Last night in my Science Fiction Writing class, my classmates and I discussed a text written by author Iain Banks called Matter. I’ll post a review of it soon enough, but the purpose of this entry is to touch upon a point that was raised in class concerning the average reader’s attention span.
It’s really short (just like this sentence).
While I won’t get into whether or not I like Banks’ book, I will say he does take many diversions within the narrative, sending the reader on unexpected excursions throughout the story that many would regard as unnecessary—as I said, more on that later. How this relates to a reader’s attention span is as follows, there aren’t many readers willing to slog through a narrative text if the story takes its good ass time getting to the point. There’s so much going on with Banks’ book that more often than not, the main premise gets lost in a sea of transhumanist, ultra futurist, alien gobbledygook. It can be arduous to wade through what I would call “extraneous fluff.” But is that Banks’ problem or mine? Should he be penalized for trying to tell a truly fleshed out story that takes a few side turns simply because I lack the attention span to read through them?
My answer is a resounding no. NO I say!
What’s happened to today’s reader? Are we so engrossed in our mass market, consumerist culture that we want everything to instantly gratify us? Gimme Gimme Gimme and Gimme now has become our mantra. Everything from fast food, video games, movies and other media (fast food ain’t a medium, but you get the idea) have now been designed to give us instant entertainment at the push of a button. With the advancements of technology allowing us to instantaneously exchange information, download books and send messages to one another, the price we pay is we lose our willingness to wait. In short, we run out of patience fast.
In my humble opinion, this is a major problem. Some stories benefit from small diversions from the plot or longer, more drawn out scenes. Novels like A Game of Thrones are long, to put it bluntly, but the pace is so swift, that reading it doesn’t feel like a chore. In Stephen King’s The Stand, there are chapters devoted to showing the reader the world King created, the effects of the virus that nearly wiped out humanity. In one particular chapter, King elucidates over the choices strangers make in the story that lead to their untimely and grisly demise such as an overly paranoid woman aiming a dirty firearm at a passerby only to have the gun go off in her face—no big loss. That particular chapter had very little to do with the main characters, but it was necessary to show the reader just how dire and apocalyptic the world in King’s book had devolved. It was a diversion, but an entertaining one. I suppose small detours from the plot or long narratives can be tolerated if pacing is quick and entertaining, but again speed is the operative word. The pacing must be QUICK.
Since the average reader does not have the patience to suffer through long, drawn out narratives and blocks of exposition that induce yawning more than awe, the landscape of writing has changed and with that change, writers are finding more and more creative ways to hook their readers from the start. I can say for myself that if I’m not drawn into a story within the first paragraph, I usually put the book down.
Perhaps we all need to learn the value and virtue of patience, or perhaps writers need to shut the hell up and get to the point faster. What do you all think? If a book is entertaining enough, would you tolerate a slight diversion from the main story or do you think a writer should excise it in favor of getting to the point quicker? Do you decide what books to read based on page length? Would you read a novel over three hundred pages? Four? Five?
Leave a comment and as always, Ronin STAND UP!!