When I was young, I and most of my contemporaries, devoured books with a passion. Classical novels, historical novels, detective novels, romantic novels, American novels; anything that we could get hold of, anything our English teachers recommended, or anything that the library stocked under our favourite genre. There was a thriving bookshop in every town. Reading gave us access to other worlds, and other lives, it stimulated our imaginations and filled the otherwise tedious spaces in our schedules.
Now things seem different. The older generations still read, but it seems the youth of today isn't interested. They are so engaged with their smartphones, so consumed with their transient communications, so bewitched by their YouTubes, their social media and their video games, that the idea of settling down to consume a two-hundred-page compilation of literature is anathema to them. They get their stories from podcasts and Netflix. They get their view of the world from Twitter, TikTok and Instagram. They get their philosophical and political ideas from every ranting online campaigner or conspiracy theorist that catches their eye. Even highly intelligent and qualified university graduates spend more time screen scrolling than reading books. The attention span is shrinking exponentially.
Call me a reactionary old fogey if you like, but this seems to me a truly worrying trend. Words; deeply thought-out words, carefully crafted words, express the essence of our being. They contain the thoughts and the conclusions of mankind developed over millennia. They describe the immensely complex considerations and conclusions about life arrived at by the foremost thinkers of every generation. They are what define our species.
Words are becoming redundant. The modern generation, in Western society at any rate, can't even spell them, let alone put them together in a grammatically intelligible sentence. Everything has to be told in shorthand. Everything is condensed down to symbols and emojis. Everything must be instantaneous or it's considered obsolete.
This affects the information we receive to a huge degree. Truly informed and intelligent journalism is now confined to a dwindling list of publications. Highly literate articles about the state of the world and mankind's condition, such as those published in Prospect, The Spectator, the occasional Telegraph and Guardian editorials, The New York Times commentaries, the terrific Insider section of the Weekend Australian, are read by an ever-diminishing section of the ageing population. The young people aren’t interested, even the once illustrious British Times is now little more than a populist tabloid, degraded by the commercial demands of Murdoch's empire.
And, although there is a myriad of books out there, it seems that the publishing industry is on a slowly declining slope towards oblivion. It is suffocating under a deluge of self-published novels, most of them written by amateur wannabes who don't realise that good writing is something that has to be learned, just as playing a musical instrument or painting a portrait, has to be learned. It is pandering to the demands of the equally undiscerning reader who wants the self-reflecting domestic drama, the rom-com, the undemanding thriller, hopefully, available for 99 cents on their Kindle. Don't get me wrong, there is a place for all these, and indeed I am forced to make some of my living out of them myself, but when one opens the pages of the latest best-selling mega-hit novel, one is invariably faced with a stream of clichéd and undemanding language that would make Dickens, or Graham Greene, or certainly Jane Austen shudder. Let alone more modern writers such as Ian McKewan, Salman Rushdie, or Julian Barnes.
And the publishers and agents themselves seem largely to have lost their focus in the face of the modern obsession with trivia. The majority of literary agents are youngish women who reflect the demographic of the majority of readers, and their pitches invariably call for feminist, LGBTQ, and alternative culture books, which makes one wonder whether there are as many readers as there are promoters of such books!
Yes, of course, there are some great authors, if you can find them amongst the cascade, and there are still a good number of literary prizes to be won. However, the average earnings for those who describe themselves as full-time writers are depressingly less than ten thousand pounds in the UK, and not much more in the USA. It seems that the earnings of those who offer writing and marketing advice exceed those of the authors themselves!
The literary output is supported somewhat by the fact that many, if not most, thought-provoking movies are adapted from books. But then again, that side of the movie industry is also in trouble. The cinema-going statistics are depressing. And apparently, they are not recovering much from when the pandemic closed all the picture houses. I am often astounded to find myself sitting in the stalls, watching a really intriguing film, but with only six other wrinklies in there with me. Again, the youngsters seem to have rejected the wonder of the big screen for the quick fix of the small one.
I don't foresee the imminent disappearance of literacy and quality writing yet. There are still many readers eager to lose themselves in the world of the writer's imagination, and many educated artists who aspire to create great works. But I do wonder how the world of books will look when the new generation of phone gawpers displaces the rest of us.