Thursday, June 4, 2015

Wither Fiction?

I was reading Anthony Doerr’s novel All the Light We Cannot See (reviewed here yesterday) and I thought about the decline of fiction readers in the United States.

Why wouldn’t more people want to read a book like this?

It has suspense, history, and science.

It recounts life in Nazi-occupied France, Nazi Germany and the Nazi-Russia war front.

It reads almost like a compelling news story. It’s beautifully written, full of well-crafted language and haunting images.

The book has been a bestseller and won all kinds of recognitions, including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Have we really dumbed ourselves down to consuming large amounts of all things Kardashian as we pray to our cell phones?

Well, maybe.

I went looking for answers.

In 2013, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) published a study of American reading habits for the calendar year 2012. Some 37,000 people were surveyed. Here were some of the findings:

·       30 years ago, 56 percent of Americans read fiction. In 2012, it was 47 percent. Fiction reading rose from 2002 to 2008, but then declined (I suspect the economic downturn / great recession in 2008 had something to do with that).
·       In 2008, the NEA thought the decline in fiction reading had tapered off and perhaps even reversed itself; that turned out to be wrong.
·       Men tend to read non-fiction; women tend to read more fiction.
·       Print sales fell in 2012-2013, but non-fiction held steady. Fiction dropped a whopping 11 percent.
·       Only 54 percent of Americans opened any sort of book that year – print or electronic, fiction, or non-fiction.
·       And guess who reads the most fiction? Younger Americans (and this might have something to do with required reading in high school and college, so don’t get your hopes up for the future).

From other reports:

·       Until 2014, sales of ebooks were rising, but then fell 6 percent last year.
·       And poetry – poor poetry – took the biggest beating, make fiction reading looking downright healthy in contrast. In 2002, 12 percent of Americans read poetry. A decade later, it was down to 6.7 percent.
·       In 2013, romance novels accounted for roughly one fifth of all adult fiction sales, or about $1.1 billion.
·       In 2012, more than 70 percent of Young Adult books were bought by adults – and three-fourths of that number said they were buying the books to read themselves, not as a gift for a child.

It’s something I find hard to understand, the ambivalence about fiction (and poetry). I read a lot of fiction. I’ve read it since I first learned to read. In elementary school, the Scholastic Book Club offered a range of paper backs every month, and I’d fill up on mysteries and fiction. I had great English teachers in high school, all of whom loved fiction and short stories.

Of course, I may have considered them great teachers because I loved what they taught. It could be a chicken-and-egg thing.

Why would someone keep buying a self-help or how-to book that’s basically recycled material from the last self-help book?  Why wouldn’t they give a second thought to a novel like All the Light We Cannot See?

I don’t know. I can’t put myself in that person’s head.

Theories about the decline in the reading of fiction abound.

Some argue that the quality of fiction has declined from what it used to be. I don’t buy that argument, not one bit. There’s incredible stuff being written today, wonderful novels. I’ve read several this year, cutting across several genres, from literary to mystery.

Others say Americans, especially male readers, like practical, useful stuff. I don’t buy that one, either. If you’ve read one self-help or how-to book, you’ve pretty much read them all.

Why would someone keep buying a self-help or how-to book that’s basically recycled material from the last self-help book?  Why wouldn’t they give a second thought to a novel like All the Light We Cannot See?

I don’t know. But I do know that not reading fiction, and not reading poetry, shuts off the influence of others’ imaginations. It deprives us of stories that we need to deal with life. And it impoverishes the spirit.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.


Martha Jane Orlando said...

Startling statistics, Glynn. Makes me oh, so sad . . .
My mother has the book "All the Light We Cannot See" so I will be borrowing it from her soon.

Mary Harwell Sayler said...

Glynn, other members of our Christian Poets & Writers group on Facebook will surely benefit from this article. Thanks. I'll highlight it on the Christian Poets & Writers blog -

Marilyn McDonald said...

Glynn, I go through phases of reading--I read a lot of Christian nonfiction having to do with parenting and young women's lives for the ministry I do. Periodically I'll go on a fiction "binge" of current titles from the library. I read the Maisie Dobbs mystery series by Jacqueline Winspear almost without drawing breath. I tend to self-censor, avoiding fiction that's heavily sexual in nature--don't want that stuff rattling around in my head. But I'm quite sure several publishers or book sellers have built wings with my name on them due to the amount I've spent buying their books over the years. I've finally come up on the library wait list for "All the Light..." and I'm really looking forward to it...