TL;DR?

Can people read more than 280 characters?

I was reading an article on the internet this morning:

https://sunilsuri.substack.com/p/gamingforgood

which I had been referred to by a gaming acquaintance. It is a fascinating article (to me at any rate) about using games for purposes other than straightforward entertainment. The obvious additional purposes include education – both in getting children to practice maths, engage with the concept of probability, social interaction and action/outcome ideas.

But there are bigger aims in some games, for example emergency response, planning, disease control, social planning etc. Whilst this is all good stuff, it may not be related even remotely to writing (although writing the scenarios, putting the results of gaming actions into stylised reporting/ narratives surely require authorial skills?). Something did leap out at me however which triggered a little thought regarding current writing practices and received wisdom about length of articles, stories, novels etc.

This is the quote which swapped tracks for me from a games to writing.

‘Consider news consumption. The Reuters Institute found that younger generations “do not want to work hard for their news.” In practice, news is often consumed on smartphones in small amounts to fit around other activities. Such consumption habits do not necessarily lend themselves to deeper engagement with the issues of the day.’

Well yeah. Difficult to get the nuances of anything in 140 characters (now 280, but 140 has a certain ring to it as the limit of human attention span in a digital world). Now most social media content is longer than that, but not by much.

Ah the horror of the modern world! Kids can’t concentrate. Millennials are so needy and have no depth! We’re all doomed.

Well I remember the heady days of proper print journalism and news that contained news on Television and radio.

And hardly anybody bought broadsheets, watched extended news programmes or listened to current affairs on the BBC Home Service.

There are more opportunities to read, hear and see extended, in depth, insightful news reports on thousands of items which would never have made it into the old ‘quality newspapers’ never mind red top tabloids or scandal sheets.

Attention span may have shortened but I remember many people consuming their news from ‘newspapers’ which had pages of hardly any content and masses of filler and still believing made up lies about European legislation which would ban bendy bananas and the British Banger.

The internet and social media may have made such gibberish slightly more available and a few more people than before may not have realised that reality checks need to be applied to anything, wherever you read, hear or see it. That doesn’t mean that any fewer people than before deeply engage with the issues of the day. I suspect there may be slightly more engagement in fact. Young people weren’t that bothered when I was a child/young adult. All those pictures and film clips of protestors on marches and rallies show the active minority, not the majority who were sat at home, or playing sport or working for their exams.

We shouldn’t get suckered in by fuzzy memories of halcyon days when everything was better. Goodness knows I have my doubts about the uses and abuses of digital technology but let’s not overstate them or use the idea as yet another stick to beat younger generations.

As for writing and reading, there seems to be a lot of appetite for reading about. Just because traditional media publishers haven’t always been up to speed on response doesn’t seem a good reason to bemoan the state of modern readers, or writers. Nor is it necessarily a reason to insist on brevity to point of meaninglessness. Yes, micro-fiction is a demanding and entertaining art form when done well, but its brevity is no more likely to get readers on the strength of its size alone than any other length of work. The good thing about reading is you can stop and start at will. Not many of us sit down and read a great slab of a book in one sitting no matter how good or engaging it is. I am however quite capable of remembering where I left off and resuming. I am sure ‘young’ people today are quite as capable of that feat if they wish as anyone else.

PROCRASTINATION

I don’t normally watch videos of ‘writing advice’. It seems the wrong medium somehow – a bit like listening to a podcast about how to paint. Although of course both can work within their limits quite well.

So it was with some surprise I came across this YouTube video of one Alexa Donne. Entitled:

HARD WRITING ADVICE‘ (Mostly for new writers).

I nearly clicked on to whatever it was I was originally looking for, before I paused at Ms Donne’s enthusiasm and surprisingly ironic approach.

I was glad I did.

Most of her advice is fairly self evident to an old git like me – I have never posted on reddit – but for my children’s addition to YouTube compilations I would barely be aware of it much less post complaints about why I’m not being published more or ‘brainstorm’ my novel (who works out plot and character with strangers in a public forum?). The ‘just write advice’ is good and she puts it over in an amusing, ironic, yet oddly supportive manner. I am ashamed to say I have not read her books, perhaps as she is a Young Adult author that is not particularly surprising. Who knows though, as part of my ‘read wider’ campaign I may take a look.

While on that theme I looked back at my rambling on that idea and was very surprised how narrow my ‘canon’ seemed. Checking on accepted versions of the ‘western canon’ I was reassured my version is wider than that but I should have included more women and foreign language writers, it’s not like I don’t read them, but I appear to be as guilty of unconscious bias as any. I’m not sure Georgette Heyer and Austen get me off the hook here.

Also, who gets in the more modern lists? I need to look at more American authors for one thing and South Asian and African books.

But in the words of Ms Donne that is procrastination – go and write!

READING OUTSIDE THE COMFORT ZONE

I’ve deliberately been trying to read things that don’t immediately appeal to me in recent months. That may sound odd, but I find that I can sink into a groove of ‘cosy’ reading, safe reading, if I am not careful. Not necessarily in the sense I saw ‘cosy’ used recently in the blurb for a Kindle Daily Deal book – a cosy country house murder. I know what they mean, it uses the trope of a murder as the key to a cerebral exploration of relationships in a single setting and leaves clues for the reader to be cleverer than the fictional sleuths. Fair enough, I quite like the genre myself to be honest, not so much Agatha Christie though for some reason. My mother liked the Georgette Heyer murder mysteries and I guess it rubbed off. But the term ‘cosy’ about the untimely ending of a life, however much of a rotter these elderly, financially secure, smug, and sometimes plain horrible victims deserved to be whacked over the head with the lead piping in the drawing room, seems inappropriate.

However.

The cosy I mean is the tendency to pick a genre, demanding or frivolous, and stick with it to the exclusion of other styles or genres of writing.

My sink holes of laziness tend to be spy stories, and military history. I love le Carré, Deighton, and then a whole plethora of writers at what may be unflatteringly called the second tier in the genre. Many of them were regarded as top rank in the Cold War heyday of the genre, but have not withstood the test of literary time. I had an unfortunate loss of many of these paperback books from the 1960s and 1970s some years ago, so I cannot simply go back and re-read them to check my suspicion that some of them owed their appeal to the immediacy of the threat which ended c1990.  Acquiring second hand or e-book copies is not always simple, and when I have bothered I have often been disappointed.

This genre has been appealing since I first read ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ on a train back from University one dark winter’s night in the early 70s. An impulse buy on the way to the station I started at the top and have been searching for a repeat of that sudden realisation I was unexpectedly reading something great.

Of course the purists would sniff at that word for a ‘genre’ writer, though Le Carré has surely transcended that slur? But my ‘cosy’ reading does not just consist of those two genres. I have been through phases where my go to literary relaxation has been RL Stevenson, Bram Stoker, Evelyn Waugh, Orwell,  Terry Venables (yes the football manager – the Hazell series), Austen, David Lodge, Malcolm Bradbury, the tumbling Brontës and Allan Mallinson. Eclectic enough possibly and read because I liked them all. Others, particularly some of the accepted western literary canon, have bored me to tears, while others have found a place in my heart and my mind. Turgenev I like – he has the great virtue lacking in many Russian authors of being brief and concise. War and Peace I have never finished. Likewise Don Quixote (and I know Cervantes was Spanish, not Russian). Many of the ‘classic’ writers lurking in the back rooms of the ‘canon’ seem to have been paid by the yard – yes Dickens is one of those great short story writers who strung them out into novels that outstay their welcome by several tens of thousands of words. Steinbeck may have been a great social chronicler but his writing just doesn’t grab me. Hemingway I don’t think gets a seat in this musty Valhalla according to the band of smug gatekeepers. I can’t make my mind up whether they are right or not. People certainly talk about him pretentiously enough for him to make it, but he was probably too popular. Does anyone read him these days? For pleasure? If not he should certainly go in.

I’ve read Virgil, in translation and struggled with bits in Latin at school. He’s okay – needed a good editor.

But the point is what should I be reading now to open my mind a bit?

Maybe full form literature is the problem. Perhaps blogs, vlogs, YouTube, the Twittershpere, Instachat and Snapagram are the modern literary canon?

I have been reading some Paolo Coelho recently, and Sebastian Faulks, Henryk Sienkiewicz and Anthony Horowitz. I’ve enjoyed all of them, including the Sienkiewicz, but possibly the latter only because I started reading With Fire and Sword in 1986 when an American friend lent me the book. I returned it, unfinished, c1990 and restarted reading a kindle version at the end of last year. It seemed to have changed in the interim but I suspect that was my memory rather than a rewrite, as Sienkiewicz died in 1916.

All of these were probably books that I would not have read without a conscious push to read ‘new’ stuff although I have to confess having started reading Horowitz when I stole borrowed my daughter’s Power of Five books. I’ve never read any of his Alex Rider books, which I am sure is unforgiveable.

So what next to shake my brain?

That of course is the point. To see how others have transcribed the world and experience, real or imagined, into the written word. Not to steal ideas, styles or plots but to be aware that there are other ways of doing this.

I wrote a large chunk of a novel in the form of transcripts of telephone intercept some years ago when that was a less well known activity. I am tempted to dig it out to see how it reads now. It was of course simply an extension of the epistolary novel exemplified by Richardson’s Pamela, Stoker’s Dracula or Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole. Others have brought it up to date with things like ‘Texts from Jane Eyre’, so I have missed the novelty boat in any event.

Maybe burrowing into the horror of social media is real answer.

Follow Up To World Book Day.

Feels kind of odd that hardly anyone wanted to read the ‘World Book Day’ post. I thought a blog on writing should have a look at an event and a charity that is supposedly about raising literacy and an awareness of books and reading. I guess it wasn’t unpopular because it was too controversial or unpleasant to a charity. It would have to be read to offend people. Wouldn’t it?

Anyway I feel honoured that I share however tenuously, a platform with Brian Moore, former England hooker and all round good egg. I can’t say I agree with everything he says, but I can’t remember getting outraged about anything I’ve heard or read of his so far. Even rugby, where for a former England International, he has turned into a very fair and unbiased commentator. Why that should prove surprising is itself odd, but so many former players retain a certain Cyclops like gaze when it comes to their former team.

He posted a tweet which said much the same thing as I wrote about World Book Day and its transition into a fancy dress party, but very succinctly.

So in short: shouldn’t this day be about reading rather than running round in daft costumes?

Anyhow – Pt 3 of Set the World on Fire later today.

WORLD BOOK DAY

World Book Day!

I should be enthused, happy, excited even. Shouldn’t I?

And I am, I really am. I love books, and have loved them since I can remember.

I have in front of me now one of my prized childhood possessions; ‘My Boy-Blue Book of Nursery Rhymes’, a cloth book distributed by Edwyn A Birks Ltd ‘Washable and Babyproof’.  (Not sure the title would withstand modern sensibilities. Hints of pornography and male hierarchy).

World Book Day doesn’t often impinge on my consciousness these days. It is aimed at children and my daughter is at University and my son doesn’t really see the point of books – though he reads online material, including this blog for some reason – Hi!

But – you knew that was coming right? – but, it has never really worked for me. It is only 25 years old and therefore wasn’t around when I was young. It was about fifteen years ago I became aware of it when my daughters’ school started making demands about dressing up that I noticed it. And not in a good way. I think the basic idea is sound, but like many of these charitable good ideas, ‘numbers’ get a momentum of their own which makes people forget what the original idea is about.

I was in our library yesterday. Not that the council allows anyone to call it a library, it is a ‘community hub’ and the reference section was massacred a few years ago and computers replaced most of the bookshelves. Much of the remaining space was commandeered by the council workers dealing with council tax, refuse, housing problems etc when the council closed a building next door for some arcane plan some years ago which has yet to materialise.

There remain however, some books and a couple of people who work with them. What the status of these people is I’m not exactly sure as the council attempted to remove all trained librarians as an unnecessary expense. They do run ‘events’ for kids however and yesterday I saw them wandering around bearing piles of odd clothes and wearing flamboyant hats.

‘World Book Day’ I was told when they saw my eyebrows.

Apparently this must be a ‘fun’ ‘event’ ( as defined by whom?) which seems to have as little to do with reading a book as possible. All the great literature, all the fun books, all those thrilling reads and THIS is what the supporters of the fun of reading come up with? Dressing up, running around and not concentrating, frankly one of the prerequisites of reading something?

It didn’t particularly bother me at the time. It isn’t the first time I have had this curmudgeonly thought. But after I left the hub/library thingy, I began to fret about my plan to be more human and wondered if I should lighten up, or if anyone else shared my concerns.

I checked.

I am not alone.

First thing I found on my internet search was Marianne Levy’s piece in the ‘i’ online. It echoed my feelings – good idea, but… All that money spent on crap disposable costumes, I thought we were avoiding rampant consumerism that burned resources and screwed up ecosystems?

Marianne’s piece does have a positive side, how to reclaim the day for reading rather than a fancy dress party. But even here there are problems. A children’s author interviewed about what we could do, suggested refreshing reading corners in classes (good idea) and making posters and decorations of children’s favourite characters to give them ‘ownership. Possibly great for art skills, and group interaction, but here’s a whacky idea:

to encourage reading, how about setting aside some time on World Book Day to, oh I don’t know…read a book? In class? Together? Then maybe talk about it and possibly write a story of their own?

Crazy idea.

On with the party!

MERRILY WATKINS – BINGE READING

I had a binge over Christmas which only finished at the weekend just gone.

No, not booze and food – hardly touch alcohol these days, and I don’t need a festive excuse for eating, unfortunately.

No, this was reading, and in particular one author and one particular series in that author’s output. The writer is Phil Rickman and the series was his Merrily Watkins books. Now this isn’t high art literature, but they are very well written, superbly crafted and brilliantly entertaining. Sure some are obviously better than others but all are worth reading, none feels like a pot boiler and the thread over the series is consistent and realistically moves forward.

The main protagonist and those around her (she is a Cof E minister) age and their situation changes and moves forward – not as fast as real time of course, the first book came out in 1998 and the next one is due in 2021 but we are still looking at somewhere in the very early 2000s. This is great – very often in successful genre series, readers want, and get, repeat outings without real time apparently intervening at all. Detectives in particular seem immune from ageing and character development (there are notable and honourable exceptions).

Watkins isn’t a detective in the professional sense, neither is she a Miss Marple type character – she often gets involved in criminal cases but only as a spin off from the work she carries out as a ‘Deliverance Consultant’; an exorcist rebadged for a postmodern, post truth, secular age. She does not deliver anyone for judicial decision making however, she leaves that up to the local police, some of whom she has a working relationship with.

Anyway, fourteen books since just before Christmas, most of them between four and five hundred pages long was no chore at all, and I am disappointed the wait will be so long for the next episode.

The thing that grabbed me apart from the joy of reading them however was how they cross genre divides. Watkins is an exorcist and a mother with child and there are mixed threads of criminal investigation, supernatural (possibly) investigations and personal development.

I had an idea some years ago for a book about a character who was involved in a plot that was about personal development and relationships, but halfway through he took a short holiday to go and deal with his other obsession and ‘hobby’ of disposing of supernatural evil. I envisaged a possible series where in each book he moved forward in his life accompanied by excursions against vampires, ghosts, spirits etc. some of which eventually crossed over into his ordinary life and the threads would eventually became entangled.

I was told in no uncertain terms that this mixing of genres would definitely not work and wouldn’t sell, even if I could persuade a mug to publish one or two of the series. Of course I bowed to ‘professional’ advice – big mistake (no it wasn’t Mr Rickman who told me to forget it, and his stuff is no doubt miles ahead of the material I would have produced in this quest). However it is nice to see someone who had a similar idea but made it work so effectively.

Each book can be read as a stand alone novel but it is probably best to start with The Wine of Angels and progress in order to All of a Winter’s Night in preparation for ‘For the Hell of It’ next year.

Probably best if I write a bit more myself – should be easier now I have exhausted this particular series of distractions/inspiration until April 2021.

READ FEWER BOOKS!? NEVER!

The Guardian newspaper had an interesting supplement last Saturday: ‘Train Your Brain’.

It correctly suggested that memory exercises can help slow declining age related memory problems. It didn’t mention that meta-analysis of the considerable body of research out there suggests that while there may be short term gains from ‘exercising’ your memory capacity, they only last a short time.  Nor did it mention that there is no significant impact on cognitive reasoning skills. Or that the gains may be placebo effect, as many of the studies featured ‘untreated’ control groups

But the real focus was hinted at in the byeline: ‘Find Focus in the Digital Age.’

It was a set of articles loosely arranged around how we have reacted to digital media and how we might take stock and improve and control our responses. Multi-tasking is a myth, we just do lots of things in very small sequences, a lot worse than if we completed each task before moving on to the next. There are only so many things we can pay attention to at once and effectively do something with and about (hint – it’s one).

Yes we can, if we are not a past President of the USA, walk and chew gum at the same time but one at least of those processes, although learned, usually becomes an unconscious activity and shouldn’t require close mental control of how to do it. Reading, writing a report, answering a phone, talking to someone else and watching a cat throw up on social media at the same time however, means we are quite likely to walk away at best with a confused idea of what we just agreed to provide for the person on the phone.

Tucked away in the sixteen pages was a piece called ‘The Joy of Slow Reading’ by John Miedema. It praises taking time to read more complex prose and correlates this with the analogue medium, the book vice the digital e-reader and even more so vice the laptop browser. Interestingly desktop computers don’t even get a name check. I presume the thing I am writing on now is about to become obsolete.

Midiema makes many good points but there are a couple of things I want to question.

Point one: he says ‘Books are shorter. My attention span is too, I admit. Our brains are “plastic”, they are malleable. They have adapted to the new technologies, and in many ways, the change is a good thing.’ I can’t think of good ways our brains have adapted to incessant bombardment with rubbish. In the same supplement is quoted the 2005 research by Dr Glenn Wilson that constant interruptions and distractions at work had a profound negative effect on the ability to do that work beyond the time lost in the actual interruptions (characterised as a 10 point fall in IQ).

Point two: ‘We can choose to select fewer books for reading.’ This seems an odd suggestion. Earlier he says, quite rightly, that not all text deserves slow reading. He characterises his online reading as scanning vast volumes of content, whizzing from link to link. But that isn’t really reading, that is skimming, looking for something to read, and as he points out, most of that isn’t worth his attention.

Editors and publishers were gatekeepers to the availability of print. In the past the means of producing printed matter were scarce and restricted access was perhaps necessary.

But now?

The seemingly unending availability of electrons to convey our thoughts means such gatekeepers are no longer required. Access to getting our ideas and words and feelings out there no longer needs to be controlled by a narrow self selected cultural elite.

This has to be good doesn’t it?

Possibly, but like many good things, it has a flip side.

How do we sort the wheat from the chaff?

Miedema says, and I have no reason to doubt him, that a person can only read about 5,000 books in a lifetime. Given the increasing demands on our time how do we make a stab at ensuring those suddenly finite hours of reading are best used? I suspect I could use up my allotted time just searching for the 5,000 never mind actually reading them.

There is, and I am aware of the irony, too much stuff to read.

Reading fewer books may be a good idea if I am speed reading (ie not really reading) the ones I read now. Slow down and really read them. But I suspect the real answer is to stop reading acres of advertising copy disguised as online articles, descriptions of cat memes and the endless drivel about the doings of minor celebrities.

So, my advice would be read MORE books and filter out the torrent of short attention seeking dribble that clutters the smart phones of the world.

Be selective.

That doesn’t mean read fewer books. But the days of my omnivorous consumption of all reading matter are probably over.