Reading a struggle? Tim Parks writes that modern man’s addiction to electronic gadgets means reading is relegated to odd snatches of time. His advice is that we dinosaur writers need to adapt and learn to tell a story in fewer words than were used in the theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies. (The 87 word tune at the beginning of The Beverly Hillbillies is famous for terse storytelling.)
Park opens his New York Review of Books article by writing, “The conditions in which we read today are not those of fifty or even thirty years ago, and the big question is how contemporary fiction will adapt to these changes, because in the end adapt it will. No art form exists independently of the conditions in which it is enjoyed.”
Adapt? Writing a story using Twitter might be fun and even creative as hell, but it would not be a novel. Park doesn’t actually suggest that writers restrict themselves to 140 characters, but he does predict that a novel “will tend to divide itself up into shorter and shorter sections, offering more frequent pauses where we can take time out.” To a great extent, this is because Park apparently believes fiction is art and must be studied, rather than merely enjoyed.
“Let’s remember just what hard work it can be to read the literary novel pre-1980. Consider this sentence from Faulkner’s The Hamlet:
‘He would lie amid the waking instant of earth’s teeming minute life, the motionless fronds of water-heavy grasses stooping into the mist before his face in black, fixed curves, along each parabola of which the marching drops held in minute magnification the dawn’s rosy miniatures, smelling and even tasting the rich, slow, warm barn-reek milk-reek, the flowing immemorial female, hearing the slow planting and the plopping suck of each deliberate cloven mud-spreading hoof, invisible still in the mist loud with its hymeneal choristers.’”
Could he have found a more writerly example? Mark Twain would never write a sentence like that. For that matter, neither would JK Rowling, Stieg Larsson, or Raymond Chandler. Good grief. Maybe it was pompous writing, not texting that drove people away from long format fiction.
Except that people have not abandoned novels. Novels are increasingly popular. Instead of the novel adapting to modern lifestyles, our lives have adapted to reading in a different manner. Many of us do our reading on e-readers that we bring with us all the time because they weigh less than a Little Golden Book.
A good novel is the best stress reliever ever invented. A good novel captivates the reader. A good novel instantly transports the reader to another place and time. And a good novel is inexpensive and accessible.
A novel provides a unique escape from the relentless pinging for our attention. Despite what our ego may tell us, being constantly tethered to an iThingy is not obligatory. The world will not miss you for an hour or so. When you need a break, just turn off your other devices and open a novel. Give a storyteller some dedicated time and you’ll be able to handle your concerns and responsibilities with aplomb.