The Age of Mass Distraction

Without a doubt, the literary community is oversaturated with awards, with hundreds of literary prizes being distributed in the US and Britain alone. Despite this proliferation of awards and the prestige they signify, award winners are notorious for underselling in comparison to best sellers. This is not to say that winning awards doesn’t boost sales numbers; it does. In our increasingly celebrity-obsessed society, award stickers give authors a certain level of fame and transform their stories into a form of cultural capital. Even so, the proliferation of awards is not always enough to rocket a book to best-selling status. Regardless of the boost an award might provide—increasing sales by a few thousand or even a few hundred thousand—award winners don’t come close to matching a best seller’s millions. So, what’s going on?

Reading of print books and literary genres has steadily decreased over the last twenty years, and reading skills among students from middle school to graduate school have also declined. By 2014, 24 percent of Americans said they hadn’t read a book in the past year. Not only this, but ninety-three million Americans read at or below a basic reading level—that’s 43 percent of American adults reading at a sixth-to-eighth-grade reading level, and thirty million Americans reading at or below a fifth-grade level.

You must be asking: What’s going on? What’s changing? When did we stop appreciating Proulx and Pynchon and Faulkner? But before we jump in that direction, we should consider the possibility that it might not be about a lack of appreciation or literacy at all. Statistics show that literacy rates are not decreasing; they’ve been increasing for centuries alongside educational and socioeconomic improvement. Analysis shows that best-selling titles share similarities in their basic linguistic structure that increases their readability, making them more accessible and more easily consumed. This shows that even minute details such as word choice and sentence length can win more readers than awards, suggesting that titles are becoming more accessible to readers in an age when our digital consumption is skyrocketing and our attention spans are shortening. It isn’t that we can’t appreciate good literature or that we’re not reading; it’s that the way we’re reading is changing.

In Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, Dr. Maryanne Wolf explains that we’re not born with the ability to read—it’s something we must learn and adapt to, meaning that the reading circuits in our brains are susceptible not only to what we read, but also how we read. And with an economic market that demands extreme multitasking and a digital culture that rewards immediacy, ease, and efficiency, our environment is changing at an astonishing rate. Pressured by this cultural shift, we have less time to consume information, and our brains are adapting to these demands.

According to N. Katherine Hayles in How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis, we have entered an age of computer-assisted, reader-directed hyper-reading—meaning that our reading and memory functions are based around search-based queries and the processes of filtering by keywords, skimming, hyperlinking, and fragmenting. All of our daily distractions and web-based reading, from Twitter to simple clicking, increase the cognitive load on our working memory and decrease the amount of new information it can hold and process, which leads to the desire to skim for integral information. Our reading is spasmodic and rarely sustained, as hyper-reading draws us away from reading linearly. Not only that, but our brains encourage this by nature.

We have more distractions in front of us than ever before, and as we develop into an information-intensive, multitasking society in which our work and home lives demand a constant push-pull on our attention, our brains are craving more. When we switch gears, moving from one task to the next, from Facebook to Twitter, the novelty centers of our brains are creating an endless dopamine-addiction feedback loop that rewards the brain for losing focus and constantly seeking stimulation. Because of this, our attention spans are shortening, our working memory has been cut in half, and we no longer have the time to unpack dense or demanding material as our brains are trading off critical thinking for entertainment. As publishers, we are now confronted with a completely different reader, whose preference for skimming is unbefitting of the long, dense text often found in award-winning books.

At this rate, it’s not a far reach to hypothesize that one of two things will happen: either readership of award-winning titles will decrease, or award-winning titles will begin to look and feel a bit more like best-selling titles in terms of readability. This is not to say that we need less complex stories or that the depth of a story is directly correlated to syntactical density, as there can be great depth in simplicity. But we cannot ignore the fact that our reading habits are changing, and I predict that we will only see more and more books that cater to a broader spectrum of readers, as the books that are most readable are the ones that allow for a greater rate of consumption in an age when we have little time to read at all.