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Are Novelists Wrongly Being Taught to “Speed Things Up”?

bored-reader-1I tackled Melville’s Moby Dick almost a decade ago. It was long, rambling, lyrical, surreal, insightful, and maddening. I loved it. So I was a tad puzzled when so many of my critique partners panned it. Verbose and boring, they said. And WAY too long. It left me undeterred about reading other “classics.” Robinson Crusoe, Dracula, The Man Who Was Thursday, Heart of Darkness, Huckleberry Finn, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and others. Along the way, I learned something about myself: I tend to like the voice of the classic novels — the lengthy descriptions, literary constructions, and leisurely pace.

So it’s kind of a bummer to learn that some of what makes the classics classics, is what makes them boring for today’s readers.

Jodie Renner touched on this on today’s post at The Kill Zone entitled Pick Up the Pace for a Real Page-Turner. She suggests that the primary reason authors need to “pick up the pace” of their novels is because readers have changed.

Readers of fiction often complain that a book didn’t keep their interest, that the characters, story and/or writing just didn’t grab them. Today’s readers have shorter attention spans and so many more books to choose from. Most of them/us don’t have the time or patience for the lengthy descriptive passages, long, convoluted “literary” sentences, detailed technical explanations, author asides, soap-boxing, or the leisurely pacing of fiction of 100 years ago.

Besides, with TV, movies, and the internet, we don’t need most of the detailed descriptions of locations anymore, unlike early readers who’d perhaps never left their town, and had very few visual images of other locales to draw on. Ditto with detailed technical explanations – if readers want to know more, they can just Google the topic.

It’s hard to deny that culture has changed (if not shaped) reader’s expectations. This was the basic idea behind sociologist Neil Postman’s controversial Amusing Ourselves to Death. Nevertheless, I admit struggling with the notion that “readers” — at least the inference that a majority of readers  — “have shorter attention spans.”

And that having “shorter attention spans” demands novelists “pick up the pace.”

Maybe I’m being blinded my own love of things “classic.” In fact, the very things Renner describes as archaic is stuff that I like: “lengthy descriptive passages… literary sentences, detailed technical explanations… leisurely pacing.”

I mean, I thought that The Road was “a page turner.” And there wasn’t a single car chase.

So while I’m not prepared to suggest that culture HASN’T affected readers’ attention spans, I’m also not prepared to concede that all readers have been magically zapped by eTechnology, drained of their ability to think linearly, appreciate a more literary style, imbibe “lengthy descriptive passages,” and enjoy “leisurely pacing.” The popularity of 50 Shades of Gray SHOULD concern us, not just for the smarm factor but for the apparent tolerance for bad writing. But must we whitewash ALL readers with the 50 Shades phenomenon?

Likewise, are we really prepared to say that the page turner” is the only type of novel contemporary readers want? Of course, this isn’t an appeal for drama-less navel-gazing and nonsensical wordsmithing. As if writing boring novels is the only way to counter such assertions. But who decides what readers want and how much they can handle? Suggesting that “[t]oday’s readers have shorter attention spans” is accurate, but only to a point. Who knows how many readers can actually handle more cerebral novels with thicker descriptions and intentional pacing?

Especially if novelists are constantly being taught to speed things up.

It makes one wonder what came first,  “shorter attention spans” or novels that exclusively appeal to them?

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • Katherine Coble June 2, 2014, 8:52 AM

    I’m going to try very hard to not comment with 10K words or bite my cheek or scream.

    I love long books. I adore prose you can sink your teeth in–if it’s well-done. Pretty much all of my favourite books are at least 500 pages long.

    The current trend toward writing books that could be TV shows or 80-minute movies is very aggravating to me.
    –it encourages “series” where you have to buy 5 short “books” instead of one actual whole book.
    –it insults readers’ intelligence
    –it presumes that there’s only one way to entertain a Kat.

    I blame Harlan Coben, Dan Brown and the Thoenes for this trend. I thank God for the writers who have bucked the trend and given glorious, meaty novels in spite of the conventional unwisdom. Deborah Harkness, Justin Cronin, Susannah Clarke…you are my heroes.

    Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going back to Herman Wouk’s award-winning _Winds Of War_, a book that has somewhere north of 800 pages. I re-read these because I’m tired of reading the cereal boxes that pass themselves off as “novels”.

  • Mir June 2, 2014, 9:50 AM

    I am not a “huge book” lover, though a long book can hold my attention if it’s excellent. I like that I can buy short stories and novellas for my Kindle without having to buy a huge volume to get them. And I like fast pace. 🙂

    I think as long as there are folks who like to read long there will be authors who write long (cuz they probably like meaty/long in their reads, too).

    I just want something good to read, and if it’s a collection of short stories, a bunch of novellas, a short novel, a long novel, or a series, don’t care.

    But I don’t like pages and pages and pages of description and introspection without anything really happening. Yawn. Few writers can carry that off with their dazzling prose. Lord bless those who can.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller June 2, 2014, 11:25 AM

    Mike, I’m convinced that readers will read if they find the content interesting. And yet I know my own tastes have shifted.

    Not so long ago I picked up Out of the Silent Planet by CS Lewis. It had been decades since I first read it and loved it. And to my shock, I had a bit of a hard time getting into the story. Once in, though, I was as engaged as ever, regardless of the style that was so different from the contemporary books I’ve been reading.

    Consider this also: teens don’t read, the pundits claimed, especially teen boys. And then Harry Potter came out.

    Ah, but teen books need to be short–no more than 75,000 words. Except for those pesky Potter stories that ended up dancing between 500 and 900 pages long.

    My point is, rules, especially writing and book publishing rules, were made to be broken.

    BUT whatever description or rabbit trail a writer wants to include in his book, readers have to be engaged and want to go along for the ride. They’ll do it if they care. My big problem with Moby Dick was that most of his description and explanations of whaling simply didn’t interest me. They did not draw me in decades ago when I read it, and I’m pretty sure I’m not a more patient reader now.

    Some stories will find their niche, so I don’t doubt that there will be those who will read and appreciate Moby Dick (it’s hard for me to imagine they might enjoy it, but that might even be the case), though I doubt it will ever be popular.

    That being said, I don’t think car chases are at issue. Movies miss this too. It isn’t the special effects or the “knock down, drag outs” that make a movie seem to pass in a blink. Rather, it’s the ability for a writer to create a world I don’t want to leave and a story I don’t want to let go. Those are fast paced to me, and it has nothing to do with chases or fights. Though those things might appear, they don’t dictate the pace. I’ve read some really boring books that are all about action.


  • D.M. Dutcher June 2, 2014, 12:07 PM

    I used to like long novels, but I remember the time when I stopped liking them. It was reading Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. I loved the first book, and the second, and the third, and up to the sixth; and then I just got weary of all these long, huge books that never really got anywhere. I got tired of subplots and new characters because I wanted resolution with the main characters and space spent on them; more Mat and Perrin, less Egwene and whatever love interest or captive Dark One Rand scores in the latest book. Youd have all this description and space spent on things which made the main idea of the series float further away with each novel.

    I think others felt this way too, because it was around that time that epic fantasy began declining as a genre until Game of Thrones temporarily revitalized it. And GoT is getting its detractors for similar reasons.

    I’d point out though that some of the books you list Mike are short books. Chesterton in particular rarely cracks four hundred pages in a novel, and many of his books are pulp novels disguised by both his wonderful writing style and his philosophy. I don’t think people mind the classic writing style so long as it isn’t 900 pages.

  • Kat Heckenbach June 2, 2014, 12:36 PM

    I think there is a big difference between long and redundant. Between long and overwritten. Between long because there is a big story to tell and long because the author is a windbag.

    I have recently given some not-so-great reviews to books because, imho, they were too long because the story dragged, there was too much redundancy, the author seemed to be far too in love with his own words. But I am not at all afraid of long books! I adore Steven King, Patrick Rothfuss, and as Rebecca pointed out, those pesky Harry Potter books ;). Those books are full of meat, full of relevant and ambitious stories. But far too many long books are full of blah, blah, blah.

    Anyway, it’s another situation where I think there is room for both. Some people do really just not have the time or attention span for long, involved books. They want a quick, easy read, an escape for a few hours, and that’s fine. The problem only arises when that demographic pulls the market and the longer, richer stories are passed up in order to cater to the others.

    That said, not all classics are long. You mentioned A Picture of Dorian Gray, and it’s quite short. Still, I would cut out all of Lord Henry’s diatribes and make it even shorter! 🙂 I’ve said for a long time, Dorian Gray–as much as I love the book–would have been better written by Poe, who’d have killed off Lord Henry…preferably gruesomely…and made Dorian’s story even darker.

  • R. L. Copple June 2, 2014, 2:12 PM

    I know I seem to be less patient with stories than I was as a teen. As a teen, I gobbled up and was entranced by Asmov’s Foundation series. I picked up the first book a couple years ago to revisit it, and found myself halfway through bored, wishing the book would end. I didn’t feel at all invested in it like I did as a teen.

    Funny, I seemed to prefer adult fiction as a teen, and now that I’m 53, YA is more to my taste. Go figure.

    Note, I think I’m about 1/3 of the way through Dracula. I am a bit bored with it. Maybe why I’ve not picked it back up for several weeks now (plus all the things demanding my limited attention and time of late). I plan on finishing it because I committed to it. But it isn’t pulling me in.

    Like some have said, I don’t think it has to do with action or lack of it. To me it is two primary things:

    1. Is it interesting to me, interesting plot, interesting characters that causes me to invest in the story?

    2. Does the plot and sub-plots move forward at a decent pace? Long asides and information that have (or appear to have) no bearing on the plot cause me to lose interest. If it feels like the story is meandering aimlessly, I end up checking out.

    To put some perspective on this, compare the pacing between the classic Dr. Who and the modern reboot. Huge difference. Less “fluff,” more stuff.

  • Jill June 2, 2014, 5:48 PM

    Fast-paced, paint-by-number books don’t hold my interest as I get older. I’d rather read a dry science textbook than a page-turner. I just have no patience for stupidity these days.

  • Christian Jaeschke June 2, 2014, 10:21 PM

    I love variety in my reading. Sometimes I want something more detailed and leisurely. Sometimes I want something more fast-paced. My preferable style is somewhere in the middle. That said, I greatly disliked Moby Dick, enjoyed aspects of Robinson Crusoe and confess that Huckleberry Finn drove me bonkers with all its Southern slang/difficult to understand speech. I loved The Man Who Was Thursday and Dracula. There are plenty of others I’ve enjoyed. In short, I don’t have a problem with the classics in general.

    I tend to prefer moderate length books – 400 pages or so, but my absolute favourite book is possibly Stephen King’s The Stand and my copy’s almost 1,400 pages long. Yes, the story drags a little in the last third but King must’ve done something right to get me (someone with dyslexia) to read and thoroughly enjoy his lengthy tome.

  • Mark Luker June 3, 2014, 7:35 AM

    every time I read….”people just don’t have time to read anymore..” it’s like hearing fingers on a chalkboard to me! What, did people not have the same concerns of living in Melville’s time? The difference was not in having more time….but in having less distractions and noise which allowed people to actually notice things they read……thank God they didn’t have “social media” in Melville’s time!

  • Karen P. June 3, 2014, 10:32 AM

    I like classic books for one reason only: they have a certain “feel” to them that adds to the context and thus makes it special. And when I read them, I get that same feel. Why? Because it was done right, right being in how the author wished to convey the story, not necessarily because the author followed the rules.

    I think some writers/readers crave the more classic literary style, while others don’t. I think many readers today do not want to invest their time and thought processes in a deep story; they are looking to be merely entertained, and albeit for a limited time.

    While I often enjoy classic reading, I prefer to write in a more souped-up style. I’ve been told that my writing doesn’t contain enough description, my scenes are too short and choppy, and that I have too many characters. So if this is the new trend, perhaps my time has come!

    Thanks much for the post, Mike.

  • Linda June 3, 2014, 11:05 AM

    Good topic. I am usually immersed in three books at once, and there is no pattern to the genres. A few years ago I kept 2,000+ books in my library, but I pared it down by half because it was unmanageable. I still find many of the classics enjoyable and recently added Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey” to my collection. It’s a swift read at less than 140 pages. In contrast, I’m currently reading a 400-page contemporary non-fiction book explaining how the constellations proclaim the gospel of Christ, and it’s interesting but very complex to absorb, so it’s a slow read. James Michener often wrote 600-800 page novels, and I find them to be rapid reads. Also, I just bought “Jerusalem Interlude,” a 400-page tome by the Thoenes. So it might sound strange to admit that I want to read more of the classics; however, I am daunted by their somewhat obsolete language combined with their size. After two years, I’m still trying to get through my grown-up reading of “A Tale of Two Cities” because the style and language are dated. I’ve always found Jane Austen incredibly boring because of the overly-long paragraphs and descriptions that go nowhere. Bottom line, for me the biggest impediment to reading the classics is the language slows me down. But I still try.

  • Kevin Lucia June 3, 2014, 4:53 PM

    Last summer I read GRAPES OF WRATH. I adored it. I, too, loved MOBY DICK. I’m currently reading DAVID COPPERFIELD and really loving it, and I’m looking forward to BLEAK HOUSE, also.

    But I also love Norman Partridge’s DARK HARVEST, which is a quarter the size of all those novels, and boogies like a funny car on nitrous oxide. And all of Norman’s novels are brisk, fast-paced, taut and streamlined. I don’t consider either style “superior,” but well-written in their own right.

    But I agree with you. As a teacher, it gets harder and harder ever year to force even INTELLIGENT Honors students to engage in long works, (roughly half my classes love BOY’S LIFE, the other half whine that, while the prose isn’t hard to read it’s JUST SO LONG.)

    I guess this continues to underscore the hard truth of writing for publication: in the end what you write must pass muster with YOU, first of all. This isn’t to say that considering the audience isn’t important. For example, modifying paragraph lengths and pacing can be done without detracting from the weight of the prose or the story’s substance. But in the end, you have to be true to yourself, the words and the story on the page must be yours. And of course, there are consequences for that.

    My novels will probably be very long. I just think that way. That’s why it’s so hard to write short stories (for me) and why they all turn into novellas. But I’m the one putting in the time, sacrificing, spending all these hours…I’m going to write what I like to write, and, most importantly, write the kind of book I would like to read. And, not to crib from Sir Mix A Lot, but “I like big books and I cannot lie…”

    • Karen P. June 3, 2014, 6:16 PM

      Spot on! I can’t think of anything worse than writing a book I never wanted to read again.

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