Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Have we become uncomfortable with uncertainty in fiction?

Over at the Rumpus, Rob Roberge ponders whether we as a society are losing our taste for complexity in fiction. He riffs off of an argument author Jane Smiley made that if society is largely governed by affluent men whose reading of fiction is declining, we are on track for becoming a more selfish and less empathetic culture.

While that may be a leap, Roberge delves deeper into which segments of society may be receptive to complex literary fiction and what could be behind this decline.

Do you agree with the premise that we are becoming less complex in our literary tastes?

Personally, I'm very skeptical of golden era attitudes toward the past. While books have had to cede cultural ground to other media with the rise of movies, TV and the Internet, I also don't know that there was ever an exalted period in the past where everyone in America was reading literary fiction and arguing about Proust vs. Flaubert at the dinner table, or even that there were more people who did that in the past than do now.

At the same time, I do worry about my own attention span with so many things available for distraction, and truth be told I don't often delve into a work of experimental or super-challenging fiction, preferring to usually skate on that fine edge of quality and readability.

What's your take? Have we lost a taste for complexity? Do we lose something if that's the case?

Art: Auguste Rodin seen in a parallel pose with Le Penseur (The Thinker). Photo by Edward Steichen


Riley said...

As an author, I've noticed that fewer readers are able to understand subtext and must have events explicitly stated. Both the problems and the ultimate solutions seem to require clarification or many readers just don't "get" it. Part of the problem, from an author's end, is writing genre fiction. Readers become so rutted in formulas that books that do not follow the memes seem confusing to them.

Matthew MacNish said...

I can't speak to society, but personally I love all kinds of fiction. Variety, really is what I strive for.

James O'Brien said...

Seems to me that there's never been a time when it would be easier to find an audience for whatever one writes.

But literary fictionists, and I have at times been to blame in this equation, like to complain about mainstream culture (or lack thereof). They also like to consume it. But it is then a guilty pleasure, and spoken of it with irony, or with borderline irony (ambiguity allows one off many kinds of hooks).

Dickens was the mainstream pop of his time. He happened to be fantastic with words. King was the mainstream pop of his time. Not so fantastic with words. Only the literary minded worry very much.

Meanwhile, careers are made and broken at the cash register, not on the lists of what is canon, or in the syllabus, or at the conference panel. And this is the way it has always been, as far as I can tell. If you don't believe me, ask Kafka, I suppose.

The professors and editors can anoint us, but only the consumers can pay us for what we've done. The time we spend at the keyboard is ours, but we can't complain if the course of letters doesn't alter for our efforts.

Guy said...

More selfish *and* empathetic? I don't get it.

Clare Adams said...

Yes. Unfortunately. Bestseller's list are not the problem - but we enter a dangerous territory when overall selling figures become the most important requirement for something to be published. A vicious circle starts with trying to nurture the public's taste instead of influencing it and ultimately forming it. If books are products, then it's all about the 'sellability' of books. Our age is ruled by fanfiction.

D.G. Hudson said...

Yes, it does appear that complexity involves an investment of time that some readers don't want to give.

Reading is learning. Reading broadly gives us a better perspective.

Atthys Gage said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Atthys Gage said...

I agree that this is hardly a new question. Even within genre fiction there are and have always been thoughtful , challenging innovators and rank-and-file formula-followers. And most often, the authors who achieve mass popularity are those who hew a straight line down the middle of the road, rather that venturing off on unmarked trails. No surprise there.

The question about whether this situation has gotten worse in recent years is a hard one to answer without relying on anecdotal evidence and gut feelings. Mine feeling is that, with the nearly ubiquitous amount of quick-and-easy entertainment now available, our attention spans have to have atrophied. Starting as kids, we're handed entertainment, pre-sliced, pre-chewed, already half-digested. The idea that entertainment might be challenging, and that this can be a good thing, has surely suffered. I don't really see this as a harbinger of doom. After all, quality stuff still, sometimes, gets noticed and even becomes reasonably popular. But I do think it is a harder sell than ever before.

Peter Dudley said...

Personally, I'm very skeptical of golden era attitudes toward the past.

I'm right there with you on that one, chief. (Also baffled as Guy is by the "selfish AND empathetic" thing.)

I think hand-wringing over sweeping societal trends in consumer tastes is misplaced. Fiction and art are meant (IMHO) to do two things: Either they illustrate/explain reality, or they create a different experience to give us a break from reality or to explore alternatives.

Reality has become more complex in the past 40 years. Fact and opinion are blurred and blended. Information and disinformation flow so fast it's often stale when we hear it. Everyone has an agenda, and we're all expected to pick sides.

What does this mean for trends? Eh. Who really cares? Art and literature are not dying. I am much more concerned about the number of kids reading at grade level in third grade, and kids learning to think critically and creatively. Focus less on who's publishing what and why, and ensure the next generation have a deep love of story, contemplation, imagination, and exploration.

Logan said...

I don't recall who said this about film, but the quote is, "If the scene is about what the scene is about, you're in trouble" or similar.

If that's the case for film, why shouldn't it stand for fiction as well?

It is our job as authors to elevate the reader, not assist his or her decline. I say, challenge or go home.

Eldheni said...

(aqree with the others...selfish AND empathetic doesn't make sense)

Personally, I actually was raised in a family that discussed books at the table, so I may not be the best audience for this question.

Readers attention spans seem shorter, in their need for immediate gratification and lack of patience with description and setting, etc.

But I do not see a clear correlation between that and comfort/or not with uncertainty.
I read and write genre fiction, in particular fantasy. I enjoy twists and subtle foreshadowing. Yet, I admit I do not read large amounts of literary, which I did as a child, because much of it now seems to place being 'different' over story. And above all, I read for the story.

jenna123 said...

The question to me isn't whether we are losing out taste for complexity but whether we're losing a taste for it in fiction. I feel like with so much information available about world events I'm forced to parse every detail to discover the closest approximation for the truth. Fiction for me has always shown the light on what the world isn't. In current events there are no heroes, there are no saints. There isn't even really any truth. So we look to stories that show us something innate about human nature that is hidden in our modern culture. That people can be good, that one person can make a difference, that your actions matter. In many ways that concept that is so central to popular novels is revolutionary. In a jaded and weary America it dares us to keep dreaming.

Nathan Bransford said...


That was a mistake, should have read *less* empathetic.

Peter Dudley said...

+1 jenna123. Nicely said.

Lisa Nicholas said...

I think we definitely have become shallower and less imaginative as a culture. This is due, in large measure, to the move away from the written word to visual media (movies, videos, TV, graphic novels), which simply don't engage the mind the way written stories & poetry do. Even the popular fiction genres of our day make poor use of the "philosophical" possiblities of fiction (as Aristotle called it in his Poetics). If Aristotle is too abstruse a reference, Ray Bradbury captured the problem very well in Fahrenheit 451. 60 years ago, he foresaw where we are today.

adan said...

"- if society is largely governed by affluent men whose reading of fiction is declining, we are on track for becoming a more selfish and empathetic culture." -

i'll just ponder the hypothetical, that if the above is true, and history for the hundreds of years past would seem to prove this is on-going, not recent, then :

the fact that women seem to be the greater number of readers now, might be some sort of saving grace is finally in the works...

i hope so ;-)

Maya said...

I mostly read dessert - aka YA :) but I try to shake it up now and again.

David Kubicek said...

Very well said, Lisa Nicholas. Written fiction, poetry, and nonfiction engage our minds. We have to think when we're reading, which doesn't happen so much when we're watching TV or a YouTube video.I have always been amazed at the accuracy of some of Ray Bradbury's predictions more than 60 years ago.

Linda R. said...

I believe this might be something for the future to approve or disapprove.

Let us hope that we are only giving them different venues to learn and create.

My own mother considered all the books my father gave me to read as a child, (Hemingway, Gatsby, O'Henry, Frost, T.S. Eliot and my favorite Louis L'Amour) trash and a waste of time. She would have called them anything but not good for my mind. I even had a Jr. High teacher complain to my mother I would suffer problems from reading trash so young.

I like to think we are raising our young people today to be creative, but in ways different than we knew. I went back to college at almost 50 years old, and I can tell you, those wonderful young adults were a lot smarter and better educated than I had been.

Cyndy Aleo said...

I think it's a circular trend feeding into itself. I'm seeing predominantly romance and erotica, and while the trends there are obvious, you see the same thing in other genres as well. Twilight succeeded and everything was vampires. Hunger Games succeeded and everything was dystopian. Fifty Shades succeeded and everything became billionaire Doms practicing BDSM lite.

The public at large tends to buy what they're given, and when you're shopping at Target or another big-name retailer and see everything the same on the shelves, that's what you're going to read. And then buy more of the same. Until someone takes a risk on another book and shifts the paradigm again.

So which is it? Readers uncomfortable with uncertainty in fiction or publishers uncertain with readers BUYING fiction?

Desmond X Torres said...

I have to comment here. Back in the 70's, we had to read Catcher In The Rye for HS English. The teacher loved the book.

I found Holden to be a spoiled rich kid who you couldn't trust a single word coming out of his mouth. Okay, it resonated with the critics. Not with me by a long shot.

I have always found Hemingway and Fitzgerald over rated bores. Sorry.

I read for entertainment. And forgive me, but neither those authors or Atwood today with their 'layers' and such have told a story that I'm all that interested in.

But different strokes I suppose. And if an author, who tells a story to fundamentally entertain loses an audience because of their pursuit of some sort of higher level or something, well... sorry. I won't slag the author, and conversely, I could care less if such an 'artiste' considers my tastes those of the unwashed. I pick up the book, and as a reader, I don't owe the writer a thing. They owe me for spending my money and time.

Anonymous said...

I don't think these times are any less confusing, or that we have more distractions. What did people say when storytellers were made redundant by print? And when hasn't society been ruled by affluent men, mostly old men at that?
I think that humans have a need for story. They may not always get it in a written novel with a hard cover, but we'll get it somehow.

Allison said...

I agree with you Nathan. It's highly doubtful that the there was ever a time in history when "high" literature was mass consumed. Nor do I personally find that just because fiction is complex or modern or deemed 'literary' by scholars or critics that it's actually good literature. I, too prefer a combination of quality and readability. My daily life is complex; I think and write and teach (writing) and problem-solve for a living. I like to relax with my book when my complex day is complete. Fortunately, we are able to choose what we want. I don't think we should guilt anyone into reading something they don't enjoy. That may in fact by why so many don't read; they were forced/urged into reading things they didn't enjoy.

Laurie Boris said...

Aw, this makes me sad. I love thick, complex stories. I like writing subtext. I hope it never goes away and that (somewhere) I can find an audience.

Terin Tashi Miller said...

I think--or fear--writing has become too formulaic.
Part of that is the fault of publishers, that want only to cover costs and make a profit, to show a successful bottom line to their shareholders.
Where are the risk-taking editors, and agents, and publishers of the past? They were far less concerned with "blockbusters" and "million-sellers."
They left room for experimentation, for "new" ways of writing, and seeing things, instead of "new" voices that wrote "just like" somebody who already was selling.
Maybe people are tired of having to actually look for something that makes them think, instead of something that they know with entertain them--"everybody says so"--that will make a fun or dramatic movie and sell lots of costumes or toys.
But I just had a similar discussion with my Indian publisher about Indian readers, who apparently have been conditioned to expect everything in a story or novel to be resolved in the end.
As opposed to a realistic ending, in which few, if any, loose ends ever get neatly tied up.
So part of it also, i think, is that readers have been conditioned to be uncomfortable with complexity, or at least uncertainty.
Ripe for an artist, with a risk-taking publisher, to try some new things...:)
It isn't true, likely, that readers of literature, as opposed to "pulp," DIDN'T sit around and discuss Flaubert, or Baudelaire. Or Gide.
In Spain, for instance, where they had no renaissance, lots of literary discussion groups, called "tertulias," formed at the cafes--Cafe Gijon being most famous for it.
Literary discussion was once a staple of "intellectuals," a term for people who thought, and read, and wrote, as opposed to just seeking out other entertainments.
What would have happened, to art in general, had Gertrude and Michael and Leo Stein not decided to buy, cheaply, paintings by Matisse and Picasso and others?
Someone has to take a risk for every new movement, every new stage of evolution or development.
People don't often tend to judge writing on its own merits--they first judge whether or not the story interests them. Then, perhaps, if they find the way it is told different or interesting.
But they are not told to spend their money to think. They are told to spend their money on what EVERYONE is reading.
It reminds me of my scoffing at GAP ads years ago, when they would have some young hipster type declare something like "Everybody, wear jeans!" or "Everybody, wear khakis!" But especially blue jeans, which were, when I was young, considered farm clothes, working clothes, the sign of poverty or rebellion and non-conformity.
In other words, people seem to wait to be told what to immitate or emulate, rather than someone saying: this is new. I think I like that it's new...
There was a time when writers tried all sorts of new things. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, name a "great." e.e. cummings comes to mind, too.
But now, it seems, no one dares be "new." They want to conform. Because they want to be published, and read.

Lynda R Young said...

I think we sell ourselves, and society, short by saying we've lost our taste for complexity. Like all generalisations, they lack accuracy. I think there will always be a place for the complex, experimental and/or challenging.

Backfence said...

At least in times past, whether we were inclined to read (and argue) the likes of Proust or Flaubert, the choice WAS available. Now such works would never see the light of day. The prospective agents would block any further movement up the chain toward publication, claiming their work didn't start out with a big enough bang ... Where's the hook? ... What? No vampires? Too wordy ... It doesn't fit what's currently trending.

How much good literature have we missed out on because it didn't fit into the narrow mold imposed upon it by this "one size fits all" generation of rule makers.

Of course, I think there are still a few unique and even cerebral books out there, and maybe a few discussions yet to be had. But the publishing industry is stuck in a rut partly of its own making and we, the reading public, are experiencing the ripple effect.

Cyndy Aleo said...

I just needed to ^^^^^^^^^^^ THIS Backfence's comment.

Mira said...

Interesting topic, thanks!Interesting comments, too.

First, complex literature is valuable, and the article does a good job of defending that. But the article also makes ALOT of unsubstantiated assumptions, including:

a. Men are reading less, and women and children are reading more. Uh, there are no stats to support this. Since Amazon is the largest bookseller in the world, and doesn't share stats, there aren't any stats available. So, I think this is an urban myth.

b. Literary (complex) fiction builds empathy, but popular genre fiction does not. This is definitely untrue. I actually think a strong case could be made for the reverse.

Literary fiction can be rather distant and intellectual (not a criticism) while genre fiction can engage the reader on an emotional level, where they identify with the protagonist. I think this, not intellectual analysis, is what builds empathy.

c. The assumption that rich, affluent men are reading less. Um, again, stats?

d. Reading is the only way to build empathy. Actually, T.V, movies, any art form, can build empathy in the viewer.

So I think the fears expressed in this article are not really supported.

However, I would guess that those who love literary fiction are feeling rather threatened by the explosion of genre fiction, and I understand that.

My sense of what's happening right now:

In the past, most book recommendations supported literary fiction. The awards, N.Y. Times Bestselling lists, reviews in magazines and newspapers were mostly exclusively literary fiction. If someone preferred genre fiction, it was VERY hard to get book recommendations, except by word of mouth, which is really inefficient.

In addition, books were hard to find and buy. A lot of genre fiction is written in series, but often bookstores would not carry the whole series. It was hard to find out when a book was published. Hardcover books are expensive for someone reading for escape. Also, books stayed in bookstores for short periods of time and then they were gone.

Everything changed, first with Amazon mailing books, and then with e-books.

Suddenly, it's extremely easy to buy books. Instantaneous, convenient and cheap.

As for finding out what book to buy, the book recommendation and review systems at Amazon completely opened up discoverability. And then sites like Goodreads allowed people to post reviews and share recommendations. And as people started reading more, word of mouth began to expand as well.

Genre fiction is finally coming into its own.

In terms of literary fiction, some people love it. But some may have been reading it because it was hard to find recommended genre fiction. Some may not have realized that they actually love genre fiction MORE. Some may find they prefer the escape of genre fiction while their life is busy and will go back to literary fiction, with its thought provoking explorations, when their life is less stressful.

But I also think literary fiction may be under some pressure to compete, and sell itself, and I'm not sure that's a bad thing.

However, I continue to believe that we are about to see an absolute explosion in reading, and literary fiction will undoubtedly find its audience.

Boy, that was a long comment. :D

Thanks for the discussion, Nathan. This is fun to talk about! :)

Mira said...

Oh, I'll quickly add: @ Backfence and Cindy, it's not possible to stop a book from being published nowadays.

If Proust or Flaubert couldn't find a home in Trad. Publishing (if they wanted one), they would have self-published.

Nathan Bransford said...

What Mira said. Plus, don't forget that Proust self-published his first novel. I'm sure he would have had complaints that sounded a lot like Backfence's. Luckily for Proust he was rich. Now you don't have to be.

This era still wins.

Magdalena Munro said...

Great post (as usual) Nathan. Having recently watched the Joe Wright directed Anna Karenina, I was blown away by its post modernism and its ability (despite the constant reminder that this is in fact a film/play)to pull our heart strings. Not surprisingly, few critics talked about post modernism or how it was used in this film...and these are critics. I'm not sure the "masses" ever read Tolstoy 50 years ago nor do I think the "masses" would be able to discuss post modernism then or today. The reality is that intellectualism has never been part of the masses and I become frustrated that people blame media, the internet, and todays prevalent ADHD culture as to why we aren't a more nuanced society that reads complex literature. My belief is that today's distractions are no different from the distractions that my Mother endured during WWII Germany. Distractions. Villagers needing to feed hungry bellies surely prevented them from fine tuning their intellect and today we have Facebook, YouTube, etc. preventing its cultivation. At the end of the day, there will be the few that choose to ignore the distractions and will choose the path of intellectualism (and often with this path comes reading of complex literature).

Its a wordy response but in a nutshell, I am not "worried" one bit but writing this post made me want to read some Tolstoy. :)

Cyndy Aleo said...

@Nathan regarding the "don't have to be rich" issue:

I think some money is still necessary. You can't be flat broke and self-publish something that's going to get attention because self-publishing requires an investment to put out a good product. You need to pay for editing. And for cover design. And then there's promotion: with the current climate about rogue self-published authors who don't act professionally, you have the added difficulty of getting a book out there in the ublic's eye. Many book bloggers are refusing to accept self-published books now. Add in the up-and-coming things like paying for blog tours, etc. and it becomes a very expensive proposition.

What's frustrating is seeing editors saying on Twitter "send us different" and then the pile of books I'm getting for review is "all the same." When it comes to reading, I'm back to a time before the digital age: relying on friends' recommendations rather than what's popular. Because what's popular (and promoted) are the safe bets.

Anonymous said...

I think a lot of the reasons people read about those complex things in the past was because their lives were so simple in the first place. In other words, what they read was a form of escapism.

Now that many of us are living more complex lives due to many reasons in the way society has changed, we're not so thrilled to read about them in books.

But I don't think that's a decline in literature. People seem more interested in stories now more than ever, and reading isn't about how complicated the book is but more about how enjoyable the book is. In fact, I find myself looking for simpler characters to take me away from my own complicated life sometimes :)

Gwen Tolios said...

I have actually been getting more into complex reading, but I can see this trend being true. Many adults are reading YA, almost exclusively and I find that genre can be very simple. I mean, YA is great, the stories and worlds are fun to read, but I don't consider them complex reads.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I write, I work, I write, I live, I write, I read...who the hell has time to immerse themselves and commit to anything more complex than billionaire boy meets virgin girl, girl blows up world, becomes sympathetic vampire wizard speaking in alien syntax best understood by glossary in the back of the book; resolution of relationship appears at end of third volume in the series.

I barely had time to read your whole post, skimmed comments, so what I am writing now is probably not even relevant...but I think it is. Even this comment is a commitment of time which I’m thinking is a waste because no one will read it. I’m hoping you will read it Nathan because it’s from a writer’s frustrated heart.

Clare Adams 12:15 said it best, “A vicious circle starts with trying to nurture the public's taste instead of influencing it and ultimately forming it.”

Lori Schafer said...

I agree that there is a tendency to view the past as some sort of golden age in which literature (or film, or painting, and so on) was more "artistic" and more highly revered. But the fact is, a hundred years ago, mass consumption revolved around the novel - simple novels with good storytelling, not "deep," difficult ones. It's no different today. It only looks that way because the non-literary works of the past have largely been forgotten; they don't have sufficient drawing power to survive into the next generation.

So I do think there's a place for more complex fiction - but likely it's not going to be at the top of the bestseller charts. However, if a book has an impact beyond the current flavor of the week, maybe that's sufficient compensation for the author who wishes to produce something beyond mere entertainment.

For me personally, it depends on my mood. Sometimes I feel like a quick simple read, and sometimes I want a challenge. It's fortunate that we live in a world in which both types of work are available to us.

Cecelia Dowdy said...

Nope, I don't think we've lost all taste for complexity. I think each kind of fiction has a place in different people's lives. Personally, I read all kinds of fiction. I like being well-rounded with my reading choices.

Cathie John said...

Basically, people have not changed, they still want to be entertained...they just get their entertainment through a more electronic medium.

Storytelling around an open fire=Kindle Fire; Race Car watching/Extreme Sports/Pro Football viewing=watching chariot races and Gladiators at the Colosseum.

We as writers can either fill that need or be ignored. It just depends on how large an audience we want to cater to.

John Celestri (the Male half of Cathie John)

Mister Furkles said...

Research by linguists found that language change is due to middle class teenagers trying to imitate upper class teenagers. Who’d a thunk it? Is the statement “society is largely governed by affluent men “ wrt reading, have any basis in fact or was Jane Smiley just guessing? There may be thousands of things that could drive reading habits. Anybody’s guess is very likely to be wrong.

I recall In the 50s and 60s that nearly everybody’s parents read books. Mostly, they read westerns, mysteries, and other general fiction. Few people were reading philosophically oriented books (e.g. The Plague.) Books cost money and books that appeal to a small number of people come mostly in hardbound. In today’s money that would be about $50. Paperbacks would be priced, inflation adjusted, about the same as today.

Before WWII, a distinct minority of people graduated high school – never mind college. In my grandparent’s generation, only ten percent graduated high school. Of course they read more but books were very expensive. So, only the affluent could buy ‘serious’ fiction. And labor rates were low relative to material and shipping. So, it would appear from a superficial review of publishing, that a larger percentage of people read ‘serious’ fiction.

The market has changed and hardbound books cost about double the price of paperbacks. Publishing a book without broad appeal would drive the price to about $100 or more. That is the price of textbooks. Does anybody care to pay ten times more for ‘serious’ fiction than for mass market hardbounds?

Alex Omega said...

I agree with your "golden era" comments, Nathan.

The linked article isn't so much complex as confused. And arguably anti-male.

Lisa Lane said...

I think tastes have grown simpler. Readers have become lazier. Too many people read to escape rather than read to think, and I think that's unfortunate.

James said...

I think we live in an odd time.

A time when most people who are into reading actually know how to write fairly competently. They know the rules, so to speak. And it makes them idiots.

I have friends (particularly writer friends) that have forgotten how to enjoy reading a book. All they see are sentence fragments and poor word choices (which mostly means passages written in a way they wouldn't have done it).

So let me jump on that bandwagon too.

I think modern day writing spells out a lot more than previous works. I also think there is this weird division between modern and classic literature that doesn't make any sense.

Hello -- Frankenstein, Count of Monte Cristo, Three Musketeers -- Talk about pulp fiction! Soap Opera fair!

But these are classics. Why is it so hard for people to see that these are also entertaining as hell? The Three Musketeers is fucking hilarious. But no one reads it that way. It's "literature."

Let's not even get into Jules Verne or Charles Dickens or H.G. Wells /sigh

Why is there such a hard line between these literary figures of our past? Why is their work elevated in such a way that makes them something other than what they are?

Anyway, I'm not sure if it is readers being "dumber or lazier." In fact, I think a lot of it is readers being too smart for their own good.

Forgetting how to enjoy a book? What kind of nonsense is that?

Francis said...

I have a feeling that it shows the difference between "writing" and "storytelling." Since attention spans are declining, people tend to focus more now on relatability and universality (although it's entirely possible that that's how people have always reacted to stories and fiction).

Stories, in their original sense, were NOT meant as a means to engage the mind, after all. Looking back at all the myths, parables, fables, etc. Stories are really more of tools to help the community survive and equip them with practical, moral, and communal tools and practices. I feel that choices today have more to do with these aspects, as well as with Catharsis than anything else.

We watch and read high-adrenaline stories because they're very much like reading and listening to stories about the mythical heroes of the past. Perhaps it's no wonder why reinventing mythical creatures and beings has become a trend these days. People need their heroes to show them how to survive.

I believe there's also a difference on focus if one is aiming to be a "wordsmith" vs a "storyteller." There's a difference between focusing on the format and structure of writing (which is the focus of literary fiction), versus simply telling a good story that provides that catharsis for readers.

I believe this is exactly why YA books are being read more--because of their focus on storytelling. Because they often have a "moral lesson," readers can take that with them just as they took the lessons of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, or the Hare and the Tortoise with them as children.

Personally, while I tend to read complex novels and stories from time to time--and meditate on their implications on culture, etc. It doesn't feel as fulfilling--because most literary fiction caters to the mind rather than the emotions. And as a consumer of stories, I want to be MOVED more than anything else. I think that's how it's always been with fiction.

M A Clarke Scott said...

I think I agree more or less with both Smiley and Roberge, but not entirely. I think literature and the arts in general have always engaged in a dialogue with what's going on in society and the world at that time, and so naturally there is an ebb and flow in consumers' desire for and appetite for moral ambiguity and intellectual challenge. I believe it IS true that 9/11, recession, threats to the environment, the expanding gulf between rich and poor, a certain cynicism about celebrity, etc. have caused parochialism and a kind of retrenchment to literature that is safe and reassuring, even corrective. People don't really need to be reminded that the world contains evil, and that good is not always rewarded and evil punished. It's all around us (there is more media than ever before.) They may prefer the morality of reassurance. This doesn't mean they are dumbing down, necessarily. Only that their natural idealism and optimism are perhaps challenged by the times. The world is more complex today than ever before, and people are bombarded by an excess of un-edited information, opinions and ideas. They/we might need some help making sense of it, and making choices. And perhaps that help needs to be simpler and clearer and more obvious in its conclusions.
I also think that new media and the internet are seriously affecting people's attention spans and their ability, no, their inclination for critical and deep thinking. Not everyone was ever inclined this way, but perhaps more of us are becoming lazy about it than, say, 50 years ago. But this is not a progressive thing. It's just what's happening right now. I agree that we should remain focussed on supporting and encouraging people to read, and to talk about what they read (and absorb thru other media) and that the rest will take care of itself. At least I hope so.

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