Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Discouraging News

Recently Craig DeLancey, SFWA's newest member (congrats, Craig!) emailed me the National Endowment For the Arts report To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence. This is a discouraging document. Among the findings:
  • Americans ages 15-24 spend two hours of their day watching TV and seven minutes on leisure reading.
  • Reading scores for adults of all educational levels are in decline.
  • American fifteen-year-olds rank fifteenth in average reading scores for 31 countries, trailing (among others) Poland and Korea.
There is some good news: kids who read are more likely to also "engage in positive civic and individual activity" such as volunteering, going to sports events or concerts, and exercising. This at least gives the lie to the image of the maladjusted and isolated brainiac nerd (Ted Kozcynski notwithstanding).

But -- seven minutes a day spent reading. I know that, as a full-time writer, I have the luxury to indulge several hours of reading a day, every day. But even when I was working at a "real job," writing on the side, teaching a class, and raising two kids, I read. And as a kid I read everything I could find, including the backs of ketchup bottles and the confession magazines my mother hid in the linen closet. Seven minutes.

Can all you aspiring writers out there perfect the seven-minute story?


Elver said...

So the take-away nugget of knowledge here is that we should all start writing for TV if we want to keep making a living. Gotcha.

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

I think I will cry now.

Although if you think about it, 7 minutes sounds like the numerical average. That probably means a lot of kids don't read at all and some (a few) kids read a lot. I'm not usually much on statistics, but I would like to see other figures-- how many kids read more than an hour a day. How many kids read a half an hour?

Mr. JM said...

So the take-away nugget of knowledge here is that we should all start writing for TV if we want to keep making a living.

Well...unless you're on strike. :)


Elver said...

There's always a catch...

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Elver, while there have been some =wonderful= tv scripts (name your own favorites), the "reality" shows are spading under the tv market as well.

I guess the pros might just have to learn to play the blues... Hey! That's =my= turf!

Steven Francis Murphy said...

I think seven minutes is probably overly optimistic.

1. In my history classes, I often warn my students (repeatedly) that there will be questions on the tests which state, "In your text . . ." which falls upon deaf ears.

They often get those questions wrong, which is an indicator that they are not doing the reading.

2. In the Creative Writing class I retake over and over again (it has a Clarion format and I can't afford Clarion, nor do I think I could stay out of trouble at Clarion where I to attend one) I keep hearing students say things like, "I don't have time for all of this reading," and "I hate big words," followed up by, "I hate looking words up in the dictionary."

3. I've met plenty of men who tell me that the mere act of reading usually puts them dead to sleep. My former boss at my last job prior to becoming a history teacher was a perfect example. Give him a book and five seconds later, out cold.

I do not think today's aspirant has seven minutes to sell a kid.

You've got seven seconds, if you are lucky.

S. F. Murphy

none said...

I can't understand people not liking to read--okay, that's a failure of imagination on my part :). But what I really can't understand is people who don't like to read who want to be writers. I hate horses, but I want to be a jockey. I hate aircraft so I'm taking my pilot's test.


Elver said...

Conceivably one could dislike books and still aspire to be a TV writer.

Books aren't my preferred medium, but as long as there's content I'm interested in, the medium doesn't really matter all that much.

What a lot of statisticians and opinion leaders are missing is that it's not a fight between mediums. Television isn't an inherently more likable medium than books. Television simply has a different approach to storytelling.

Books tend to be long-winded. Extreme examples of this would perhaps be Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy or Ayn Rand's books. TV cuts out the "fluff" and just presents the essentials. People have less free time nowadays and you can't waste it on florid prose that doesn't move the story forward. There's a lot that book writers could learn from TV and film.

Take Dan Brown's books, for example. Whatever you may think of the guy and his writings, you gotta admit that it's gripping stuff. You start reading and you can't stop reading, because you want to know what happens next. And his books are hugely popular.

TV isn't an inherently more likable medium. Truth is, TV and film and videogames have better storytelling, on average, compared to books.

There's a huge lack nowadays. Nobody, at the university level, is asking the questions: "Why are some stories more popular than others?" and "How do we quantify and analyze storytelling?" The last serious efforts to answer these question were perhaps made by Vladimir Propp and Joseph Campbell. I'm not afraid of any serious research effort in the last 50 years.

At best there are gurus like Robert McKee and Syd Field who've analyzed film and come up with theories as to what is good storytelling. And, of course, there was Aristotle back in the old days who formulated theories as to why some drama is better than other drama.

What's perhaps needed is to develop a set of tools, methodologies, for analyzing storytelling across all possible mediums -- books, TV, film, videogames -- and coming up with ways to quantify what is popular and what is not.

When a company such as Apple comes up with a new product -- a new iPhone, for example -- they are drawing on 30 years of human interface design and many more of industrial design. They do focus group studies and marketing research and what have you, all with the goal of making a popular, well-liked product.

When a writer writes a book, she, at best, takes a guess as to what might be popular and then writes.

There's a bunch of books on the subject, filled with a bunch of ideas as to what makes a story popular, but as far as I know, there's no concentrated academic effort to quantify and analyze stories.

For books to survive as a viable medium of storytelling, we need to have that research.

Mr. JM said...

There's a bunch of books on the subject, filled with a bunch of ideas as to what makes a story popular, but as far as I know, there's no concentrated academic effort to quantify and analyze stories.

Although I quoted the above, there's much in your comment that I'm going to have to disagree with, mainly because, regardless of the medium, a good and well-written story is a good and well-written story. Pure and simple.

I may not know what mainstream, pop culture considers desirable nowadays (it changes on a dime and so radically that I don't see how anyone can keep up anyway), but I do know this: people are looking for one thing and one thing only, and that's a good, well-told story.

In spite of your suggestion to the contrary, I believe television is an inherently more attractive medium among the masses. Why? Because you don't really have to do any work; all you have to do is sit back and watch a screen. It's very passive.

But there's something about having a book in your hands, feeling the pages between your fingers, with descriptive prose constructing the scenes, that puts you into that fictional world, that invests you mentally, emotionally, and physically.

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with television as a medium (on the contrary, I believe, at its best, television created some of the best fiction of the 20th century), the fact that books have descriptive prose -- sometimes excessively so -- is not a weakness. It is a strength. It forces you to construct a mental picture, without the benefit of sets or props, and your own imagination becomes the mechanism through which the story is conveyed.

No two people see the same thing exactly the same way, and there's something beautiful about that.

As I said before, television will always be more popular than books, simply because of its passive nature. My earlier comment regarding how people simply love a well-told story was paraphrased from something Rod Serling, a screenwriter, said. But I think it applies to any medium.

For me, if it's a well-written story on television (The Twilight Zone, Hill Street Blues, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Firefly), then it deserves to be popular.

If it's a well-written story in book form (Dune, Ender's Game, The Man in the High Castle) then it deserves to be popular.

I don't think it's quite fair to compare writing a book to the development of the iPhone, or any other piece of electronics for that matter, although that is an interesting thought indeed.

But when I write a story, I certainly don't agonize over what I think will be "popular." My only goal is to tell a good story, and I think that should be the main goal of any writer, regardless of the medium.

And as far as books "surviving as a viable medium," I don't think you have much to worry about. I'm not sure companies like Sony and Amazone would spending so much money trying to create the perfect ebook (they still have a long ways to go) if they didn't believe there was a good amount of life left in the written word.


none said...

You make a good point there, elver--I should have been clearer that I was speaking from my experiences dealing with (principally) writers of short stories.

Reading short story slush is an education in itself in what makes for a good story and what doesn't. Imo, there's no need for research or books about writing--there is a strong need however for wannabe writers (of written work) to read, read read. That, I think, is how you learn what makes a good written story.

Elver said...

I disagree. We do need analytical books on writing.

An old friend of mine is studying road construction at an engineering school. He messes about with all the chemicals that go into providing a smooth driving experience. It's surprisingly complicated stuff.

The "writers should read" approach to studying writing is a lot like saying: "I have driven on many roads, therefore I know how to construct a road." That's simply not the case. At best you fumble around, get lucky, and create something that people want to drive on. But most of the work that goes into constructing roads and writing books is not visible to the driver and the reader.

Writing a story, any story, means making a lot of choices about plot, structure, form, and characters. There is literature out there which describes good plotting, good story structure, good form, and good characterization.

Some things work better in stories than others and there are good reasons for why they work.

You could spend five years writing stories until, completely by accident, you hit upon something that you can sell.

Or you could spend five months reading up on structure and understanding why some things work and others don't.

Writing, and especially screenwriting, are two fields where people think that what they are doing is magic. That's wrong. Carpentry isn't magic. You learn how to saw and hammer nails and what sandpaper is for. Computer science isn't magic. You learn algorithms and set theory and several programming languages before you start writing software that people want to use.

What is so different about writing?

Also, I don't advocate trying to guess what is popular, and then shooting for it. I'm advocating the analysis of existing good storytelling and the use of principles learned through such research.

Vladimir Propp looked at Russian fairy tales and found that all of them -- and there are hundreds -- have the same underlying structure. The same sequence of events, just dressed differently.

Joseph Campbell did the same with myths around the world and came to the same conclusion.

This is good research. And this research has been applied.

There are two famous films which were constructed on top of the structure that Joseph Campbell uncovered while researching myths: Star Wars and The Matrix. Among countless others. They all share the same exact story structure. The same structure that countless myths around the world, since ancient times, have shared.

You don't have to agonize over "what is popular" in order to write a good story. You just need to employ principles that work and it doesn't really matter what dressing you put on top of them.