I hear this all the time at work:
Nobody is going to read all of this.
Obviously, when reading a novel, it’s different than reading on the web. Don’t ask me why, but somebody, somewhere, will read that 500,000 word trilogy. But even then, you hear things like “kill your darlings,” suggesting that any beautiful prose has no place in commercial fiction. Nobody likes the well-turned phrase. Nobody likes slipping vocabulary through their fingers like fine wine (nobody likes mixed metaphors, incidentally). The bottom line: Nobody reads anymore.
I’m going to call into question two assumptions:
- Is this true?
- If it is true, should we eliminate as many words as possible and encourage even more non-readers?
1. Is it true that nobody reads anymore?
Just look at the struggling book sales, while every year since Titanic a new movie topples the top-grossing list. We don’t need to read – there’s an app for that. We’d rather skip all the text and flip for pictures, which our exceedingly short attention spans are more apt to contemplate.
Truthtime. I will look over the spine of a book or the length of a blog or article online to see how long it is before I delve in. I want to gauge how much of my time and energy will need to go into it. But I will still read it, especially if the opening paragraphs are fun, flirty, metaphorical – above all, I am looking for content quality, not how long or complex the piece is. That means good writing can be long or short.
True, we scan webpages, and only (on average) read about 20% of the words on a webpage. But does this mean we’re not really reading anything?
Then why do we even have blogs? Why is there more free reading content than ever, with ebooks topping Amazon charts? Why does content go viral just as often as videos do (if not moreso)? Why is the vast majority of web content text-based as opposed to any other form of media?
So I’m curious to know – How much do you read on the web? And for that matter, what sort of stories do you read in print?
2. If nobody reads anymore, should we placate them?
Writers must consider their audience. The way we read is rapidly changing, as it has been since the invention of smartphones computers movies typewriters printing press books the written language. I’m not a Luddite (I just got my first smartphone!). We need to get with the times if we’re going to compete in today’s market.
But is something essential being lost if we cater completely to the market?
I actually saw these on the guidelines for submitting to an online blog:
- “Use plain language;”
- “Bullets, numbered lists, subheads, etc. are encouraged to break up text for readability;”
- “Don’t require users to read long continuous blocks of text;”
- “Limit use of metaphors…Users might take you literally;”
- “…complex words are even harder to understand online.”
And a lot of the same guidelines showed up on a self-publishing platform one of my clients was using.
See a pattern here?
I am not saying that we should force the reader to endure a terrible experience. But can people really not understand metaphors or complex words? And if not – is it our fault?
I happen to love a good turn of the phrase. Wit turns me on. The occasional complex thought can brighten even the dullest of plot-holey novels – and dull, plot-holey novels have no place in my bookshelf.
There’s this great debate in the literary world. I’ll touch on it only briefly. This debate is called Literary vs. Genre writing, and it stems back since before Cain and Abel fell out of touch.
I am a fantasy author, which is about as ‘genre’ as it gets. And genre writing caters to the market: readers’ increasingly low attention spans. We have to be clear, above all. We have to be concise. We have to follow a logical narrative arc.
But I also write and love to read literary short stories and poetry. Literary is all about word choice, which makes me salivate. It doesn’t have to be clear all the time, and I’m okay with that. I like to let my mind wander over the words. I love complex ideas that make sense – but I don’t always want to make sense of it.
Good writing can be complex or simple. If we lose of one of them, I think that our collective reading experience is in serious trouble.
What do you like to read – epic-length allegories or 140-character quips? I’m guessing, like me, some of you are on the fence. No need to choose sides – let’s sign a treaty and decide just to read, not Books that Are Short or Books that Are Complex, but Books that Are Great.