Has the way we read changed ~ comparing the literary past with the present

Has the way we read changed ~ comparing the literary past with the present

Over my life, I have been an intermittently voracious reader. Sometimes I will seem to wake like a bear after winter and devour book after book in rapid succession. Other times, like a well fed python, I won’t read for months on end. Sometimes it ties in with the problems concentrating brought on by stress, anxiety and depression, that I can’t focus on reading at all. At others, I shut out the troublesome intrusions of reality by getting lost in the pages of a book.

At Christmas a Twitter pal, Bert, sent me a book he said was his favourite esoteric text. I was very surprised when it arrived to see that it was a novel by Neville Shute, whom I’d never read before. I read a few pages, was very puzzled and got sidetracked by Christmas things.

A few weeks ago, I decided to tackle the monstrous pile of unread books in my living room and picked up Round the Bend. I finished it in less than a week, but I had to make a change to the way I read. I had to let go of my need to know in advance what the book was about and where it was going. The copy I was sent is not a modern reprint but an original, and there was no blurb for me to get my bearings from. The dust jacket just featured praise for the author for other novels. There was nothing about what this novel was about. It threw me completely. I’m used to starting a book knowing what it is going to be about, mostly. Who it is about and why. That’s the power of the blurb, like a film trailer, to hook the audience and make them decide(or not) to read one book rather than another.

The style of the book was utterly different too. Rambling and relaxed, the story meandered like an English country road, taking me down lanes and through villages. Compared to a modern novel where you are face to face with the action within three pages, it was slow. It was full of information about ‘planes and engines and aviation and the Near and Far East, all things I would have said I have little or no interest in.

But once I let go of my unconscious preconceptions of what I needed from a novel, I was gripped. The prose, for all its apparent relaxed pace was drawing me a subtle but very detailed and powerful picture. It slipped in without me realising how deeply the images and descriptions were affecting me. It was an extraordinary experience of being absorbed by a book, of becoming involved as a vitally interested observer, as though the narrator were telling his story directly to me.

And by the end, I could see why Bert had classified it as an esoteric book. It got very deeply under my skin.

But it made me think how much our reading experience is shaped by fashions in writing and publishing. A book like Round The Bend would simple never make it past the slush pile now. It would be considered too slow, and far too long for modern audiences. When I was submitting work to publishers first over twenty years ago, the word count for a first novel had to be a minimum of 100k words. That has dropped. Apart from the brick-thick blockbuster beach read novels, books have become slimmer. Anorexic in some cases. Writers are encouraged to get straight to the point, to hook your reader (= the editor) in the first few pages, preferably from the first paragraph or even sentence. There’s no room for building tension, or character or setting the scenes. Bang, from the first page, you have to have your hook in your reader’s mind so they keep reading.

Now, when I did my degree (which I know is a long time ago) I read a vast amount of classic novels, and I can say that the vast majority of them would be cast aside by editors for a host of reasons, but basically because they do not fit the way people read today or the reasons people read. Perhaps film, television, and the internet are responsible. We’re informed of news in sound-bites we can swallow whole, documentaries recap information every five minutes and writers are exhorted to “murder their darlings” and dispose of every word or metaphor that doesn’t point directly and unequivocally to the central plot of your story. There’s no room for gentle side plots and the inevitable unanswered questions. Readers (as shaped by the demands of publishers) have become as children demanding, “Tell me a story, mummy. Tell me a story before I go to bed. Only ten minutes because I’m tired.”

Yes, we all have horrendously busy lives. Yes, we need to be entertained and soothed. But words are marvellous things. Did you know that certain words have been found to have an effect on the brain? Words can shape the brain, influence it and even change it. And it seems to me that in this hurly-burly attempt to get straight to the story the words that have been pruned out are the ones that give meaning and power to the story.

I know of a lot of folk who skip lengthy descriptions. I’m guilty of it myself, at times, because I want to find out what happens in a story. I’m turned off heavily by anything to do with brand names or labels, for anything from cars to clothes. Mention Gucci and the rest and my eyes glaze over. But descriptions of place, and persons and atmosphere are the way that the writer shares their inner vision with the reader. It’s not purely about creating background but about conveying the depth and richness of the writer’s mind and their conception of their story. It’s that depth that means a story will stay with you after you finish it.

It is said that there are only something like six basic plots for a novel. I’m far from convinced of this but it is true that the likelihood of a plot being truly original is very much diminished over the years. All the good plots have been done, I suspect, but that’s no reason to stop writing. In one of my favourite childhood books, Madeleine L’Engle’s   A Wrinkle in Time life is compared to a sonnet. You have a fixed form that makes a poem a sonnet, but you are completely free to say whatever you like. It’s like this for a novel too. The structure that makes a novel, or even the fairly standard plots, are your framework but within those you are free to write what you like, how you like.

Novels reflect the times they were written in. Analysing the novels of today,  tailored and polished to a high gloss and designed for the short attention spans of busy people, they might seem also stripped of soul and denuded of depth and meaning.

And this is something that worries me.

15 thoughts on “Has the way we read changed ~ comparing the literary past with the present

  1. I agree 100% with what you are saying in this post. And I believe it leads on to a big philosophical problem. The need to grab the reader immediately and the pressure put upon writers by the publishing establishment to do this, has had a profound effect upon the expression of creativity. I do find it very troubling. My greatest hope lies in this fact about human nature, and about the world; things run in cycles; fashions change; the times move on. A time will come when creative people are no longer in the grip of this compulsion to snatch their audience’s interest in a matter of seconds, because they’re too busy/preoccupied to have such qualities as patience, faith, perseverence, & discernment.

    • I can only concur. I think you have made a very important, even vital point. Writers are often under so much pressure to jump through these hoops that they are often unable to let their own voice develop and emerge. Which may be why we see so much cookie-cutter fiction, not merely characters but style. I also think that creative writing courses may have a lot to answer for in this regard, of teaching to write in the way that currently sells well or garners approval.
      Yes, thankfully, things do run in cycles, and fashions. I do hope a more discursive and more leisurely fashion pops up soon, before the creative spark of many is extinguished.
      Thank you for visiting and commenting; it means a lot that my words are read.

      • I’m glad you appreciated my comment. I know how much a response means to us bloggers! On the subject of improverishing creativity, I was reading books in the 1980’s which were so prescient, they warned of this happening in the near future, because they had discerned the first signs of it already. One particular author I read bemoaned the dependence of novelists upon “research” instead of allowing their stories to flow from the unconscious. Who dares to fully trust their unconscious now, in this current climate?

      • Yes, I understand this. I do, I confess, very little research. I find it kills dead the story before it is born. But I do a lot of meandering around, reading, surfing the web and listening to people.
        Which author was it? I am curious to see who foretold this Zeitgeist at the feast.

  2. Very thought-provoking. I’m not sure where I stand on whether the changes are a good or a bad thing (though I wouldn’t dispute they are there). My absolute favourite novels tend to be utterly linguistically denuded – Josephine Hart’s Damage, Brett Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero, Veronique Olmi’s Beside the Sea, Banana Yoshimoto’s anything. Yet I would say they are both as evocative of teh author’s creative vision and as perfect in their realisation of a three dimensional world as any more verbally festooned works – I just think they convey that world and vision differently – through rhythm, through the white spaces of the text, through sparsity and elegance (and yet if we look at Japanese culture or even Greek, these qualities aren’t so modern after all).

    • I’m all for variety in our literary diet, rather than being forcefed a constant menu of books shaped entirely by the marketforces created by publishers.
      It doesn’t take a lot of words to create a vivid and fully-realised wordpicture, I agree, yet the books that do this effectively are not the ones I mean. In musical terms, the silences between notes are as vital to the music as the notes themselves and so it is with words.
      I don’t want everything narrowed down totally to one sort of book only, but rather to rejoice in differences and choice. It’s the choice that is being whittled away at.
      Thanks for visiting, Dan. Always a pleasure!

      • As always, I’m not sure I share your pessimism – I really am a Pollyanna when it comes to culture. I’m not so sure we ever had a huge choice – we just had more examples of the kind of books we have fewer of now, because we are reflecting and commenting upon a different enviironment – I think they had just as few of the kind of thing we have more of now. I’m heartened that self-publishing and the clusters of creativity the web allows to grow will nurture more not fewer voices – they will just be less easily seen.

  3. I think it is an interesting point that you raise – and certainly a valid one. But two things occur – I’m with scskillman that these things run in cycles. And once we have a surfit of a particular style, things switch. I’m conscious in my own reading lifetime that a whole raft of ‘fashions’ have come and gone… The ‘Story So Far’ in multi-volume series… the prologue has fallen well and truly out of fashion… going further back, the necessary couple of paras of scene setting at the start of every book… the single para description of every main character has also fallen by the wayside.

    I’m a HUGE fan of Nevil Shute by the way – have read ALL his stuff and think that he should be read a whole lot more. But he is – as we all are – a writer of his time. It is certainly interesting to read well-written books from an earlier era. I notice that modern books tend to use more metaphorical language, despite (or is it because?) of the snappy brevity.

    And as Dan mentioned, with the upsurge in self publishing, as with music, I suspect that folks who find the current fashions in writing jarring or unsatisfactory will seek out those writers who they prefer. These days, there is truly something for everyone.

  4. Sometimes, when I open a book, I can almost hear the sound of Hans Zimmer’s orchestra opening up with the first bars of the accompanying music. Often, when I’m jarred straight into “the hook” and, beyond that, the various (sorry, but predictable) plot-points current authors are advised to include… I’m disappointed. I *want* my scenes set, my characters introduced and a little background. But I’m out of touch (apparently).

    Yes, I have a toppling TBR pile. Two of your books lie there beckoning me, along with various others. I’m also currently planning my next novel, soon to be written. And you’re right, there’s all that “stuff” ringing in my ears from current writing books and advisors. I know I have a great idea for a terrific tale but will it conform to current advice? I worked out that, if I cared too much, it’d be a different book, but fulfilling every standard of the current fiction teacher’s code. So, and here I introduce Frank Sinatra, I’m doing it my way. Until it sells.

    It’s like swimming. Sometimes, I like a book I can slip into slowly, luxuriantly, in warm lagoon pleasure. Other times, I can handle diving in and dealing with the frantic action. It truly depends on what I read last and the mood I’m in now. Which is why I keep a stack of classics to hand. For light relief ;)

  5. Thank you for writing such an interesting post, Viv.

    I’m still thinking about this one because, much as I enjoy some of the classics, I do not like reading novels where many words seem to be superfluous: the type of novel with long descriptive passages where all is spelled out in far too much detail leaving no room for me, as reader, to use my imagination. I love a concisely written novel. I also like to be hooked in right from the start. There are too many books out there to read for me to spend time deciding whether it is worth continuing with a novel which has not grabbed me yet.

    What I am pondering here is a ‘chicken and egg’ question. Do I like this sort of writing because that is what is provided and I have become used to it or are publishers meeting a demand created because we have lost the ability to concentrate for long periods of time?

    By the way, I feel this is an issue in literary fiction and in the literary end of genre fiction. In mainstream commercial fiction there is a dreadful lack of economic writing and a tendency to tell the reader everything just in case they are too stupid to pick up clues from more nuanced writing. In comparison with this type of contemporary fiction, give me even the paid by the word Dickens any day of the week.

  6. I think I needed to hear this. Lately, I’ve become convinced that, because I write sprawling stories that drive the reader head on into the thick of the atmosphere of the book, rather than the action, I’ve joined the writer’s game well after my time. But maybe not. Thank you for this.

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