Complex ideas in small packages

by Michael

I read Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery recently. It’s an account of a man whose life becomes the centre of a shadowy, incoherent campaign to slander the entire Jewish people in the 19th century. As his writings cast slur upon slur on the Jews, his own sense of identity becomes broken. The story is told within the broad sweep of European history, but the story is written as the memoirs of this man, who may not be a reliable witness to events either historical or personal. The hardback edition of the novel that I have is 400-odd pages.

I mention the length because at work we are embarking (still embarking, I would say, after several months of embarkment) on a new venture to produce in-depth/long-form* explanatory/exploratory* stories/feature articles* about science and medicine. Inevitably, when thinking about how to tell such stories, we encounter a tension between explaining some quite niche area of science and keeping the narrative flowing. My initial reaction tends to be to push at the limits of our allotted word-counts but I’ve started thinking that there may be a better way.

Eco is a writer I like, although I have probably read fewer of his books than I think I have. But he is the type of writer I like, and that’s often good enough. Another writer that I have long known I like – despite not having read much of his work either – is Jorge Luis Borges. And recently, I have been reading his fictions: short stories that usually centre around a labyrinth of some description (if centring around a labyrinth is morphologically possible).

So here’s the thing: I think Borges could have written in 8 pages a story that had the same narrative, concepts, characters and plot as Eco’s 400-page novel. And I think Borges’s story would have had all the complexity of Eco’s work. Borges had the skill to present you with a character and a situation in a few words; then he would have been able to sum up Eco’s character’s life with a couple of paragraphs. The overall impression would probably not have been so different to the effect of reading Eco’s novel, but it would have happened in a fraction of my time.

Now, obviously there is an intentional effect of writing stories in the form of novels – the unfolding of the story is much slower, potentially more nuanced (although I don’t recall the nuances of The Prague Cemetery particularly (I’m not being snide; it’s a fact that the entirety of the experience of reading a book cannot stay with me)), which can profoundly influence the way the story is experienced and offer more opportunities to ponder the story along the way. And obviously Eco can achieve a level of detail in his telling that Borges would have had to have sacrificed in some way. But I don’t think Borges would have had to sacrifice the complexity of the themes or underlying ideas of this story.

So this is my point: while my first instinct is to explain scientific ideas in detail, presenting the complexity slowly and carefully to make sure it can be followed, perhaps it is possible to write in a way that presents the same scientific ideas, full of richness, complexity and subtlety, without taking the reader deep into detail. Perhaps with a few well-chosen words, the same sense of understanding, both of the facts and the way those facts were elicited, can be achieved.

Ultimately, of course, there is more money for Eco and his publisher if he writes a novel than if he writes a short story based on the same idea; yet perhaps the skill would have been greater, and the product more rewarding, if he had written it in 8 pages. The publishing model is not set up to reward the capacity to set ideas ablaze for a brief, inspiring moment rather than let them smoulder for weeks.

With our new features, our research tells us that our potential readership don’t want long essays about science – they want explanations that are accurate and digestible, that take perhaps as long as a nice meal to consume, that are flavoursome and delivered in well-balanced portions. Skilfully written ‘short stories’ (using some literary definition) about science might fit the bill.

I have no doubt that this is a skill it will take me years/decades* to develop – but bear with me, won’t you?

* – delete as appropriate