September 8, 2013

Slice of PIE: Living In An iPod World

Seven billion people live on Earth along with 350 million iPods and 55 million iPads.

Next year, the total number of active cell phones on Earth will surpass the total population of that same planet.

We have seven billion people who spend more time on their phones talking to people far away than they spend physically talking to the people they live next door to.

The generation to which my two adult kids belong to has even made a sort of “game” out of the dilemma. Ask your nearest twenty-something if they’ve ever played the game where a group of friends gets together at a bar, a restaurant or a party and they pile their cell phones in the center of the table. The first person to give in and answers their phone during the face-to-face event pays…the tab, the bill, for the next party…whatever.

My guess is that even if they have never played it themselves, they know people who have and almost universally they find the idea offensive, horrifying, unbelievable, or ridiculous.

It is not at all uncommon for my kids to come home with friends and have the entire group sitting in the living room not interacting with each other at all, but hunched over their cell phones incidentally not talking to each other. In fact, they are not even really communicating in English but in a dialect that has replaced “you” with U; “to” with 2; and has created LMFAO for…well, I have no doubt that you know what that stands for.

What does this have to do with the writing life?

Everything. While people are still reading – more and more are moving to ebooks, but that’s a completely different issue that I addressed in a published short story I wrote ( – they are reading less and reading shorter.

It’s also nothing new. Teaching a writing class to young people, we do a brief unit on journalism. The journalistic writing style is best defined as an inverted pyramid:

It would be easy to say that today’s text language is simply a logical growth from this style.

The question remains: what does this mean for writers? For me?

What would it have meant for Tolkien? What kind of impact did it have on the Harry Potter books? How does it affect a midlist writer?

It is my belief that among other things, the “novel” will shrink. The move to “shorter” novels has already begun as young adult fiction sales have experienced a tremendous upsurge – and the people who are buying and reading YA fiction are full-on ADULTS. In September of 2012, over half of the consumers of YA fiction aren’t young adults. ( My guess is that number has grown.

There’s all kinds of speculation about why adult adults read young adult novels. Young adult author and professor of English, Marie Rutkoski summarizes them neatly: “…adults like YA because young people feel things very strongly, and the representation of this makes for a potent read…YA is ‘easy,’...adults these days live in an unnaturally prolonged state of adolescence... Perhaps the best explanation given to me, though, is that readers are drawn to stories about first experiences...readers...want to behold a transformation. First experiences draw us in because they are the crucible for change.”

While I’m sure all of these factors come into play, I believe that the main reason is that adults began to read “little” stories in programmed reading books; they graduated to newspapers; then online news sources mostly supplemented by Youtubes and video clips. This condition was exacerbated by television programs in which every event is compressed into a slice of thirty minutes – which is actually 22 minutes of programming. An hour-long television show like BONES (one of my favorites), solves a grisly murder in 44 minutes.

Even when directors strive for reality in movies like Warren Beatty’s REDS (compresses two years into 3 hours and 25 minutes) and Richard Attenborough’s GHANDI (compresses seventy-nine years and the lives of nearly one billion people into 3 hours and 21 minutes) or Fox Television series 24 (24 episodes, each one 44 (“one hour”) minutes long) which attempt a realistic representation of a twenty-four hour event – they compress time into watchable bytes.

Why would ANYONE be surprised that adult adults have embraced generally short YA novels?

If what I believe is true, then Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME is the end of an era and the Harry Potter books are the last time we’re going to experience extended stories of nearly two million words.

What we once called a novella (17,500-40,000) will become the New Novel (surprise! This is how long the average YA “novel” is!); and the categories will change name and move backward until what we think of as a “long” novel will be what our forebears thought of as a longer short story.

As a writer, I need to plan several things:

1)   Write shorter
2) Show dramatic transformation with a “first experience” sensibility
3) Drop big words which, while making for precise ideological communication, take too long to read and are subsequently skipped
4) Make the characters adult, but younger – even the old folks (oh, that’s right, there’s no such thing as “old adult” fiction – ‘cause even though they can read, they can’t see)
5) Don't do anything TOO new

There you go. Comments?


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