Sitting in my most recent writers’ club meeting, my mind wandered to the issue of the modern reader and how a writer should and would respond. Most specifically, I was thinking about the attention span and the action requirements of the modern reader. Personally, I can relate. I have adult ADHD and even though I love books and writing and can enjoy Les Miserables and Shakespeare, I can’t manage things like Tolkien or Russian literature because of their length, attention to minute detail, repetition, and slow unfolding. I can’t but wonder if in the near future most “old” literature will be lost on Americans, both for leisure and even in the education system.
We are in a culture of distracted people, that is abundantly clear. I was reminded of this when I attended my sister’s Christmas cantata this past Sunday. Nothing against her lovely church (mine would have done the same), but I spent most of the performance struggling to look at Lindsay up there singing away because there was a giant screen above her head showing lyrics and second-rate graphics related to the songs (like babies in swaddling clothes and stars and Christmas trees). It wasn’t what was up there, it was that it was there at all. Let me hear a shout-out from you ADHD-ers; I struggle every Sunday with trying to pay attention to the sermon when the pastor is projected onto three different screens, and sing a worship song when these crazy graphics are looping around in the background (I have to find the mathematical pattern!) and now even on the walls and ceiling! And it is not just church. On no, it is everywhere. At the grocery store, I give wide berth to all those talking, flashing ads that dot the ends of aisles, now. At the gas station, I am being shown a mini-movie advertisement when I would have formerly been watching the numbers tick by and thumping the window to tell Eamon to get the heck back in the back seat. While driving even, everything has gone computer, so that instead of just picking a radio channel with a tactile dial or button, I have to look down and scroll around on a flat board through McDonalds ads and photos of album covers. And that’s not all, but I know I don’t have to go any further, ’cause you know, you understand. If I gave as many examples as I can think of right now, this blog entry would be tens if not hundreds of scroll-downs long. And I’m not just referring to electronic media. Think billboards. Think children’s toys. Think of the trend toward wackier and more integrated illustrations in novels.
And one of the major issues of all this bang and pizazz and around-the-clock entertainment and stimulation is that not only are we a distracted society, we are fast becoming a distractable one. I know it. You look inside and you know it. The more we are stimulated externally, the less able we become to stimulate ourselves internally.
So what does this mean for books? For writers? Even for publishers? As far as I can tell, there are two opposite reactions we might have to this, two courses of action.
One, join in. Beef up that book. Buy books that are exciting! Short words, short paragraphs, short on everything except anything titillating. Dumb down your geeky writer-speak and concentrate on things like cliffhangers and plot twists and the perfect, big ending. Otherwise, how are we, as people of a quieter industry, supposed to compete? Supposed to stay valid? Because that is what it may come down to in the end: not just Do I read a book right now or watch America’s Biggest Dancing Idol? but a more profound Do I read? It has always amazed me, anyhow, that many adults define themselves as “not a reader.” In this competition, we may become the next closest thing to obsolete. So why not keep up, stay current, give the modern reader what he never knew he wanted and more? Think creatively, since that’s what we do best: find ways to integrate reading and storytelling with modern media and modern entertainment and modern education. Even find ways of regurgitating “old” literature for a more fast-paced and stressful world.
Two, fight it. Hone your work so that it is the very best of the literary experience and stay that way. Don’t compromise, and stand tall, like a beacon of righteous literature, always there for the true literary seeker. And then hope like crazy that everyone else still picks up a book sometimes over the next couple hundred years, that they can still decipher the visual English language, whether it be on a page, a screen, or in liquid ink. You have to keep up with the technology, to a point, but no further than keep up, because there is something magical and primal about markings on a surface that reveal a story, and we–as keepers of literature–know what a good story is, what it can be. (In fact, there are also physical, emotional, even psychological benefits to a less distracting life, as scientists are now telling us, like how actually using a pen or pencil develops certain parts of the brain.)
I can’t tell you which way to react. Perhaps just keeping on keeping on, reminding yourself here and there about the changing needs and limitations of your audience is an okay option, too.
What I can tell you is this is indeed a story in itself about the slow unwinding of language as it first appeared thousands of years ago, how it became an oral tradition that became a written tradition that is at the moment strongly emphasizing external visual and auditory experience of the flashiest sort. The most distracting. And about how a people became a more distractable people, inundated with information and with options. And about how literature prevailed, in some form or another, and how we all had something to do with that.