attention span

autumn leaves in pond

Why impatience is a GOOD thing

One of the criticisms commonly levelled against adults reading YA is that it is symbolic of a wider cultural problem: the fact that attention spans are getting progressively shorter and shorter. That a diet of skimming online has rendered us unable to devote the time and effort needed to appreciate deep, serious, proper Literature (note the capital).

And I agree entirely that our collective attention spans are altering and that this is having an impact on what we want from both art and entertainment.

Another criticism against YA that is often twinned with the first is that, as a collection of literature, it represents a ‘low culture’ form of entertainment for people who, because of their short attention spans, need instant gratification. Proper Literature (note the capital), conversely, requires patience – not to mention high-culture knowledge and skills – to be appreciated.

And I agree that sometimes art and entertainment are the polar opposites they’re often seen as. But I’ve never liked the snotty implications of dividing things into ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. I much prefer the more nuanced concept that people render the same objects ‘high culture’ or ‘low culture’ by their reaction to and interaction with them during both creation and reception. In one reader’s hands, Harry Potter is fluff. In another’s, it is the subject of quality scholarship.

More simply put, the world is what we make of it. Art is surely the zenith of this truism.

Our behaviour towards cultural objects is what renders them entertainment or art or, more commonly, a mix of the two. Do we spend time analysing a book? Do we read slowly, checking back to make connections? Do we relish the language? Do we think about the book after we’ve finished? Do we daydream our own stories from it? Do we think about the implications for the real world? Do we consider how and why a book works? Or do we simply read as quickly as possible to find out what happens so we can start a new book? Time allows us to elevate any cultural object. Time gives us the scope to think and, perhaps more importantly, imagine.

But do we have to be patient with the object itself for this to happen? It rather depends on the object. The idea that writers might want to make cultural objects as ‘efficient’ as possible is not antithetical to the idea of writing as an act of creating Literature. It takes precision and skill to edit out unnecessary material. Knowing what to take out is as important as knowing what to leave in.

One of the things I love about YA is the precision of the editing in so many of the books. The idea that our readers (teens or adults) may not want to dawdle unnecessarily or depart on pointless tangents pushes us to keep asking ‘What does this contribute?’ and ‘How can this scene do as many things as possible?’ and ‘How do we convey the max. with the least number of words?’ All of these things are as much about Literature (note the capital) as entertainment. The idea that baggy and long-winded books are necessarily more literary makes little sense.

And, yes, times and tastes have changed. I thought Middlemarch was fascinating but overly long. I would have got as much from it in terms of its literary value if there had been less to slog through – and it would have increased its value to me as entertainment at the same time.

After all, surely the ultimate goal is for people to take pleasure out of ‘quality’. Art and entertainment should, can and do go hand-in-hand – though only in the best books. Art and entertainment are not antithetical. And in this regard, sometimes impatience can drive Literature forwards, demanding that we do our best to make every word count, every page illuminate as well as entertain, not allowing us any slack.

The people who could read – and could afford books to read – used to almost exclusively be people with time on their hands: the idle rich. That was true from the birth of the novel until surprisingly recently. Cheap paperbacks and an increase in literacy changed things… Now lots of people read, but very few of them have the time to read as much as they’d like. There are so many demands on our attention, our time… and also myriad possibilities for entertainment. Not only are books competing with TV and computer games, but with other books. So is it any wonder that our patience is waning? We could be doing other things. We could be reading other things. Books can’t afford to ask us for any more patience than is strictly and absolutely necessary. And why should they?

If they do, why shouldn’t we turn to books that recognise that time is limited – that our lives are limited – and that, when we’re surrounded by such wonderful possibilities, we should be impatient to make the most of them. We should want to spend ourselves on the best books: those that give us the most with the least waste.

So let’s be impatient… to a point. Let’s all try to get the most out of life and the wonderfully diverse array of books that we can access (at least in the UK, where we have a brilliant, if threatened, library system). Let’s not waste our reading time on books premised on the idea that art and entertainment can’t and shouldn’t go hand in hand. Literature can and should be lots of things at once. That is the whole point. That is what makes it Literature with the capital. But we, as readers, are just as important as writers.

We need to be patient enough to read actively whenever we can. To be part of the act of creation. To collaborate with writers to bring Book-Worlds to life. Writers need to make their work open to this type of reading, but we’re the ones who have to follow through if a book is to become Literature.

We need to be active, not passive.

But we also need to be impatient when authors waste our time. We need to demand their best creativity in exchange for our own.

If that’s the type of impatience we’re exercising, how can it be bad? Isn’t it, rather, a refusal to waste ourselves and all the real and fictional possibilities before us?