Have We Reached the Final Page?

13 Mar

Over the past week, a couple of news items about books have caught my eye. Putting the two together, they didn’t make good reading. Might the book have reached its final page? The items seemed to suggest so. If this turns out to be true then I fear that civilisation might well have reached its final page too. Welcome to the Age of the Yahoo.

I remarked in a recent post about how incredibly narrow the UK literary scene has become, largely concerned with the lives and interests of the London-based metropolitan elite. Novelist and creative writing professor,  A L Kennedy is well placed to comment. The newspaper, i reported on a talk that she gave about the state of UK publishing. Although Kennedy’s writing has never really captured my imagination, when I heard her speak at a city library a few years ago I was enormously taken with her wit and intelligence. The article quoted her as saying that the novel here is “bland, dull and repetitive”. It’s hard to disagree. The industry, she suggested, is telling readers that “you want the novel about thirty-something people in Kensal Green, again… for the twelfth time.” Kennedy is, of course, the woman who won the Costa Prize with her novel about a World War Two bomber crew while I’m the man whose novel about a World War Two bomber crew can’t find a publisher, but we shan’t hold that against her…

And then there was the survey carried out by Booktrust and reported by the BBC that found that 45% of Britons prefer watching TV or a DVD to reading a book. 36% of respondents started books but got bored and didn’t finish them. 64% of 18-30 year old Britons think that the Internet will have replaced books within twenty years. Hmm… cheerio, then, civilisation. It seems that in the UK, at least, we’re dividing into readers on the one hand and watchers and surfers on the other. I can’t say that I’m greatly surprised. Most of the graduates with whom I work seem to talk about TV much of the time. The reading groups to which belonged had a preference for chick-lit and graphic novels. Their members proclaimed the novels of Italo Calvino and William Golding to be trash. Okay, then…

Don’t get me wrong. I’m certainly no Luddite. I enjoy looking at Wikipedia and the BBC website and my friends’ blogs. I own a Kindle and I write a blog, after all. But surfing the Internet can in no way be considered an experience comparable with reading a carefully crafted novel. The immersion in a fully realised world, the depth of characterisation, the joyous use of language, the ideas that can be explored… skipping from one flippant article on the web to the next provides none of these things. Nor does the passive experience of watching TV. The programmes that I see generally resemble a series of edited highlights. Just watch this trailer, they seem to say. There’s no longer any need to make properly thought out programmes. Read the blurb, flick through the pages and you’ve read the book. Job done. It’s that same inability to stick with anything requiring more than a moment’s focus that ends with the idea of the novel written in thirty days. It seems that we’re growing ever smarter and yet immensely more facile too. It’s okay, though, because we have 140 characters to say what we want to say, a sentence to provide our status update. And who could be bored by that?


A random selection from the author’s bookshelves…

The more I see of where things are headed, the more I find my mind returning to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. For those who don’t know, in this splendid novel of ideas, a group of outsiders have each committed  to memory a book in its entirety in order to save it for posterity and from the flame-throwers of book-burning ‘firemen’. Could it really be that in the near-future, only a few of us will remember the value of books? Certainly, in my country, if the gatekeepers continue to allow through only the smug outpourings of a distant elite, it may well turn out to be so. My way of passing books onto the next generation has been to nurture a love of books in my children. We visit the library often and I’ve bought them countless books. As mentioned in my post last week, I always read to them at bedtime. And so far, so good since they’re both avid readers. As far as my own stories are concerned, I can’t find anyone to publish them let alone to burn them… Ho hum. I shall leave you with a short passage from my work-in-progress, which touches upon the barbarity of a world without books:

Some centuries ago – texts differ as to when – a warlord and his horde arrived from the north on horseback and lay siege to much of our country. Little has been written down about the period. Our invaders had no use for writing. Books were an impediment to their nomadic lifestyle.  And so they piled up all of the volumes from our libraries and abbeys and erected giant spits above them. It is said that the goat curry that night had an especial piquancy, its ingredients having been smoked over parchment. Consequently, accounts are confused.  Some say that the great warrior marched in accompanied by two tame white tigers. Others tell of the warlord’s personal guards, riding in the van of his army, mounted on the backs of armour-plated mammoths. Their chargers were said to be scions of the wild horses that roamed the steppes. They were remarkable beasts. Most remarkable of all were their muzzles. Rising above the flared nostrils – from which smoke was said to issue – was a distinct hump.  Some saw in this the stump left behind when a rhino’s horn has been hewn off for use as an aphrodisiac. And in their abnormally high shoulder blades they saw further vestigial remains. Had these steeds, then, formerly possessed the power of flight?  

All text and images © PSR 2014


2 Responses to “Have We Reached the Final Page?”

  1. Mari Biella March 14, 2014 at 8:04 am #

    A thought-provoking post, Paul. I agree that the publishing industry (at least in the UK) is in a dire state, and certainly focused upon a metropolitan elite to whom very few of us belong.

    On the other hand, I’m a little more sanguine about the future of literature in general. It’s true that books have stiff competition these days in the form of TV, films and the internet, but I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing – it forces us to raise our game. I think there are probably more people reading for pleasure now than at any other time in history. I also suspect that doing so in a sustained, committed fashion has always been something of a minority pursuit, and the reading of what might be termed “literary fiction” even more so.

    I believe, and certainly hope, that there’ll always be an audience for fiction of all kinds. To me, the question is whether and to what extent we can make use of the internet without being sucked under by it. That’s a question that I think is in the process of being resolved now, and it’ll be interesting to see what the result is. Only time will tell…

  2. Paul Sutton Reeves March 14, 2014 at 4:11 pm #

    Hi Mari and thanks for commenting.

    I wish that I could share your optimism. I don’t think that more books are being read than ever – certainly not in the UK, at any rate. More books are being published/self-published, but that’s not the same thing. I take little comfort from the fact that reading intelligent fiction was always the exception if the opportunity to read new works disappears. If it seeks to compete with TV and the Internet reading experience it’ll be engaged in a race to the bottom. The Internet ought to be rich with possibilities for literature but if it has been to date then the evidence is very hard to track down.

    I certainly hope that the predictions in the survey are proved wrong and that readers of intelligent fiction will be able to find new works to read. If the Internet assists that process then I’m all for it.

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