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.