I wasn’t well last week, and ended up feeling dreadfully sorry for myself. Now, there’s nothing on earth can feel quite as sorry for itself as an Irish woman, so it can get quite dark. Anyhoo, as I lay prostrate, bemoaning the state of both my health and my immediate prospects, my lamentations eventually began to transfer themselves to the world outside as well.
And it’s a dark world, lads and lassies. Society is broken. Rent asunder by social media, reality television, celebrity gossip and cat memes. As a race, we have developed the attention span of a hungover goldfish. We can’t concentrate on anything longer than a Buzzfeed article called 21 Things Only People Who Wore Purple Underpants In 1991 Will Understand. And nobody reads full novels anymore.
My last post on e-book reading statistics – the fact that we now have access to better statistics not only on what books people are buying, but also whether they finish them or not – raised a few questions, namely: Are people not finishing books these days because their attention span is shot? Or are they not finishing books because the books just aren’t good enough?
The “Can’t Even” Era
We can say that we’re busier, or that we have more distractions. But there are other things afoot, such as more competition to entertain us. Once, we might have paid attention to stuff we didn’t find particularly interesting, because there was nothing else more immediately attractive. Now we don’t have to. Social, geographical and economical barriers to media have disappeared. So much information is available to us on so many different channels that we can now choose whether or not to consume it.
And it doesn’t always follow that short attention-span stuff always wins. Look at the rise and rise of complex, slow or long-form TV like The Wire, Breaking Bad or Mad Men; see how binge-watching TV or binge-buying books in the same series has become a ‘thing’. If people really like something, they don’t hang about, waiting for the next instalment. They make time for it right now and they become wholly – almost fanatically – focused upon it.
In the olden days, we read what we had and thought that was it. Now we’re conscious that there might always be something better out there – or at least, something more attractive. Gone are the days when we all watched the same TV or read the same books, because they were all we had.
But that still doesn’t necessarily explain how, having chosen a book, we don’t finish it. So why is that?
1. Books aren’t as valuable as they were.
When books were more expensive, we had no choice but to read what we bought or borrowed. But now, we can download 10 free books during a toilet break. We may not read them. But we can still download them. (Whether or not making a book free devalues it to the extent we never read it is a whole different post.)
2. There are more books out there.
More authors are releasing books independently, meaning more books are being published. And much as we might hate to admit it, a substantial quantity of this might be badly edited, badly marketed, or just bad. We might get two chapters into a book, realise it hasn’t been edited properly, and run for the hills. I know I have.
3. Power has shifted.
We’re no longer solely dependent on big publishing houses with big budgets and connections with book critics to tell us what to read. And we don’t feel as beholden to sticking with a book the critics said we should read because we want to look intelligent.
4. Not All People Are Some.
So some people don’t finish some books. More do. Some people love big literary prize-winners. More don’t. I’ve given books to people with gushing recommendations and seen them go all squirmy-eyebrowed when asked for their verdict. Not everybody who consumes the stuff is going to like the stuff, dammit. Stop being all bothered about it.
5. Because The Internet.
Here’s the one point which might actually have to do with attention span: we are less willing to invest time into something which may not suit us. There’s such a barrage of information thrown at us these days, we’ve got used to making rapid judgements about articles and books based on a synopsis or first paragraph. And we’re less willing to give someone the benefit of the doubt if we suspect they might bore us.
I don’t see what’s wrong with any of this. We’ve developed new and necessary survival skills in the Information Age, and it suits some authors brilliantly, as much as it makes others cry into their gruel. There are winners and losers in every cultural shift, and not always for reasons immediately apparent to mere mortals. The only thing that is certain is that the way we consume entertainment is changing. And there’s no point at all in sitting around moaning about it. Even if we have good reason to feel sorry for ourselves.