Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Lazy Reading Curse?

Is anyone else a fan of those long flowing narrative passages from the classics, back when authors were allowed to love words for what they were, for the momentum they provided, for the images they conjured, before editors came along and said, “HALT!”

I am. I like words. I often go to the dictionary, and I mean my print dictionary that sits beside my keyboard and strains my eyes with tiny print to fit as much as possible in as small a space as possible, to double check a spelling or a meaning and find myself perusing through other words. I like words. I like flowing sentences. I like to escape into someone else’s thoughts, and I mean their full-blown filling and free-flowing thoughts. Too many thoughts are fallow these days. Too many stories are like gardens, prepared and set up and possibly seeded to some extent, but otherwise rather flat and bare. The author’s voice, her inner deep thinking feeling sensing curious wonder-filled voice, is too stifled. Too many words, editors said. Don’t use more than you need.

Hm. Why? Do we have a shortage of those, also? Should we be given ration cards? No, you can’t talk anymore today; you’ve used your word count already.

Some things don’t decrease when you use them. Some things grow and bloom the more you use them. Words are included. Thoughts are most definitely included.

I shared a photo on my personal Facebook page the other day of a text comment sent where someone asks for a book recommendation. At least it looked like that’s what he was trying to say. The image underneath was a book recommendation: The Oxford English Dictionary.

Our word curtailing has gone to an extreme recently. We seem to have so much to say that we can’t write full sentences – it takes too long. Heaven forbid we ask our message receiver to spend more than a second reading what we took the time (or didn’t) to write.

Question: if it’s not worth the time to take to read it, why bother to take the time to write it at all?

I know, readers are in a hurry these days. Publishers want short and to the point, with no extra words. Readers won’t take the time.

Won’t they? Is this true? Or are readers not taking the time as much anymore because they’ve been so conditioned to expect short and to the point that they think they have to want that? Reading is supposed to be pleasurable, right? If they enjoy it, why do they need to rush through it? Do they put such time constraints on, say, watching television? With as much time as people spend in front of the TVs doing nothing but that (which takes less mental power than sleeping, by the way), I have a hard time believing they aren’t willing to spend the time being entertained by a good book.

Granted, it takes more brain power to read than to sleep, but the brain is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it is. The more widely you use it, just as with going from weight lifting to aerobics to Pilates to yoga instead of doing only one of those things, the more able it is to perform a wider range of tasks better.

I’ve been editing recently, to include formatting for print. One thing that came to me is the possibility that those who format books prefer shorter words. Why? It makes the print fit better on the page without big gaps when you justify the text. Long words are hard to work around. I had to wonder: is this what started the call for simple word use? Did it start with lazy formatters? I understand it, as I often rearrange sentences in the book I’m editing to make it look better on the page without losing meaning or flow. It’s not easy. And of course editors can’t just change an author’s words without conversing with that author. Sure, it could be a lot of hassle. But who loses?

The readers.

And society in general.

They say the average American adult reads at about a fifth grade level. That’s truly sad.

I say we stop pandering to short and to the point and start filling our stories with glorious luscious full free-flowing words and sentences of all lengths and in long thoughts and start re-stretching the minds of our beloved readers.

Time to fill the fallow fields and strengthen our crops.



Maggie Toussaint said...

Hi Loraine,

Books are different now than they were before. Patterns of speech are different, the pace of life is different. I think the story worlds of each generation are a reflection of the times.

As a reader, I'm drawn to shorter books now - I just don't have the luxury of time I had in my teenaged years to indulge in long books.

Even with that said, I have older books on my shelves that I read and reread. I believe these keeper books connect with us in some intangible way that we crave.

Very thought provoking post!

Unknown said...

LK--the world is a different place, everyone in a hurry, skimping here and there on their life, especially reading and writing material.
I do agree with you for the most part. Some happy medium exists, and I know it when I see it. But it's difficult to explain.
Certainly, editors can take the life right our of a novel. That's one reason I admire and sometimes envy write your way. I have certainly become really put out with a couple of editors.

The book I mentioned on the Spa Friends, the simplistic one. Loraine, you would have thrown it in the fire. I couldn't because it was an expensive book I had to return to the library.I don't believe it had a sentence over seven words long. Very choppy and weak. I'm angry that this author earns so much money for such trivia.
But she has her fans...Why? There's no challenge to reading the text.
Thanks..I like you opinion.

Stephanie Burkhart said...

Loraine, I think both Maggie and Celia touched upon great point. The one I think is important everyone is in a hurry and everyone wants it now. The emphasis is on active writing, not flowery flourish.

I have to admit, I like some of today's writing. I enjoy George RR Martin's Game of Thrones series, and I do think Ken Follet has written an interesting tale with Pillars of the Earth, (though I find his sentence structure is a bit choppy) I'm looking forward to reading Girl with the Dragon Tattoo book.


LK Hunsaker said...

Maggie, yes, agreed. I enjoy the more straight-forward prose of American writers to most of the more muted prose of earlier British writers. It's not really that I'm talking about as much as limited word counts, how many characters you can have, and adding fun scenes that may not advance the plot but sure make the book entertaining!

Granted, it's easy for me to say so since I don't have to meet a publisher's demands. ;-)

And you're right. I think many old books have more "grab and hold" potential than too much modern fiction. From what I've read, I think it's because authors used to be allowed to inject more of their own thoughts. I miss that (as long as it's done well).

LK Hunsaker said...

Celia, yes there is a wide market for that kind of book. I don't mean to be exclusive, like they all should be longer and more wordy, but I find it sad that there is such a huge market for that kind of book and a dwindling market for longer, fuller books. Too many don't want to expend energy to read. But wow, what you invest more in you get more back from. I've never thrown one in the trash (or fire), but I will refuse to read it if it's nothing more than that. ;-)

I always appreciate your return thoughts to my opinions, also!

LK Hunsaker said...

Steph, I should have clarified. I don't mean wordy as in flowery description that fills paragraph after paragraph for no real purpose but to show the author can. I can't stand that. I skim over.

Yes, active, but more. For instance, I have short scenes or parts of scenes where characters joke with each other or discuss something off-topic. It is character building to an extent, but it also touches on issues that aren't really part of the plot but do add thoughts for readers. So it's active thinking, if not active physically.

A little like Anna Karenina, I suppose, but not always heavy.

Celia mentioned a happy medium. Yes, that's what I mean. Not overboard, but not curt. *shrug*

I don't read as many books as a lot of people because I tend to read longer books and I spend time with them, reading every word, for the most part, happily taking the time they need before I move on. Now and then I do like a shorter book, but I still want it meaningful. I want real thoughts. Real issues. And to be entertained.

Thanks to all of you for the discussion!

Mona Risk said...

Loraine, like you I like a well-written book. I won't waste my time reading any book, short or long, if it's not well written, with the right words that convey nice images. Also I don't like books that err in long descriptions and slow the pace of the story. Frankly, I don't have the patience to hear endless descriptions, unless they are really well written. Then they are a pleasure to read. But I don't have time to read long blogs. If I'm supposed to read several a day, what time will I have left for writing and promoting?

Andra M. said...

Blogs are different from books. People expect them to be more concise (as with everything, there are exceptions). Mine tend to be short, because I don't want to waste my reader's time.

As others have noted, our culture has simply changed so that people don't take the time to savor a long story. It's an unfortunate truth. Not all books, even popular ones, fall into the short - keep the description to a minimum pulp. Dan Brown ("Angels & Demons" and "Da-Vinci Code) is one such example.

Just today I picked up a book I bought at our annual library book sale a few years ago. I forgot I even picked it up. It's called "Reckoning Infinity" by Jone Stith. Never heard of it or the author before, but the cover looked interesting. It was written in 1997, and it's one that has plenty of description (but not to the extent of Dickens) and large words.

They're still out there, they're still being written and still being read. They simply aren't the ones getting the most press.

LK Hunsaker said...

Mona, I enjoy reading blogs but I won't read that many a day; sometimes I won't read one for days while I'm obsessively working. Then I'll take a break and read other people's thoughts for a while.

LK Hunsaker said...

Andra, I've heard Brown's books have "too much extra" in them. I agree if it feels like "extra" you have to skim over. I'm not a Dickens fan (other than the movies). I like Hemingway: straight to the point and enough description you can see it, and still his thoughts are injected from within his characters.

I think I'm not explaining well enough. There's "the story" and then there's "behind and mingled within the story and it matters so it has to be included." I prefer the latter. That doesn't mean lengthy description. It means background development. It means dialogue that shows the authors motives and thoughts and not only that which advances "the story."

Yes, it's funny how certain things get chosen to be talked about over other things.