Attention Spans are Not the Problem


A few weeks ago, I argued that the Internet age was uniquely well suited to selling short story collections. A few commenters did not agree with what seemed to be implicit in my argument: the idea that the “short attention span” or “ADD” culture is in fact better for short stories.

Instead, they said, short stories take more effort than a novel because the reader has to expend the energy to create a whole new world with each story they read. I wholeheartedly agree.

The problem, of course, is that what I was trying (and possibly failing) to say had nothing to do with short attention spans.

In fact, I was saying that the problem was not with short stories but with marketing. Marketers are expert at selling whatever the hell they want, no matter how inane (see Handerpants, Dan Brown, pork brains, Twitter). If someone can sell Handerpants, what’s keeping publishers from selling short stories, especially when they work so well on the Internet?

Marketers and big publishing houses seem to have this assumption that we, the customers, will only buy books that are less than literary. This belief is self-fulfilling, because unless readers really go above and beyond, we only hear about the books they think we want to buy. I’m not saying that marketers are these evil overlords who can wave their hands and make us buy whatever they tell us to, but to a large extent, they have control over the products we hear about and how we hear about them, which means they have a lot of power over how reading customers choose what we want to read in the first place.

At the same time, people are obsessing over how we can change literature to save it from the coming end times. Over at Conversation Reading, Andrew Seal is spiritedly taking on Lev Grossman’s claim that we need more plot-oriented literature to keep the world reading:

“(Grossman) brings out Stephenie Meyer and compares her boffo sales to those of Nam Le’s (quite plotty) short story collection, The Boat. Just look at those numbers! Surely the enormous difference means something! Surely it means “Literature: You’re doing it wrong.”

I don’t know if Grossman is just really unaware that the sales:pleasure ratio doesn’t work the way he’s describing, or if he’s being purposely disingenuous, but this idea that “readers” aren’t getting what they’re looking for in The Boat and so they turn to Twilight is intellectually reprehensible. Grossman has imagined “the reader” as an extremely simplified consumer of pleasure, uniform in age, means, education, and taste; and the world of literature as a wholly unified, absolutely non-diversified market.”

I don’t necessarily want to put myself in the middle of the particulars of their argument, but the really interesting thing Seal is pointing to here is the construction of these things called “readers” and how that informs how we try to “save literature.”  And unfortunately, right now, the big publishing houses are determining who “readers” are. And they don’t think many “readers” likes literature.

But the fact is that nothing will change until the big publishers stop throwing their hands up, saying, “Literature is not what the readers want.” They’re the ones who help determine what it is that “readers” want because they determine who they target as “readers.” The publishers have already decided that Twilight will sell like a successful kids book while The Boat will sell like a “literary book of short stories,” so they’re out their pimping Twilight like Bible salesmen and selling The Boat to literary elites and bored English majors (just look at the blurbs!). And guess what? The kids are going to school dressed up like Twilight characters and only a select few adults are talking about the The Boat. If the big (and, in some instances, small) publishers keep targeting only this single pool of “literary readers,” literature will die no matter how many ways we try to change it.

Seth Fischer’s writing has twice been listed as notable in The Best American Essays and has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize by several publications, including Guernica. He was the founding Sunday editor at The Rumpus and is the current nonfiction editor at The Nervous Breakdown. He is a Dornsife PhD Fellow at USC and been awarded fellowships and residencies by Ucross, Lambda Literary, Jentel, Ragdale, and elsewhere, and he teaches at the UCLA-Extension Writer’s Program and Antioch University, where he received his MFA. More from this author →