Monday, September 11, 2017

Are we losing the plot?

I'd like to take a moment to welcome our newest member to the Type M for Murder family, Marianne Wheelaghan. A brief bio is in the right-hand column a bit of the way down and it would be a good idea to read it. You should also purchase one of her novels for an even better introduction!

And so without further blather, take it away Marianne! —Rick

The other day, I heard best selling author Robert Harris being interviewed on the radio. He questioned whether the novel had a future in the face of a perceived declining attention span in readers, arguing that stuff like online streaming and box sets are offering more dynamic alternatives to novels. “A box set takes 10 or 12 hours to view, and that’s the same length of time it takes to read a novel … my impression and certainly my own habit is that these series are pretty sophisticated, a lot of them are, it seems to me, in many ways, our modern novel and they’re more central in our culture.” Yikes! If Mr Harris is right, where does that leave us novel writers? Out of a job, that's where. I needed to know more and turned to the internet.

Within minutes I'd found a bunch of articles all echoing the same one damning thing: our increasingly digital lifestyle was leading to a dramatic decrease in our attention span. The headline grabbing accounts were all based on the one Microsoft report. In a nutshell, ten years ago our average attention span was 12 seconds, today it is a mere eight seconds. This is a whole one second less than a goldfish. Yes, I said a goldfish. It looks as if we are all, readers and writers alike, slowly but surely losing the plot. Digging a bit deeper, however, I was relieved to discover that not everyone agrees with the idea that our attention is declining. For example, Dr Gemma Briggs, a psychology lecturer at the Open University, suggests that the concept of an “average attention span” which increases or decreases is misguided. “Attention span is very much task-dependent and how much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is."

In order to process the myriad of information digitally delivered to us on a daily basis, it seems we've become very discerning about what to pay heed to, sort of super multi-taskers. Out of necessity, we have learned to quickly distinguish between information that is of importance to us and that which is not. So, while we may well be allocating our attention in a different way, we are no less attentive when it comes to focussing on the stuff we like, such as reading a novel or watching a box set. Certainly, when I watched the boxset of The Killing, I paid as much attention to it as I did to reading Hilary Mantel's (lengthy) Wolf Hall, enjoying both equally. And this is where I take issue with Mr Harris and his suggestion that watching a box set is fast becoming an alternative to reading a novel. The two activities don't have to be mutually exclusive. Far from it. So, I will have to disagree with the best selling author for now. I believe the novel does have a future. Will it remain central to our culture? That is up to us writers, surely? But it is worth noting that figures released by the Publishers Association for 2015 showed the UK publishing industry was in good health with total sales or book and journal publishing up to £4.4bn. The figures also reveal for the first time since the invention of the ebook, overall physical book sales increased while digital sales decreased. Vive le novel!


Sybil Johnson said...

I agree with you. I don't think binge watching TV series and reading novels are mutually exclusive. I do both myself and I suspect there are a lot of people in the same boat. You can watch TV with someone else and share the experience, but reading is alone time.

Eileen Goudge said...

I often hear rumors to the effect of "The novel is dead." Or traditional publishing is dead. Or print itself is dead. Usually, those rumors are, if not entirely baseless, greatly exaggerated. Books and stories have survived the millennia. I'm betting on at least a thousand more years.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Hi Sybil and Eileen, a big thank you for your comments – and for taking the time to read the post :) I'm glad you both agree and very well put, Sybil, yes, reading is "alone time", which I for one cherish. And, yes, Eileen, the novel and story telling has stood the test of time and I agree, it'll be around in some form or another for at least another 1000 years! Thanks again, Marianne