Our attention spans aren’t getting shorter, and that’s bad news for the short story

There’ve been a lot of pixels spilled lately about how the Internet and technology are shortening our attention spans. So shouldn’t this be good news for short story writers?

It seems you can’t throw a stone these days without hitting an article bemoaning the decreasing attention spans of the reading public. Due to the pernicious effects of the Internet, commentators say, young people today (and just about everyone else) can hardly focus on a page long enough to get through the inciting incident of a novel, and start yawning about 100 characters into a 140-character tweet.

An article in the Huffington Post back in October entitled “Our Attention Spans Are Getting Shorter, And It’s A Big Problem” raised concerns that the new age of screen-staring has begun to erode “the basics of attention, the cognitive muscle that lets us follow a story, see a task through to the end, learn or create.”

Word counts for books are getting shorter, people say, and no one has the time to read whole novels, long articles or even short stories.

The problem is, it isn’t true.

While doomsday predictions about a world where we can barely hold a conversation without – SQUIRREL! – getting distracted are abounding, evidence is actually pretty slim that engagement with the Internet is reducing attention across the population.

In fact, if we segue over to the world of television, the opposite seems to be true. Since the Sopranos redefined what it meant to create a narrative television show in 1999, the long-form series has become one of the most-consumed and most lucrative cultural forms in the Western world. Think of The Wire, The Killing, Borgen, and more recently the genre-busting Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. These often 50-hour set pieces sprawl and wind and dip and soar for seasons on end – and no one gets distracted.

Similarly, long books are actually raking it in. Hillary Mantel’s hefty Wolf Hall won the Booker Prize and has proved an enormous success, as has Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake series, none of which are exactly novellas. Even David Foster Wallace’s spectacular literary paperweight Infinite Jest has seen a huge uptick in attention since his tragic death.

Think about it: in a world dominated by short forms and small packets of culture, shouldn’t the short story be thriving? In fact, the opposite is happening – at least in terms of readership numbers. What we’re seeing instead of a shortening is a redistribution of attention, an increasing  competition for a limited resource, and that means short story writers have to be more aware of their craft than ever.

Once upon a time, Chekhov or Kipling could have been assured that anyone who began their short story in a book or a newspaper would likely read it through to the end. Now, the competition is much higher – and short story writers who don’t know their audiences (and know how to capture that attention) aren’t going to hold onto them.

Through the rise of the Internet, we’ve all become expert skim-readers. When we visit a website, we typically read about 20% of the text. This means that people are now much quicker at differentiating between text they want to read, and text they want to skim.

Think about it: why should your readers read your short story or novel? They have only two bus or train journeys a day, or half an hour in the evening after putting the kids to bed. Why should they read that opening line and keep going? What do they want to find out by the end? What should they enjoy about the process?

This doesn’t mean taking on cheesy hooks or tabloid-style sensationalist writing – it means engaging people on a human level with something they’ve never seen put before them. It means grabbing someone from the first line and saying “hey you – I’ve got something to show you.”

What the lesson of the Sopranos has to teach us is that what people actually crave in the new age isn’t length or brevity – it’s depth.

It’s easy to throw your hands up and decry the loss of proper intellectual engagement in an increasingly hectic and crowded culture. But perhaps it’s time for short story writers to start elbowing through the cloud of digital advertising, three-minute pop songs and smartphone arcade games, and gripping their readers by the brainstems.

Read more: Short story writing tips from 4 leading writers


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