Literary Fiction, Social Media, and Chronic Snobbery: Howard Jacobson Blames the Reader

So we have a prominent writer, Howard Jacobson, blaming social media and short attention spans for declining sales of literary fiction:

Ugh. Double ugh. It’s like someone sat down and constructed a deliberate caricature of a certain type of writer. As a disclaimer, I have never read any of Jacobson’s work, but has he any idea how pretentious he sounds?

In the face of plummeting sales of literary fiction, the writer Howard Jacobson has declared that the novel is not dead: the problem is the modern reader, who apparently lacks the attention span to enjoy the intellectual challenge of reading.


Excuse me while I also quote Plato’s Republic. A text more than two thousand years old:

“The democratic youth . . . lives along day by day, gratifying the
desire that occurs to him, at one time drinking and listening to the
flute, at another downing water and reducing, now practising
gymnastic, and again idling and neglecting everything; and sometimes
spending his time as though he were occupied in philosophy.”

The time-honoured lament of the Grumpy Old Man.

Anyway, back to the article:

He said: “The infinite distractions of the Jumpin’ Jack Flash screen, so deceptively alluring compared to the nun-like stillness of the page, whose black marks you can neither scroll through nor delete. The brutalism of those means of expression, which the unironic internet has put at our disposal: our thumbs up/thumbs down culture in which everything is forgotten, discourse is reduced to statement, dramatic speech is inconceivable, words denote nothing but what is on our minds, writers are only as good as the side they’re on, and meaning is what we intend to mean.

Ironically, I discovered Jacobson’s article via that evil social media. Because here’s the thing – the internet (and all that goes with it) has enabled me to access information in a manner once unthinkable. Far from everything being forgotten, the internet has a truly uncanny way of remembering material – if my local library happens to lack some literary classic (it happens), chances are I will be able to find – and read – an online public-domain version of the text. Furthermore, social media can (and does) identify and recommend books I did not previously know existed. Is that not a boost to literacy and the collective good?

Jacobson’s “nun-like stillness of the page” evokes something of an ancien régime monastery, a world where everyone knew their place, a world before those dirty millennial peasants with their Youtube videos and Twitter feeds came along and changed everything. There is something hideously snobbish (and indeed reactionary) about the implications.

“To say that reading more closely resembles study is not to be a killjoy: concentration and enjoyment are not opposites. Strange that when everyone’s running marathons and otherwise raising sweat for the hell of it, working hard at a novel is thought to take the fun away.”

I am not sure who thinks “working hard at a novel takes the fun away,” except some caricature of a millennial boor living in Jacobson’s head. If someone doesn’t find reading fun generally, chances are they aren’t going to be a target market for literary fiction in the first place.

(I’d also note that once upon a time, novels themselves were frowned upon by the literary establishment – classical poetry in the original Greek is where it’s at, Jacobson!).

“I think the novel is in quite good health. I think there are some terrific novels being written. It is a puzzle to me that novels sell fewer and fewer copies than they used to unless you write children stories or mystery stories … the novel is in good health. The problem is the reader.”

Novels are designed to be read, not written. Blaming the reader is so wrongheaded, I do not even know where to begin.

(And did it not occur to Jacobson that, perhaps, economic predicament might have something to do with declining sales? People in precarious employment and with little disposable income – a fair chunk of those social media users Jacobson hates so much – might not have the time or money to invest in these terrific new novels he talks about. I, for one, invariably get books second-hand or from the library if at all possible).

“Numbers of readers of serious literature are dwindling,” he said. “What will change that? Will people fall out of love with the screen? Eventually will we just get sick of that? Will we recover our powers of concentration? … Until people fall out of love with the screen, I don’t know what will win them back to writing.”

Again, the screen has introduced me to a fair bit of serious literature.

Addressing a question from an audience member who reported feeling pressurised by publishers to write a “page-turner”, Jacobson said: “Tell them to go to hell. You describe the tragic state we are in. When someone tells me they couldn’t put my novel down, I feel they haven’t read what I’ve done. If you read me, you’re going to want to put me down … what you’ve said encapsulates the problem at the moment.

By the sounds of it, Jacobson, I as a reader am going to want to put you down and never pick you up again.

In my own experience, there are few things more joyful than simply losing yourself in a book. Forgetting where you are, what time it is… complete immersion and emotional investment. As a writer, I would consider it to be the utmost accolade that someone could not put my work down.

“It is so deeply insulting to readers, that this is all they want to do.

No, it is deeply insulting to readers that you consider it their fault for not buying a particular genre of book.

Here’s the challenge: how do we educate the reader, so they don’t want to want it? I’ve never understood why anyone wants to read those books. ‘Who committed the murder?’ Who the hell cares?”

They care because the author is good enough to make them care. And a reader who cares is all an author can ask for, whatever the genre.

I, for one, would hate to see a world where readers are “educated” out of liking murder mysteries. I mean, imagine a world where no-one reads DickensPoe, and Conan Doyle?

**** you, Howard Jacobson.


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