Monday, November 19, 2007

Reading in Decline

According to a new study from the National Endowment for the Arts, not only are Americans reading fewer books, they're reading less of everything. This includes not just print media but online news sources, blogs, and presumably even the backs of cereal boxes.

The study found that in 2006, 15-to-24-year-olds spent an average of seven minutes on voluntary reading on weekdays and 10 minutes on Saturdays and Sundays, while finding time to watch two hours or more of television each day.

And if you think the older generations read more, don't get your hopes up. They're not better by much. In 2006 people ages 35 to 44 read only 12 minutes a day, and Americans 65 and older read less than an hour each weekday and just over an hour on weekends.

Even when Americans do read, apparently they don't do it very well. The proportion of 12th graders reading at or above the proficient level fell from 40% in 1992 to 35% in 2005. The percentage of proficient readers among college graduates declined by 23% and by 10% among Americans who had been to graduate school.

According to the study, employers are spending more than 3.1 billion annually on remedial training in reading and writing for their employees.

The problem isn't with writers, apparently, since according to Dana Goia, NEA chairman, "I don't think, in a country that publishes 100,000 books a year, the problem is that people can't find something they want to read." Rather, he cites America as having become "distracted as a society," caught up in multitasking and electronic media.

What does this mean for fiction writers? Well, we've been seeing it for awhile. No longer can a writer ease into the story with lush description of time and place like Dickens and Hardy used to do. Now your opening line, your "hook," is the make-or-break moment. If you can't capture an agent or reader's attention in the first few words, you're sunk. The change in public attention spans also shows up in word counts. No matter how good your novel, unless you're a well-established author, your story is unlikely to find a publisher if it goes much over 100,000 words. Quality doesn't even factor into the equation.

At the same time, competition for agents is tight, with some agencies getting over 20,000 queries per year. With reading on the decline and the number of manuscripts on the rise, is it any wonder there's so much anxiety in the literary world? Things are in a state of flux and people are scrambling for solutions: e-publishing, POD, the new Kindle e-reader, and of course the old standby, "Just write a better book. Get lucky with the market trends."

But really, if reading is on the decline in all mediums, how much does it matter whether your book is published in trade paperback or downloadable pdf? Maybe you'll get lucky and hit it big, maybe you won't. Hone your craft and hope for the big break, but don't drain your cell phone batteries waiting for the agent to call.

Instead, write for the love of it. Write because in a world where so many spend their non-working hours zoned out in front of the television, we're engaged in a challenging creative pursuit that requires us to think, grow, and stretch our boundaries. The pleasure we take in our fictional worlds and imaginary friends may be the only real profit we get out of our efforts, but in a stressful world where so little is within our span of control, this is no small thing.

"To Read or Not to Read" available from NEA Publications.


Joanna Sandsmark said...

I may have just passed my daily quota by reading your blog post.

(Excellent commentary on a frightening subject.)

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

2 thoughts...

1. Ya wonder why I can't get Trevor into print?

2. I left a comment on an agent's blog the other day -- refer back to Chelle's rant from the weekend. How are people supposed to buy books if no one tells them about them???? You can't put a product on a shelf and expect people to buy it without being told it exists.

Uh-oh. I'm going to rant a bit myself, here. But think about THIS: with all the toy recalls going on, why aren't publishers standing up and pointing to books and saying, "No magnets or lead in HERE!" ????


Bernita said...

Very good point, (and so is Susan's.)

Augustina Peach said...

About halfway through the process of editing my novel, I began to think about this issue. I'd seen a CNN story that said something like 1 in 4 people had not read a book at all last year (I hope that is the right stat - it's been a while since I saw the story). To add to my concerns, my novel is historical fiction (but not about the Tudor court), meaning it's not exactly a genre people are snatching off the shelves! I might get lucky, but I truly doubt I'm the next JK Rowling.

I'm about to work my way to the same conclusion you have. I'm going to write the way some people play golf -- for pure recreation. I'll self-publish my book so I can have it in a nice format on my shelf, but I'm not going to worry about agents and "marketability." Even if I'm the only person who ever reads my book, I get the fun of learning about history, dreaming up characters, and trying to figure how they would realistically respond to the situations I put them in. Much more satisfying than an evening of watching TV!

Chairman Mao said...

Auntie Bunnygirl, my momma just LOVED yur post and she will komment on it at length a little latur on today.

Kittyhugs and purrs from MaoMao!

Anonymous said...

Mom loved your whole post, but she loved the last paragraph so much that she read it out loud to Dad *smile*.

Purrs and snuggles from Marilyn!

Anonymous said...

Yup, the Ballicai are right: I just loved your post, and especially your last paragraph. Write for the love!

I want to get a book published, but sometimes I wonder how realistic I'm being... I know I have talent, but perhaps it isn't talent for the kind of writing that's being sought for today's market.

If that makes any sense.

It's significant that I just don't like a lot of the books that are touted these days -- and if I don't like to read most of the stuff that sells like hot cakes, then how can I write it? Instead, I want to write what I love to read.

From the marketing angle, I've been feeling very discouraged and wondering if I ought to say screw writing and take up basket weaving. And all this during a creative burst! Go figure! But...



There's what you said in your post:

"...we're engaged in a challenging creative pursuit that requires us to think, grow, and stretch our boundaries. The pleasure we take in our fictional worlds and imaginary friends may be the only real profit we get out of our efforts, but in a stressful world where so little is within our span of control, this is no small thing."

I think about your wonderful book, My New-Found Land.

And I remember: write from the heart, write for the love.. Then I think maybe what I'm doing isn't so useless after all, and I decide to keep on keepin' on.

Ella Drake said...

Excellent summary of the report, and I'm sure your comments could have gone even further, but you probably needed to limit yourself on the length of the blog entry. You can only expect us to put in a certain amount of time reading and couldn't go too long.

Portia Da Costa said...

An excellent and very thought provoking post... and especially scary for those of us who rely on our writing earnings to live!

Looks like it's a cardboard box under the railway bridge for me in my old age... :(

Vesper said...

A very good post. The situation is dire but if you're writing, as you said, for the love of writing, that's a satisfaction nobody can take away from you. For publishing and hitting it big, one needs a lot of luck...

Brian said...

Excellent post.

I do think it's more prevalent in younger people than with the older generations. And I definitely see parallels in other things too.

I work for a large corporation and my daily duties require a lot of writing to influence the decision making process in my department.

A few weeks ago we hired several new younger employees and I'm constantly surprised at their lack of basic writing skills. We've had to resort to proof-reading certain e-mails that they send out to customers. It's scary.

Alice Audrey said...

In my household everyone is reading a great deal - but most of it is online.