Is Reading Facing an Existential Crisis?

This is the transcript for the episode of The Fantasy Writers’ Toolshed podcast of the same title. You can listen to the episode by clicking the links below. 

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Ello everyone. Firstly, a very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! I hope you all enjoyed the festive period. I certainly did. It’s just Richie here today. Flying solo. And I’m going to talk about something that piqued my interest about a month ago.

I saw a blog post by a sci-fi book reviewer named Damien Walter. Now Walter used to write reviews for The Guardian newspaper, amongst a few other prestigious magazines. He’s a guy at the top of his field. In his post, Walter explains how he’s fallen out of love with the novel. That for him, it’s lost that magical charm. Long gone, he says, are “afternoons spent at the local library, selecting books as though I was selecting magical portals to step through.” Walter came to the conclusion that in his view, the novel is dead.

I think it’s fair to say that everything changes. I used to love the Foo Fighters. Now, I’m more of an Allman Brothers kinda guy. And the world has changed an awful lot in the last twenty years. The internet exploded into being and has evolved into something that consumes our lives. We’re glued to smart phones, TVs and computers. Not so much books anymore. As Walter said: “The smartphone is engineered to swallow as much of your eyeball time as it can. Which, often, is all of it.”

Amongst this flux of rapid change, the novel has remained the same. And I’ll be totally honest, I love that fact about the novel. I love getting to know characters and following them on adventures over hundreds of pages, seeing how they deal with the trials and tribulations that litter their path. And I love the classic structure of the novel with its chapters and the clever things people do with them and their designs.

But twenty years of change is a long time and generations, including my own, have grown up without reading featuring much in their lives outside of education. Even my optician, a highly-educated woman at the top of her field, said to me the other month that she never read. And often when I ask people why they don’t read, they near enough always say the same thing: I don’t have the time. If I did I would.

Does it really take that long to read a book? It probably takes less time to read a novel (on average 6-7 hours depending on word-count) than it does to watch a season of say, Game of Thrones (about 10 hours). So the time argument doesn’t wash. What is it then?

Is it the fall in attention spans? In 2000, the average human attention span was 12 seconds. In 2015, it’d fallen to 8.25. Again, I don’t really think this has much to do with it either. I don’t think I have a particularly good attention span, but if a book grabs me, I’ll be hooked. If the book is rubbish, that’s nothing to do with my attention span and more to do with my ability to put up with info dumps, one dimensional characters and static plot.

Is it a decline in quality? The main culprit according to Walter. He said: “The novel was always where people who valued real high quality storytelling went to find it. Films and tv had their moments, but they were largely packed with junk. But over the last couple of decades the tables have turned. Prestige tv shows are where we go now for the best storytelling. Novels seems more and more junky. Call it the Dan Brown or Fifty Shades effect. However it happened, I just don’t expect to find good storytelling in novels anymore.”

Walter thinks the novel is working through a cycle, and right now we’re at the bottom. He says, without pulling any punches, that “[the market] is swamped by really awful work, packed full of imitative genre fiction. But it’s when an art form is at its worst that you might start to see green shoots of renewal popping up.”

Now I disagree with Walter here. I think the rise in self-publishing is a brilliant thing. It’s made what once was a close shop an open market. It’s given people opportunities and encouragement to write and publish their work and share it with the world, and some of it is truly excellent. Some of it, though, could do with a little more polishing.

Me personally, I don’t think the novel is dead. I do think reading as a general and enjoyable pass-time is facing an existential crisis . Not more than fifty or sixty years ago near enough everyone read. How has it changed so drastically?

The written word is facing stiff competition in this modern world of ours, and it may be that it has to change in order to stay relevant in people’s minds. The question for writers, I think, is how do we get people reading again? With our great stories, but of course! On a serious note, should we recognise that the way people spend their leisure time and the type of things they enjoy have fundamentally changed, and that we have to adapt and change too? Or do we stick to our guns and hope for the revival?

How do you even begin to tackle such a problem?

In more recent years we’ve seen the surge in popularity of audiobooks and podcasts. I mean, I never thought I’d be sat here recording a podcast, but there you go. Life changes. A common theme in this podcast I feel. How will the audiobook develop further?

The publisher I’m currently working with, Fiction Vortex, haw come up with an idea that I find quite exciting. They’re in the process of creating an app in which you can read novels interactively. So if you wanted to learn more about a city, place, character, you can click on them and find out. I understand there may well be sound effects, background music and built-in audiobook versions too, though I’m not a hundred per cent sure. Regardless, I can see the industry heading in this direction, and I can see it being massively popular.

How else can the novel adapt? I think there’s a lot of potential with the structure of the novel. Like I said before, I do love the classic feel of a novel and I prefer to write my own that way, but having had to structure my current work in progress in Fiction Vortex’s style, I’ve come to appreciate the broad potential for divergence. Fiction Vortex’s novels are split into ten episodes, episodes into chapters, clocking in at around 100,000 words. Small, easily digestible chunks. I admit that at first I was hesitant of writing a book in such a way, and JM will tell you himself we had a few disagreements about it, but as I’ve gone on I’ve come to look at it in a new way. Lots of younger people now have grown up with television as their primary source of entertainment, not books. Their favourite TV shows are split into episodes, not chapters. Episodes are what they know, what they’re familiar with. So who knows, it may be more appealing.

So in the build-up to this episode I decided to do a bit of a poll. I asked people whether or not they thought the novel was dead. They could submit comments too, some of which I’ll read some out shortly. But first, the results.

There were a total of 150 votes cast, which isn’t too bad I don’t think. I do have to say that the poll was shared amongst writers, who in fairness are readers too, but their opinions are obviously going to be skewed to a certain extent, so I wouldn’t regard these results as gospel. 139 people said no to the question, do you think the novel is dead, with 11 saying yay. 102 people voiced an opinion. Here are some of my favourites:

“I still love reading and I still spend many hours immersed in a good novel. Social media hasn’t stolen that pleasure from me. In fact, I’d say it’s helped me discover MORE authors who are new to me and MORE books that I’ve grown to love.”

“I’m 58. I used to read 20-50 novels a year. In the last few years I’ve quit. Entirely.
There’s a myriad of reasons, some of which you’ve touched upon. Chief among them is the fact that as a writer, I cannot read without being in editor mode.” Interesting point. I know that feeling.

“Admittedly the self publishing phenomena is pushing more crap than gold, but the novel as an art form is definitely not dead, although the reader preferences have tilted to the worse.”

“There are still many exceptional novels out there but I agree that a lot of poorly written books get a lot of attention. Maybe readers and writers today generally aren’t as well educated.” Controversial

Sitting down with a well-written novel is still my favorite escape. Problem is well-written novels are harder and harder to find. THAT is the problem. We need better writers, not more writers.” Another stinging blow there

“I vote “no” because I love reading, enjoy discovering new authors, and sharing my literary experiences with others. However, most of my students (grades 6-8; ages 11-16) DO NOT love reading. Their faces would be glued to their phones if they didn’t need to eat, breathe, speak, or attend school. I find this time in book history to be somewhat sad.” Interesting

“The novel is not dead to me but it is to most out there. We are living in sad times where what’s not supposed to matter, matters. Sad.” It is sad.

“I read pretty much everything from the back of the Cornflakes packet to diaries, novels, non-fiction. But my favourites are novels as they take me out of my life and transport me elsewhere. “ I have read some good cereal boxes in my time.

People are more distracted than before and read less. They read less of everything, even the BIble. They want instant-coffee types of articles and news. However, the novel is not dead. There are many of us of the pre-millennial generation who still appreciate the pleasure in reading a good story. “ Righteous.

As long as novels keep reinventing and redefining themselves they will be hard if not impossible to kill (ergo all the “greatly exaggerated” death notices). But I agree that the best contemporary TV series in the spirit of The Sopranos and Mad Men have rendered Zola-esque novels all but obsolete. I think to remain relevant novels have to be more and more about words and form and what only words and form can do.”

“I have actively started to pick up books lately and cancelled my Netflix account and I managed to finish a 770 page novel. How long can books compete with such easy to consume content? I don’t know…” Nor do I

Myself, my husband and my daughter all love reading novels. I work in a primary school and kids still love reading novels. I think there may have been some decline in reading though, as it doesn’t give the ‘instant gratification’ that people are now used to in the age of gaming and blogs. “ Good points

No. But it may be dead within two generations.” Harrowing.

“My family buys and checks books out of the library frequently. My 16 yr daughter is reading a new book weekly. Is there competition for the time dedicated to reading? Sure. But in our family we value that time.” Love it.

“there is still a need for great stories. But not for endless series that never reach a conclusion. I quit reading SF because there were no good stories with endings. it was ‘book one of this’ and ‘book 2 of that’. And these were not Harry potter books…definitely not compelling enough to make me want to buy the next one.” That’s a good point. I saw someone the other day advertising book ten of their series. I just thought, ‘I hope people have been reading them’. 10 books, for what is effectively one overall story?

“I write tons. I live for writing, but readers (and other writers) can’t do pronoun attribution, don’t understand the basics of English grammar, can’t put together a story that holds through the resolution. Memes are more everyone’s speed now, faster and easier, and more community building.”  A punishing blow.

“Damien Walter is a pompous blowhard.”

“The novel is generally too long.”

“The writer of this article is just getting older and his eyes are failing him, so it’s harder for him to read. Also, he’s lazy.” I hope you’re not talking about me…

“Make more graphic novels. Long prose novels do not seem to go well with our attention span and imaginary ability anyone.” I’ve wondered about this myself recently.

“People’s attention spans are getting lower these days. While I don’t think the novel is dead (think of it like the album of music) perhaps short stories or novellas (singles and EPs to carry on the analogy) could be a way forward” Interesting.


Well that’s all from me today. Thank you very much indeed for listening. I hope you’ve found it interesting. JM and I will be back together, reunited once more, in a couple weeks time for episode three, which is all to do with world-building. How do you create worlds and cultures? How do you reveal those juicy details in your story? How do you know what bits to include without info dumping? Just some \of the things we’ll be discussing. If you don’t want to miss it, hit that subscribe button and you’ll be notified as soon as the episode goes live! See you then.


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2 thoughts on “Is Reading Facing an Existential Crisis?”

  1. Reblogged this on JM Williams and commented:
    Another great post by my associate, Richie Billing. Is the novel dead? I don’t think so. Is it changing? Is reading as a concept evolving? Absolutely. What readers want in a novel has markedly changed (a modern focus on characters versus concept), as have reading habits (Kindle unlimited, short stories, audio books and webcasts).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Happy to report I still love hours spent in the library, selecting new magic portals. On a more controversial note, self-publishing can be a hazard. I’ve read several very good self-published works, but many more bad, for the reason that they simply weren’t finished, often times in what I would consider to be early drafts. Writing takes work, time, critique, edits, and plenty of them.

    Like

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