Monday, February 08, 2010

Is the Publishing Industry Dumbing Down?

I was stuck by a comment made by Jared Case in response to Friday’s posting by Charles.

I bet your narrative "sense" was set by your reading experience as a youngster, before you started watching films passionately. Mine was as well, but I may be the last of a generation of writers that was weened on words before images.
The last generation of writers who learned words before images.

Oh, wow.

In my house when I was a youngin’ we didn’t have a TV until I was in grade five or six. When we finally got one, my brother and I had our TV viewing restricted to one hour per weekday.

No, I am not THAT old – many of my friends had a TV.

I remember going to the movies once in a while, but it wasn’t a regular occurrence. And until the age of Beta and VHS it was a rare person who, like Charles, would see a movie more than once a week.

The biggest thing, IMHO, that books have over movies is that it is only through reading that you can truly get inside another person’s head. When you watch a movie, no matter how intimately the director tries to show you the mind of the characters, or how great the acting, you are observing from a distance. Just as you do in real life.

Shakespeare was able to get away with having his characters express their innermost thoughts and belief in monologues, but no one does that today.

What books have over movies is more than just words, but time to allow the expression of complex ideas and thoughts.

I fear that the new way of reading is going to change a lot of that. I was at a panel at a conference a few years ago when the owner of an electronic book publisher said that they were looking for books with ‘short sentences’ to fit the screen of the device.

Now they are talking about reading books on cell phones.



Riveting dialogue.

People are already complaining that too many books are becoming all action and quick dialogue. Full of short, punchy sentences, with little room for description, ideas, or anything but the barest sense of emotion. In which conflict is reduced to shooting the bad guy, but not bothering to figure out why the bad guy is acting in such a way, or even if he is the bad guy after all.

So, I wonder, are even the big publishing houses going to eventually start looking at manuscript submissions with an eye to how they will read on a cell phone screen or on a device with which the reader can switch to a video or the Internet if they get the slightest bit bored?

Are publishers already thinking like that?


Ann Elle Altman said...

Interestng post. I also read books as a child because we didn't have a television. I'm thankful my mother did that now. I can imagine reading a book on my cellphone or having some Wii voice character do it...wouldn't that be funny. A Wii Read!


sharonbially said...

Not only are books becoming all action, but they're losing sight of what makes a good story and.... good writing. Seems a novel needs some sort of shocking, bizarre or unheard-ove event these days to please editors; but whatever happened to character-driven plots where change comes from within? Who knows, maybe next entire books will be boiled down to that one bizarre event to be more cell-phone friendly.

Rick Blechta said...

I have trouble watching music videos because of what are called "jump cuts", that annoying snip of this, snip of that, camera angles changing every 3-4 seconds style of editing. It's supposed to make the video more vital and interesting -- or so they say. My sons have no problem with this, and find older concert videos somewhat "boring" because they're so "static". (Gee, imagine watching someone play for a few minutes.)

Books might be going through much the same thing -- or at least that's the impression because editors seem to be demanding this type of writing. When you visit a publishing house now, guess what? It seems as if all the people working there are of the "music video generation".

Wonder if there's a correlation?

Good blog topic!

Charles Benoit said...

As much as we might not like it, reading tastes change over time. Pick up a copy of anything by Dickens and try to convince yourself it's not overwritten. Or pick up something by Edith Wharton or Theodore Dreiser - the most popular novelists in 1910 - and pretend it's not painfully over-dramatic.

Hemingway's a sexist, Steinbeck's a rambling by one our best authors become our best unread authors. Do we really believe that ANY writer today will be actively read in 2110? Like it or not, reading tastes change - and writing styles follow.

Sylvia said...

As a publisher, I would say no - we're still publishers because we believe in wonderful content, and wonderful content seldom comes in short sentences and inane dialogue.
I so agree with Rick about the editing of music videos and more and more movies today. It makes me nervous and jumpy and longing for some long thoughtful pans so one can actually see what is happening.And what about those rushing noises that you get on sportscasts - and now the weather channel. Does it drive anyway crazy? But now I'm getting off topic I think.

Vicki Delany said...

I disagree with Charles, I'm afraid. Re the Classics, my oldest daughter loves the great classics, and still reads them. I read Passage to India earlier this year for a talk about books on local TV, and thought it was just great. We discussed it alongside a modern book set in India and agreed that Passage was by far the better book. I also read the Moonstone by Wilkie Collins for the first time this year, and loved it. Some of the classics are dated sure, but the writing is timeless. Then again, sometimes, sometimes it's just dreck.

Charles Benoit said...

Mark Twain said that a classic was book people praise but don't read. That said, I do still read a lot of Twain...

Donis Casey said...

Twain is my literary hero. I was in the middle of one of his books a few years ago when I was suddenly overcome with grief that I can never meet him in this life.

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