We’ve stopped reading… Apparently.

Have you ever run across one of those opinion pieces where you understand exactly where the author is coming from but realise they are shaking the wrong end of the stick?

Well, I found one of those pieces on how people have stopped reading novels. Apparently.

The article starts strongly, outlining the evidence for the argument. We get to hear about the “many” conversations that the author has had that confirm their belief.

I’ve gone from writing a regular column on scifi books for The Guardian, to a year without reading novels. What happened?

I keep having the same conversation about novels. I tell people that I don’t think anybody is reading novels any more. Usually, the response is outraged. I have a lot of writer friends. Clearly, none of us like the idea that the readers are drying up. Then I dig a bit and it becomes clear – they haven’t actually read a novel themselves in years.

I’m obviously overwhelmed with this high-quality anecdata. The $122 billion publishing industry, which is expected to grow to 6% by 2023, is bound to just give up now and stop releasing books.

But don’t worry, the author has more evidence…

My primary evidence for the death of the reader is the death of my own reading. It’s been a year since I’ve read a novel. “Well you must just be one of those dumbasses who doesn’t read!” I hear some folks thinking. That would be less worrying, wouldn’t it? But the truth is that, until quite recently, I was a professional reader.

While I was writing my regular column on sci-fi books for The Guardian I was getting through five or six full books a month, and looking at maybe two dozen in part. Plus reading for reviews with SFX magazine and elsewhere. I would trawl through the new releases looking for anything promising. And while doing that, something happened.

I was finding less and less I wanted to read.

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So obviously, the author of this piece is clearly and utterly wrong. They do, however, touch on something important I’d like to discuss. But before I do… I need to say something.

These kinds of unresearched posts written by influential opinion havers annoy me. How hard is it to fact check your uninformed pubinion (get it, pub + opinion) before letting it out into the world? Couldn’t you just keep this sort of uninformed blathering confined to a drunken evening with your mates who won’t remember it in the morning? I mean, check any data on reading, any data on books sales, any data from readers, and you’ll see there are plenty of people reading novels.

But sure, one writer for The Guardian (and elsewhere) and a few their mates haven’t read a book lately, so its all over. Sound The Last Post and bring in the flags, we’re done here.

Really makes you want to start hunting people for sport… I kid, I kid.*

I think a big part of the problem with this argument is that the author doesn’t recognise the actual issue. They burnt out on reading a very specific type of sci-fi/fantasy novel. Yes, they might complain about the bad self-published novels ruining the industry – did I mention they used to write for The Guardian? – but it is clear they don’t read very widely. If I was reading half-a-dozen literary sci-fi/fantasy novels a month, I’d probably be removing any sharp objects from my house to alleviate any spur of the moment desires.

Would it have hurt them to branch out and read some non-literary sci-fi/fantasy? Maybe mix in some romance, crime, western, graphic novels, something, anything, just to have a change of pace. For myself, as much as I love sci-fi, I read just as many fantasies, crime, thriller, horror, philosophy, and non-fiction titles.

This is part of why I dislike the book warden and worthy approach to reading. Those “great books” cause burnout. People stop enjoying reading and engage in other forms of entertainment. The article author mentions several of these, such as the competition from digital and social media, and the rise of prestige television. And to some extent this is happening already, people aren’t reading books because the novels they are told are the important or best ones to read aren’t as interesting as gaming, or TV, or movies.

By not identifying the actual problem it becomes very easy to lay the blame in exactly the wrong place. Let’s blame Dan Brown. How dare he entertain people with his terrible books. Let’s blame self-publishing. How dare authors release the equivalent of pulp novels onto the market. Let’s blame all those books I refuse to read as the reason I’m not reading. But the problem is the “great books” mentality and sticking to only one type of “worthy” novel.

The author wants a revolution in the industry to bring about the novel equivalent that “Mad Men or Breaking Bad” were to TV. But I’d suggest they would miss the revolution. They’ve walled themselves off in one specific sub-genre, complaining about how there aren’t enough shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, that they missed Deadwood, The Wire, and literally every other show.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to acknowledge that there is more to novels than the ones marked “Literary Snob Approved”.**

* Although, you might want to start running, and don’t forget your haversack and hunting knife.

** Also known as Award Winning.

School Literature

A recent article in The Conversation caused a bit of a stir. Titled Old white men dominate school English booklists. It’s time more Australian schools taught Australian books it was bound to ruffle some easily offended feathers.

The article itself was a fairly standard call for greater diversity in school texts. It’s an old discussion that is apparently taking a fair bit of time to leak through to the sorts of people who follow The Conversation to post opinionated comments but don’t read their articles. I’ve covered it here with the worthiness, important books, snobbery, guilty pleasures arguments and the PBS It’s Lit series (particularly this episode).

The basic gist of the article is that it would be really nice if some of the additions to the school book list were actually being taught to kids. We’re still seeing the same old “favourites” being taught, mainly because they’ve always been taught so there are plenty of SparkNotes on them.

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The audacious dream is to expose kids to more authors, diversity of texts, and some of the other great books that weren’t written by a dude wearing a ruff. I’d hope that this more diverse array of texts will inspire a lifelong love of reading by showing kids that there is more to reading than a couple of 400-year-old plays and some poetry that even poets regard as pretentious.

What was interesting was the response on social media and in the comments.

There aren’t any great female and people of colour authors!! I’d have learned about them in school if there were!! Stop being racist and sexist against white men!!

Arguments like this are, of course, said without a hint of irony.*

These arguments are always frustrating. The traditionalism argument about how great these authors are ignores how those texts make it onto the syllabus in the first place and that literally no one wants to take them off anyway. It also feeds into the larger problem of Book Wardens, who suck all the fun out of reading. I want to make a joke about crusty old vampires ruining reading, but they sparkle now, so they’d make it fabulous.

There is also the reactionary culture warrior aspect to this argument. Quick, someone who knows more about this subject suggested we make a change for the better: Man the keyboards, all caps the objections, haul out the canards!

These brave warriors are the last defenders against those evil thinkers and knowers. Only they can protect society from people who would dare to acknowledge there are other decent books worth reading.

In some respects, they remind me of the Literati who bravely defend Fort Literature from the invading hordes of the Lesser Works. As I’ve pointed out previously, the origins of what we call literature versus genre have their origins in the class divide during the Industrial Revolution. Workers got to read one type of magazine, whilst richer managers (but not the capitalists) got a fancier magazine. The stories that were published in the fancier magazines became literary, whilst the rest was genre. So it is quite literally the snobbery of class divides deciding what is literary.

These reactionary culture warriors aren’t necessarily siding with the Literarti so much as reinforcing the status quo. They like the nice ye-old definition of literary and artistic merit we often operate under in society. But it isn’t a good definition as it is more about what a certain group of people like. And that certain group holds the power, which the reactionary culture warriors need to defend at all costs!**

Maybe if these warriors (and literati) were to actually read some of the other great books they might learn something.

* Said on the internet, the greatest information resource in history, no less. But worse, the article and people like myself were pointing out the problems with their arguments. It’s like trying to lead a horse to a glue factory and they are refusing to acknowledge they were too slow for racing.

** The reason why is interesting. For some, it is just about “change bad”. For some, it is about pwning the libs, which as far as I can tell appears to be anyone who has read a book since high school. For others, it is about sucking up to those with power or influence in the hopes they will be rewarded in some way. This seems like an odd position to take given the topic at hand, but it has to be about the only time I’ve seen an Arts Professor lauded for their support of (insert classic literary text here). We live in strange times.

Loving reading and book wardens

When do people start to hate reading?

For us readers, the answer is “Never! How could you ask such a silly question? What’s wrong with you? Do you even book, bro?” But the reality is that a significant chunk of the population have not read a book in the last year, and/or aren’t regular readers. We have to admit: some people don’t like reading.*

I have a pet hypothesis** on this. During school, mainly high school, kids start to hate reading. This is because teachers, academics, literary people, policy makers, and general busybodies, start to decree what kids should and shouldn’t be reading. As a result, kids are “forced” to read books that they aren’t interested in or that have won an award or are a “classic” or that fill a certain level of appropriate snootiness that appeases book snobs.

Or as Blackadder put it:

In the academic text – From Striving to Thriving: How to Grow Confident, Capable Readers – Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward discuss this issue. They outline this problem and have summarised reluctant readers with a cartoon from Dav Pilkey (of Captain Underpants fame).

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Cartoon by Dav Pilkey in From Striving to Thriving by Stephanie Harvey and Annie Ward

One of the authors, Annie Ward, presented at a readers summit recently and one of her slides has made it to social media. It covers some key points for how educators become “book wardens” who restrict reading and undermine reading ownership and choice. Book Wardens tend to:

Sound familiar?

While I have frequently focussed on the snobbery aspect to this problem, particularly from the reading/publishing industry itself, there is more to this. Take for example “just right” books and adults. What image do we conjure up when someone mentions comic book readers? Pimply teenage boy? An obese virgin loser who still lives with his parents? You know, this guy:

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The problem with that series of assumptions is that it is a form of reading snobbery. How could a comic be entertaining to anyone who isn’t a loser? Or similar statements that you’ll hear from people who have never read a comic book and battle to wrap their head around the art form.

In other words, even as adults, we are encouraging people not to read.

But don’t worry, as Dav’s second-page shows, we can all make a difference to people by encouraging them.***

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*A quarter of people (24-26%) haven’t read a book recently. I’ve previously discussed the reading figures for the USUK, and Australia and it is interesting how the figures come together. Suffice to say, reading is not a favourite hobby for most people.

**Hypothesis because a theory is something pretty solidly supported, whereas a hypothesis is a question you want to answer. Join me in my scheme to change the values that will stop the positive feedback of the colloquial usage of theory today!

***Although in fairness, the literary snobs are trying to encourage people to read. Their failing is that they think what they like should be what everyone reads. They have us talking about guilty pleasures and judging what we read by their standards rather than just letting us read stuff we enjoy.

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