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.