Adorable Corgi © pvl0707 | Deposit Photos
This post is inspired by a comment by Peggy on The Fallacy of the Best Seller. She wrote about a best selling author she’d read for years. The author had been pretty good, but now seemed to be phoning it in.
So, is the overall quality of fiction better or declining?
Thanks to social media, it is in decline. It might even get worse.
I’ve been reading a rather horrifying book called Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention–and How to Think Deeply Again. The author navigates through the complex issue of what social media and smartphones are doing to our ability to focus.
While there are some things we can do, a lot of the recommendations (i.e., turn off your notifications, ditch your phone) are blaming the victim. Social media companies find ways to manipulate us and pull us in. According to Becca Syme, little things like making a decision to scroll to the next page cause decision fatigue.
And it’s tough because we get bombarded with it everywhere. I have notifications turned off on my work Outlook, but the program makes sure I know I have unopened emails by displaying the number of them. Can’t turn that off. Teams flashes at me incessantly when I have a message, encouraging me to drop what I’m doing to see what the message is.
This is destroying our ability to focus.
Focus for writers is important across two fronts.
The first is reading.
We get ideas from reading, though you may not always know exactly where they come from. You might read something in a non-fiction book a year ago, or even ten years ago, and your brain puts together a new idea after reading a novel.
Yet, as I check out the business books at work, it seems like there’s a feeling of desperation in the books on how to be creative and come up with ideas.
As writers, we also learn how to write by reading. We absorb story—and even non-fiction can be a story, though it depends on the book. While you can learn some techniques by reading craft books, these are also at a basic level. More advanced skills are primarily learned from studying writers who do those skills well.
But with focus being consumed by our technology, books aren’t holding people’s attention. At a big university, the professor discovered the students barely had the focus for a short book.
You can also see this in business books published by major houses. Common complaints from reviewers are that the books feel like blog posts—at premium prices! I reviewed one of these, given a hardback copy. The publisher had to adjust the book formatting with more spacing between lines, along with an executive summary up front in each chapter and another summary at the end of the chapter.
There’s also a big industry of writers summarizing business books. Some are 40 pages, while others are as little as 8 pages. They’re made to be skimmed. Like a blog post online.
Non-fiction writers are having trouble pulling on enough knowledge to create content for their books. That goes back to the lack of focus.
The second issue with focus is interruptions.
Writers report jumping online, hitting Twitter or Facebook or whatever for “a few minutes” and then three hours later they surface, having never done the writing.
People make it about discipline. That “blame the victim” mentality. Sure you can turn off some of the technology, or do as Dean Wesley Smith recommends: have a writing dedicated computer.
But it’s a bandage fix at best because the technology wants you engaged with them. I came back to my computer after Windows, Adobe, and Firefox did an update. Firefox decided I needed an icon installed on my taskbar. I removed it, as I’ve done every time I have an update from them. Adobe decided I needed an icon on my desktop and added it with their update. I removed it, as I’ve also done before.
And Windows? I noticed there was a tiny panda in my taskbar as part of the search field (it was International Panda Day. Today was some kind of environmental one). If I click in the search box, a window pops up to tell me about pandas and provide links for me to investigate. That change caused me to turn off this feature entirely. (Note the order the instructions are presented. This setting came turned on, but turning it off is not the first option.)
My desktop (the icon next to Word at the bottom is Atticus, my writing program. The icon is a Boston Terrier). I had to remove the search bar because the icon changed daily, and I could see it while I was writing. Intentionally distracting.
Exactly how do you write a novel beyond a sentence at a time when technology wants you to visit it?
What’s the panda you’re turning off?
Panda © kennytong | Deposit Photos
Corgis are cute, but lose the glasses– and don’t dress your pets up like humans!
I would say that another major reason the quality of fiction is declining is that authors are more concerned with being woke than being good writers. Even setting aside personal political views, the standard for publishing has become how many gay relationships you can force upon the reader, not the quality of the writing. Good fiction is not created by shoving real-world political agendas down people’s throats.
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Hi, Storm Grace
I’m going to agree and disagree on that. I agree that an author shouldn’t get up on a soapbox to lecture readers. Unfortunately, that is a problem, both in fiction and non-fiction (and non-fiction is much worse. Even shows up in business books). I’ve also run across novels where it was clear the author was using it to promote his political views to the detriment of the story.
But I also don’t mind seeing diverse kinds of fiction. I grew up wishing that the fiction I was reading had better roles for women than wallpaper. Science fiction can lend itself to dealing with issues in society out of the context of the real world. But it takes a lot of skill to present both sides in a way that makes sense for all the characters and the story–the author has to be able to put himself in the shoes of a viewpoint he doesn’t share and present it honestly in the story. When it’s done right, it’s a really good story that makes you think. Unfortunately, a lot of authors either don’t get the balance right or think that their opinion is shared by everyone.
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It’s not that I mind diverse concepts in fiction, and, when done right, societal issues can be effectively represented. My problem comes in when it is clear that the author only has something in to make it political. As an example, I read a book a few months ago where one of the main characters was a girl. She had a girlfriend. This girlfriend was mentioned twice, but, other than making one of the characters gay, there seemed to be no point to their relationship. The girlfriend never once showed up, and the girl was constantly running around doing things that were illegal and could possibly (in the context of this fantasy world) reflect badly on anyone close to her, including her girlfriend. She never once seemed to actually care about her girlfriend.
In another book I read there were two men in a relationship, and it didn’t bother me because it actually seemed like they cared about each other. While I disagree with that in real life, I accept that other people have different views, and I don’t mind seeing that reflected in writing.
My problem is when the author is only doing it to make it woke when it’s entirely out of place, while putting minimal to no effort into actually making it seem genuine.
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With the caveat that beyond a basic competence (i.e., do the words on the page make sense, or are they simply word salad?), “quality” is often a matter of taste…
There’s a LOT more (exponentially more) fiction/nonfiction available now than there was even ten years ago, let alone twenty or thirty.
When I was a child, we had five television channels available: the big three networks, the public broadcast channel, and the local independent channel. Now? Thanks to satellite and cable television, there are hundreds of channels available, all the time.
Without the big however-many trad publishers, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of new writers appearing every month.
I’m all for that, of course, but…Sturgeon’s Law applies and with the sheer volume of stories available now, it’s writ large in gilt lettering.
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I’m going to both agree and disagree. If you buy a novel where the idea is like what we see in every movie, the setting is very white room, and the characters feel like the story is leading that, that’s not personal taste on the reader’s part. That’s a series of craft issues. Most readers probably won’t get past the first chapter, though they won’t understand why.
On the other hand, I don’t like a lot of urban fantasy. Most of the characters are too whiny for me, and there’s too much romance when I want more spec fiction. That is most definitely personal taste.