Are we witnessing the death of difficult fiction?


Earlier this year, the Pew Research Centre in Washington released a study that showed Americans aren't reading very much these days. In 2014, one in four adults said they had not read a single book in the past year. And only 52 per cent of adults had read a book for pleasure. U.K. writer Tim Parks is concerned that we are losing our ability to read "difficult" fiction and that even serious book lovers are struggling against the siren song of the web. In an essay he recently published for The New York Review of Books titled "Reading: The Struggle"Parks argues that our shortened attention spans are hurting serious literature and making it less likely that authors will tackle long, ambitious works of fiction.

Are we witnessing the death of difficult fiction? And, if so, is that necessarily a bad thing? What does the future of fiction look like? Those are the questions posed to Tim Parks and Globe and Mail Books editor Jared Bland in a recent episode of CBC Radio's Q. You can listen to their conversation in the audio player below:

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Both Parks and Bland concede that, in 2014, distractions are unavoidable. "We have endless opportunities for interruption and we're inclined to interruption," Parks said. "I don't want to be apocalyptic about it, but I'm simply trying to say when the world changes, the way people write changes and the way people read changes."

Bland sees opportunity in this new, disrupted landscape. "These interruptions are increasingly themselves becoming new ways of performing literature or telling stories," he said. "The great possibilities of literature going forward lie with ways writers and artists will find ways to manipulate those interruptions to doing work, telling stories, and making literature that way."

What does this mean for lengthy works of literature? As Jian Ghomeshi pointed out, it doesn't look like they are going anywhere: The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt are both over 700 pages long, and they were two of the most buzzed about books last year. That may be true. But Jared Bland argues that focusing on length is missing the point entirely.

"I worry about the extent in which we make a value equation between length and sophistication or quality," he said. "These concerns are undermining the fact that there are lots of ways to make rich work that is very short that have syntactic complexity, thematic complexity, patterning in a book that's a hundred pages."

As for reading in the age of distraction? That's not as worrisome as we may think it is. After all, Charles Dickens' work was published in serial form, one chapter at a time. So maybe what matters is not how long the books we read are, or how we read them or even how often we allow our reading to be interrupted. What matters is that but that we read is good, is entertaining and is worth our time.