the more fertile common ground of, “Yes, of course I realize that, but….”

It’s often noted about TV news that we’ve become a soundbite culture, and only unsubtle points statable in a sentence or two ever get through the corporate filter. The principle also operates in the print world, even where word quantities are larger. As word counts decrease, we are prevented from taking the arts as seriously as they deserve, and we trivialize them against our will. Many insights never get expressed at all. Newspaper legend H. L. Mencken famously stated that “An intelligent person should be able to write 750 words about anything,” which is true; but it follows that no very profound statement can be commonly expected from 750 words. Opportunities for a Gettysburg Address are created by history, and do not arrive often.

So thank god (or rather, Al Gore) for the internet. As I sit here and write with no word limit in sight, I feel my very soul re-unfolding as though through StuffIt Expander. For 20 years as a print critic I’ve increasingly lived with my opinions and perceptions telescoped and packed away in convenient little boxes, the musical experience of a lifetime abbreviated into staccato Morse code, and myself painfully reminded now and then that I’m wiser than I almost ever get to sound. (I think it can be taken as a truism that any critic in a newspaper is smarter than he looks.) As a reader, I have a long attention span, and I love a good, long article that covers its subject thoroughly. I trust that only similar readers will become my regular audience. In the lavishly furnished virtual foxholes of the web, we critics may once again have enough room to fight back.

Only problem is – I used to finish a lot of those lengthy newspaper articles in the smallest room of my house, and not many people can take their computers into the bathroom. (Actually, I’m told reading on the john is something only men do, so half the population is apparently unaffected by this deficiency.)

Word count: 1441.

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