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Rebutting a Call for Shorter Attention Spans

Last week, theater critic Terry Teachout at the Wall Street Journal wrote a column, “Get to the Good Part” – arguing that shorter attention spans would lead to more concise art. I wrote a letter in reply.

Here’s the full letter, which was cut down a bit on the paper:

Terry Teachout is mistaken. Shortened attention spans have nothing to do with the production of succinct, well-conceived, well-paced entertainment.

Ask any neuroscientist or psychologist – or writer. If you are attention-deficient, you’re more likely to fall prey to distraction and the tangential. You’re more impulsive and less able to plan ahead. You tend to hopscotch through life, and often are unable to follow the trail of a thought or idea, pin it down and painstakingly turn that thought into a creative breakthrough. As a creator or critic or spectator of the arts, you’re too often stuck on the surface of life – if you have too short an attention span.

Teachout rightly advocates for succinct, well-thought artworks. No one, in the past or in our era, wants wooden, dull entertainment or literature. Humans have always aspired to cut the fat from our creations, and tell stories so riveting that they stop time and grab others’ focus.

But it’s wrong to imply that anything quick and brief is smart, while anything slow and lengthy is dumb. Older sitcoms, classic plays, and discursive masterworks take time to imbibe and digest – and perhaps offer a depth and nuance that our adrenaline-infused, briefer forms of entertainment cannot. The point is, we need both  – and we especially need to be able to focus deeply in order to create and enjoy such slower, longer fare. Attention unlocks the door to the world beyond the fast and brief. It gives us the ability to get past digressions and superfluity.

Our impatient age seeks to cut to the chase, but in so doing, we too often miss out on the journey that is life and art. A deeper, longer attention span allows us the clarity to grasp the beauty of the fast and the slow, the brief and the long-lasting.

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