A friend recently sent me an article written by the author Will Self. The article argues that the novel as a mainstream literary format is in irreversible decline.
Broadly speaking, I think Will Self is correct.
We certainly are not in a ‘golden age’ of novel production. For most people, reading a novel has been relegated to Summer holiday beach reading. People mostly want simple brain-trash; easy-reading page turners. Most modern novels are written for people ‘vegging out’ on a sun lounger.
I suspect that most of the ‘great’ novels to ever be written are already in existence. Sadly, a modern version of War and Peace would never compete with Fifty Shades of Grey for eyeball time on the world’s bookshelves. People simply have too many other distractions.
Interestingly, it isn’t the story of War and Peace that people are bored with. The BBC recently produced War and Peace as a six-part television series, at significant expense. In a world where attention has become increasingly fragmented, people seem bored with the format of the novel rather than the story within the covers.
I don’t think the novel will ever die, but it has begun to fill a more specialist niche.
I have a book on my bookshelf called The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains. In it, author Nicholas Fisk persuasively argues that the constant connection of the internet is physically changing our brain activity and shortening our attention spans.
If you grew up watching Facebook rather than reading books, your chances of becoming an active book reader are remote. Facebook does something to your brain that makes the idea of reading a 300-page novel repugnant. If you can only read two pages of a book before compulsively grabbing your phone, you can blame Facebook for that.
I’ve written this year in my Marketing Clarity letter about my own information consumption habits. I still read books, but the majority of my ‘spare’ time goes into watching documentaries on my phone. I watch documentaries in a fairly indiscriminate way. For me, a three-part documentary series is the fastest way to grasp a high level overview of a subject.
In the last few months I’ve watched documentaries about mushrooms, ants, the Ancient Greeks, the Romans, human origins, British castles, the development of the railways, the ‘Golden Age’ of the novel (!), scientific equations, quantum physics, the British whaling industry, lost civilisations of South America.
Sharp readers will notice that many of these subjects creep into my writing. I’m not now an expert in any of these things, but I could tell you something interesting about all of them. I couldn’t have taken on the same amount of information by reading books alone.
Sometimes my documentary-watching does lead to book purchases, but usually the books I read are ‘fact’ rather than fiction. Although in my opinion, a good ‘factual’ book should still entertain you with good stories. History, after all, is simply the story as told by the winners.
What does this mean for you?
Yes, many people now spend most of their lives on Facebook. Facebook has created a dangerous obsession with the present. If a post on Facebook wasn’t published four seconds ago, it somehow is no longer ‘fresh’. The internet makes it exceptionally easy to skim along the surface of intellectual endeavour, posting, prodding and liking, rather than thinking about anything in depth.
I lament this change, but it is what it is.
Whatever your lifestyle and whatever your schedule, you need to take enforced breaks from constant Facebook connection, and make time to consume more serious information.
That could mean a classic novel. It could mean a documentary series. It could mean a great movie. It could mean a challenging podcast. You have to make time in your schedule to do this.
Secondly, the key challenge in your marketing is to get interested prospects off Facebook, and onto a medium you control.
Relatively speaking, the internet is still a brand new technology. We don’t yet fully understand how it has impacted our brains and our information consumption habits. But in my experience, people will still read long emails, watch long videos, and listen to long podcasts, if you can provide exceptional value.
As a trend, the methods of engagement are becoming more fragmented. Some people will watch. Some people will listen. Some people will read.
You need to be wary of these changes, and communicate with people in a way that suits them.
In the 19th century, Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas both published their work in a serial format. Pickwick Papers was published in 20 parts across 19 monthly instalments between 1836 and 1837. George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackeray all published novels in serial form.
These writers knew how their audience wanted to hear from them. Your job in the evolving world of Facebook distraction is to do the same.