May 292011

The kiss of death sounds like this: “It’s not boring all the way through, But, I wasn’t interested right away.” This statement means a story has failed on page one. A friend said something close to this after reading one of my pieces and suggested a hook. While agreeing in my head, I couldn’t help but blurt, “I was hoping the reader would be patient.” This verbal tick was one I immediately regretted; of course I want the reader addicted by sentence one. However, that stupid comment led to a larger point of discussion – patient readers are nearly extinct.

Long-form fiction may fast be becoming an archaic art form. The irony of jotting that last sentence down while smack in the middle of revising a novel is not lost on me. But my own folly notwithstanding, one cannot but help but notice the increasing trend of brevity in fiction. Sometimes this trend is taken to ridiculous extremes. One of the MFA students showed me a book of short fiction where each piece was all of thirty words in length. Hey, it’s interesting to flip through for a few minutes, but I’m not going to actually read the damn thing cover to cover. And that’s the point. If publishers are tuned into cultural trends, wouldn’t it make sense to deliver narratives that resemble Facebook status updates? No fucking way I’d be interested, but I can see the logic.

This attention span of the contemporary reader is a dead horse that has been beaten into goo. But I’m invested in writing fiction, and that particular the angle of the topic interests me. I’ll not moan over the state of the modern reader. If I did, it would be a statement of both hypocrisy and denial. I’m plugged into Facebook, blogs, Youtube and all kinds of digital distractions. However the problem is much more insidious than entertainment. I’ve come to realize that I’ve been on a steady diet of intellectual junk food. I’m not talking about the writing I know is crap and read for kicks but articles written for a thinking audience.

In grad school, I’d force myself to chew through difficult texts because people I respected told me they were worth the effort. But for the most part, outside of ‘required reading,’ I’ve been a mental goldfish. This lack of focus is encouraged by a kind of positive feedback system where ‘smart stuff’ is merely content along with everything else. The brightest minds now deliver shorter articles, written in scannable paragraphs via aggregate hubs like Arts and Letters Daily. These hubs allow the reader to graze and dip into subjects without ever really digging in to fully understand them. Don’t get me wrong, I love that site and others like it, but consuming one’s knowledge in semi-digested nuggets can’t be seriously considered a sustainable or healthy practice over the long haul. If an interesting lead doesn’t actually lead to substantive inquiry now and then, this kind of grazing is as much of a waste of time as anything else.

My solution is to unplug – within reason – slow down, forcing myself to read longer books and articles for longer periods of time. I say force because I‘ve become impatient as well. I can’t help but think that I should take care of my mind with the approximate care I do my body. I’m no health nut, but I’m careful not to eat pork rinds and drink beer for a week straight. I work out on a regular basis. So why not force myself to read a really long, difficult text with the same regularity? Why not be patient with a piece of fiction? Why not take care to be sure I’m not just giving into the 21st century’s digital twitch? Take it further, and consider real reading an exercise that sustains me the same way lifting weights does. And it does. Once I’ve struggled to understand something difficult, whether it’s fiction, philosophy, or science, I’ve invested in the possible depth of my own work much in the same way exercise is investing in a healthy heart. It might never pay off, but the story I save might be my own.

I’m not going to presume to prescribe action for anyone besides myself. But if you should stumble across this entry, I would ask you think about the consequences of technology saturation. Fully unplugging would be counterproductive at this stage of the game; however, there in front of you, the circus continues to vie for your eyeballs and mouse clicks. Aldous Huxly’s letter to George Orwell upon the publication of 1984 comes to mind, where he predicts governments would discover “suggesting people love their servitude” would be more effective than beating them into it. This may seem like an extreme and tangential point, but I’ll leave it to you to consider the implications of a world that’s fully distracted at all times.

The trite self-help regimen discussed above does little to answer the question about contemporary audiences and their attention spans. Reading really good fiction provides hope. I was looking at exam copies of short fiction and fell into a piece by Sherman Alexie that I hadn’t read before. I was hooked from the first sentence to the last and didn’t look to check the web or stop to study an effective passage. In fact, I ignored two phone calls along with the call of nature. Until I was done, I was immersed and invested in a story and characters that would not be denied. Experiences like this give me hope for fiction because I think if a piece speaks to a reader they will be unable to not finish it. I’m not sure it’s realistic to deliver that kind of intense immersion in chapter after chapter for a number of reasons. But I do think novel readers will respond to something that resonates long enough for a writer to hook them into coming back. If they come back with a desire to read the work again, then I would say the writer has succeeded.

Nabakov makes this point, stating that popular fiction is merely read once, then discarded because the reader is satisfied upon completion. In contrast, he says, literature is something one rereads. The reasons readers return to a piece are their own, but their return is a common thread. Fiction worth rereading is Nabakov’s touchstone, and I believe it to be a fine one. If the world is becoming more distracted, then why not work at creating something a reader is more likely to come back to? Work at writing something that gnaws at a reader to finish and maybe read again. Work at writing things that will merit a second look and maybe a third.

Readers are no longer patient, and the world is just as full of competent fiction as it is bad. This means I need to work that much harder at writing something more than worthy of someone’s time to reread. That goal might ultimately prove to be unreachable, but it’s one I’ve come to enjoy the process of striving toward. As soon as this post is complete, I’ll get back to figuring out a hook.