Jul 11

Peter Brantley

Peter Brantley

Long Form Fiction and Mozart's Operas

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has released some preliminary findings from a study of reading habits among the young. The report indicates that despite the Harry Potter phenomenon, the long term trend in reading habits continues its general decline. As the New York Times summarizes, "Indeed, as the [Harry Potter] series draws to a much-lamented close, federal statistics show that the percentage of youngsters who read for fun continues to drop significantly as children get older, at almost exactly the same rate as before Harry Potter came along."

As Jeff Gomez in the Print is Dead blog concludes, "The Kids Aren't All Right," Potter has probably not been successful at drawing a connecting line between the enjoyment of these youth and young adult works and the eventual appreciation of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, most likely for some obvious reasons:

Instead, this shows that what kids have gravitated to in terms of the Potter books has been both the content and the immersive experience that the books offer. But since Potter's arrival a decade ago, a number of interactive media -- from World of Warcraft to Second Life -- have been introduced which offer an equally immersive experience (if not more so). Indeed, continuing to read the Potter books -- for many fans -- has become just another part of the ongoing Harry Potter cottage industry, which includes everything from movies to theme parks. As I wrote in an earlier blog post, books are getting to be the least interesting part of the Potter universe.

The obvious distinction that needs to be drawn here is that kids are actually reading all the time; indeed, they may be reading more than ever, as the Internet explodes history's past difficult interface between text acquisition and the reader. However, what people are reading is increasingly short-form - text messages, Facebook wall posts, stories in the New York Times, and whatever online forums are of particular interest to the browser.

It is not, I suspect, wildly pessimistic to conclude that the consumption of long-form reading material, particularly novels, is this era's reprise of the decline of Classical Music - an art form highly appreciated for its sophistication and beauty, but nonetheless one that is becoming increasingly relegated to a particular (high) socio-economic class, winnowing the past historical diversity of its audience. The immersive consumption of narrative fiction, excepting niche and highly popular markets such as romance literature, science fiction, and pornography, may become the exclusive domain of an elite which has the affordances of time and leisure to cultivate recherche' media.

Continuing this discussion, these speculations were debated among a few of us in an email thread, reproduced here:

- Joe Esposito :

If I may make the obvious point, "readership among the young" is not declining. The reading of books and magazines and almost certainly hardcopy newspapers is probably declining, but much, even most, of what kids do online is to engage in text. Not all online applications are multimedia. Based on the limited experience of observing my own kids, I would say that my kids engage with text far more than I did when I was their age. (I watched a lot to television, which they rarely do.) One is involved with nonstop text communications, fan sites, etc. and will be purchasing the new Harry Potter when it goes on sale at midnight in a week or so; the other spends all his time poring over online spreadsheets (almost entirely of sports statistics). Yes, this is a 4-iPod household with the other requisite digital devices, but the primacy of text remains unchallenged.

- Mike Shatzkin :

Joe makes a great point here. I have enjoyed observing that while the consumer book business keeps saying to itself, "people don't want to read on a screen", people DO read on screens: more every day, including the people who were lifting their eyes from a screen in order to say that to each other. The fact that books aren't even on the LIST of what people read beyond email is an unfortunate comment on our ineffectiveness as an industry. The human race HAS adjusted. The book business has not.

What IS open to discussion in an increasingly fast-moving attention-deficited world is whether the market for long form narrative will eventually go away? Will kids who have such a plethora of short-form communication taking place in their lives keep or develop the patience for something that takes 100,000 words to tell? (whether it is told on a screen or on paper or both being an entirely separate question.) The 90-120 minute movie may face a similar challenge over the next couple of decades. The public has clearly established that the unit of appreciation for music is the song, not the album. A wildly imprecise comparison, but not irrelevant.

- Nick Bogaty :

To Mike's good point below, there are good indications that the book business is adjusting to short-form content in electronic delivery. Specifically in a move toward short-form subscriptions on mobile devices. While it ain't Faulker, it's selling:

Example #1 -
Novels delivered on Japanese handsets -

"WITH sales of books in decline, a new market has come as a godsend to Japan's publishing companies. Sales of mobile-phone novels -- books that you download and read, usually in installments, on the screen of your keitai, or mobile phone -- have jumped from nothing five years ago to over ¥10 billion ($82m) a year today and are still growing fast. It may not be literature, but it sells. Mica Naitoh, a popular keitai author whose bestselling book had 160,000 downloads a day, says many of her readers never even buy old-fashioned books."

Example #2 -
One of the better examples of English-language trade publishers working with the electronic form and achieving a lot of success with their readers: Harlequin on the Go.

The subscriptions offered in both examples seem perfectly timed and lengthed for the subway commute from say Ueno to Shibuya, Brooklyn to Manhattan etc.

- Allen Noren :

At the TOC Conference, Stephen Smith from Crossway Books explained how his company transformed the way their customers can read the Bible. Normally a formidable task when approached as a print document, they chunked it up into 365 digital parts that could be read each day. The transformation of what was, for many, an arduous task into something that scales for today's readers seems to me like great tip for the rest of us to consider. The same is true with the Japanese example [above]. Though serialization is not new, what is new is the innovative way this company transformed a "book" into something fresh and new that has little to do with its original form.

-- finis --

tags: publishing  | comments: 2   | Sphere It

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Comments: 2

  monopole [07.11.07 06:19 PM]

While a variety of factors limit the contiguous reading of what we could call "long form fiction" a critical question is if we are actually seeing the appearance of even "longer form" content in manageable chunks. Harry potter is not only a set of very long books but arguably an organic whole as a series. Somebody reading "The Deathly Hallows" without having started at the first book would be hopelessly confused.

Japanese manga often follow the same form. While initially released in short chapters and then collected into books, the compete series often forms a highly structured organic whole. A prime example of this is 'Deathnote' or any manga by CLAMP.

This isn't new either, many of Dickens greatest works were serialized, and Asimov's 'Foundation Trilogy' was originally released as a series of short stories. In a modern vein Stross' "Acellerando" was originally published as a series of short stories as well.

So a critical question is, how much of the fragmentary stream of reading we consume are parts of these very large forms?

  Michael Jensen [07.11.07 10:16 PM]

For some years I've been pondering the danger (or "danger," as some would want to quotation-mark it) of the loss of the general reader's ability or willingness to process long-form analysis/synthesis, especially in re the change in reading habits, driven by the Web realities of content abundance (since there are *so* many competitors for attention)...

Will the ability to read/interpret/process the complex argumentation of a long-form scholarly monograph, for example, devolve to binary analysis in the blog-centric world (good/bad, stupid/smart, right/left, insightful/banal)?

Or (perhaps) worse, will the will to analyze and interpret become only the purview of the few/elite?

Or (perhaps) worse yet, will those analyses become an elite (and thus generally disparaged) pastime?

Long-form argumentation (let's say, 200+ pages), in which subtle, nuanced consideration of a specialist's issue is constructed into a coherent line of thinking, is how deep, knowledgeable expertise is currently communicated.

If we lose that, because few people are interested (or are willing to spend the time pursue it), do we lose something essential?

I think so, but then again, I spent most of my life in the 20th century.

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