‘There isn’t a lot you can say about anything consequential in 300 words’

‘There isn’t a lot you can say about anything consequential in 300 words’ June 19, 2013

John Fea directs us to an interview with Leonard Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, in which Wieseltier explains why he doesn’t read blogs — and consequently explains why I don’t enjoy reading Leonard Wieseltier:

I have to say that there is not one blog, out of the eight million that must exist, that I read. The thing about blogging is that it is either someone’s first thoughts — which we know by definition are never their best thoughts — so that’s not interesting, or as time goes by they simply repeat themselves. Moreover there isn’t a lot you can say about anything consequential in 300 words. I write the back page of the magazine and I always wish it was three times as long as it is.

So here, then, is Wieseltier’s standard for “consequential” writing: Never say in 300 words what you can say, instead, in 1,500.

That explains a great deal about why his columns read the way they do.

“I have made this letter longer than usual,” Pascal once wrote, “because I lack the time to make it short.” Wieseltier seems to subscribe to the opposite point of view.

He’s also cheating himself. He wishes that his back-page column could be “three times as long as it is” because he has more to say than he can fit into that single page published 20 times a year. Wieseltier doesn’t seem to realize the obvious, common solution to that problem — take the best stuff that doesn’t fit and post it online.

But let’s just consider his assertion that “There isn’t a lot you can say about anything consequential in 300 words.” If that’s true, it should be hard to find any counter-examples.

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ’tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

That’s only 128 words. Must not be consequential.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Please — that’s only 45 words. That’s not even a blog post — it’s almost a Tweet. Clearly trivial.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

That’s 268 words — almost, but not-quite, consequential.

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father. Through him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried. On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son. With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified. He has spoken through the Prophets. We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

That’s only 226 words.

I guess it must be true, then, “There isn’t a lot you can say about anything consequential in 300 words.”


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  • arcseconds

    Well, what was your original point?

    It seemed to be that somehow these equations don’t count as short, meaningful statements, but I think they clearly do count as short, meaningful statements. You need a certain background to understand them, sure, but same as any statement.

  • GDwarf

    And the lovely alternate version:

    “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a lock on the door.”

  • Amaryllis

    That’s beautiful. I hadn’t seen it before, so thank you.


  • tatortotcassie

    I take it Leon doesn’t care for drabble fiction either.
    That is a real shame, because it takes a lot of dedication to the cause to write a story in exactly 100 words, and when done well, it backs a heck of a punch.

  • flat

    left behind isn’t a magnus opus.
    But Fred’s analysis of it is.

  • flat

    the way I see it: sometimes you need a lot of words to tell something and sometimes
    you say the most important thing by being silent.

  • Could not resist. (355 words. Relatively more consequential than what it is based on and without which would not be at all comprehensible.) Disintegrata…

    “Go nastily amid the peace and tranquility, and remember what satisfaction there may be in genocide. As far as possible, without surrender, move into other people’s space. Lie often and loudly: and listen to the lies of others, even the slow and incompetent – examples can be made of them later. Seek out meek and inoffensive persons: they are annoying: but fun to kill. Do not bother comparing yourself to others: those greater than you will eventually be eliminated, and those lesser than you are dead already. Fart in airlocks. Assassinate your superior as quickly as possible: your own career, however exalted, is not worth a plugged millo if one of your junior officers gets it over your dead body. Exercise caution if one of your course changes suddenly produces a sensor ghost: for the Galaxy is full of Federation vessels. But let this not blind you to the happier side of things: many Starship captains are swaggering, tin-plated dictators with delusions of godhood, and everywhere life is full of incompetence. Advance yourself. Especially do not feign meanness, neither be cynical about hate: you are not likely to run out of either. Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the joys of defenestration and evisceration for more mature pleasures. Nurture a deep-seated suspicion of small furry creatures that purr: you never can tell. File your teeth regularly. Discipline is important: practice holding it between planetfalls. You are a scourge of the universe, no less than your average interstellar plague or black hole: you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the Universe is going to pieces in a most laudable manner. Therefore do your utmost to annoy the Destroyer; however you may conceive of Him, Big Bang, or Entropy, Death: and whatever your plans of conquest, as you wade through the morass of peace with fire and sword, annoy your soul. With all its truth, high resolve, and courage, the world still has its ugly spots. Be thoughtless. Strive to be miserable.”

    *found scratched on the energy barrier around the galaxy, stardate 2832.4

  • Now you’ve done it. You’ve mentioned Atlas Shrugged and Lord of the Rings in the same paragraph. You just know someone’s gotta say it now….

    No! I won’t do it! Must resist!

  • Well, yeah, look at my comment, obviously I did just that, especially since I’d already included an <i> for the n, where it wasn’t for emphasis.

  • christopher_y

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

    203 words (the rest is context).

    You’d think the editor of the New Republic might regard that passage as a little consequential at least. But no, the Committee of Five was just messing around.

  • dpolicar

    OK, thanks for clarifying.

    My original point was that physics equations require a different kind of background to understand than English sentences in a conversation do, and in this setting the difference between those two backgrounds is important.

  • Seraph4377

    Billed as the world’s shortest horror story, but could also be a romance.

  • Persia

    Mine is:

    “Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly; Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’ Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land; Man got to tell himself he understand.”

    Kurt Vonnegut, of course.

  • general_apathy

    I looked up what you meant. That quote is excellent. :D

  • Warp again! Let’s do the Time

  • $43768042


  • Vermic

    As always, it’s wrong to judge on physical appearance, but are we positive that “Leonard Wieseltier” isn’t just a Jon Lovitz character?

  • FV = PV * (1+(r/n))^nt

  • “The other one, of course, has elves….”:

  • Qapla’!

  • At least his name brings to mind some kind of comedy character.

    Wouldn’t “wiesel” be Anglicized so that it sounds similar to “weasel?”

  • For some reason, that just makes me want to quote the Lion-Eating Poet in the Stone Den… but I’ll resist the urge. For bonus points, it’s only 84 “word.”


  • Andrew Marchant-Shapiro

    E=IR. Ohm’s law. Trivial.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Oh that poem.

    The thing that amuses me? By this metric, whydoyouneedtoknow’s Dangerverse series–Harry Potter AU fanfic–is more consequential than the Harry Potter series itself.

  • Patter

    “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

    16 words, most are 1-syllable. Nope, nuthin’ to see here, folks, move along.

  • Not too long ago, I was musing on the fact that for a time, I kept getting Ayn Rand and Anne Rice backwards.

    Now I just remember that one writes unrealistic fantasy where the heroes are non-human monsters with an entirely alien moral system and a penchant for extreme selfishness, who feed off the life-blood of normal folk.

    And the other one writes about vampires.

  • storiteller

    Wednesday’s XKCD seems particularly apropos in light of this complaint: http://www.xkcd.com/1227

  • Jenny Islander

    World’s shortest horror filk:

    “The hiiiills are aliiiiive.”

    (Sit down and let the next person at the bardic take their turn.)

    (Also, not original to me; I think Spider Robinson did this one.)

  • Guest

    Hard to say its meaning though…

  • Iain King

    e^(i*pi) + 1 = 0