I’m a little late with my last post because I’ve been lost in my PhD for the past few weeks. I’m researching how young adults source and engage with narrative. It’s because I write for the young adult (YA) demographic that I am very interested in the who, what, when, where and why of YA reading.
I’ve written in this blog before about the changing nature of reading, but getting stuck into the research that backs the anecdotal evidence I gather as a convener of YA writers’ groups is both validating and terrifying.
It’s validating because it reassures me that I am lucky enough to have my finger on the pulse of YA reading attitudes and habits. But it’s terrifying because of the implications for writers of YA fiction. At this point in history, we are experiencing a convergence of the flow of media between traditional and multimodal platforms. And it's this that is challenging the notion and definition of what it is to read.
Traditionally, narrative content was developed and presented as text on a page to be read in a linear fashion from left-to-right and cover-to-cover. Reading this way required concentration, concentration enough to allow the reader to get carried away by characters and the lost in the plot. Reading had the potential to transport the reader to another time, another place, another reality, and drop them there for days. But the way in which young people read is changing. Instead of sitting somewhere quiet, oblivious to the operations of the mundane and succumbing to the fictional world between the covers of a book - they are skimming the surface of multiple platforms simultaneously without losing themselves completely, in any.
Story is no longer about deciphering and interpreting marks on a page. It’s become more about a multitude of visual and auditory stimuli concurrently bombarding the senses. Without fully immersing themselves in any single mode of literacy consumption, young people are browsing multiple platforms in an attempt to maximise their absorption of content.
You’d typically find them sitting on the lounge with their iPad on their lap. They’ll be watching TV, playing Minecraft, scrolling through Facebook feeds, chatting with friends via IM. They could be using an App to game, or edit pics, or interact with random TV viewers. They might be tweeting, googling, pinning. Maybe they’re surfing blogs, downloading software or apps or music. But they’re doing several or all of these things AT THE SAME TIME.
So where does actual reading factor into it? If you accept the various Education, Sociology and Anthropology research reports, you’ll note that the nature of general literacy, and YA engagement with it, is changing. Once upon a time, a literate person was one who could recognise text-based symbols on a page and gain some meaning from them. Nowadays, a literate person must not only recognise the various sensory stimuli created by sounds, images - both still and moving, but they must also have a semiotic understanding of the platforms that both create and disseminate these.
Nowadays, a literate person is one who understands the nature of feeds, walls, search engines, youtube, limited character communication, and not only engages with this multimodal means of consuming content, but is also able to create content to contribute to it. Maintaining effective social connections depends on this. So too, does the ability to sift through the proliferation of independently created content, including eBooks, and make judgement s about what is reliable information and quality content, and what is not.
And writers must be able to rise above the rabble to remain relevant in this technological battleground. But how? How do we, as professionals, maintain the status quo as authors, as constructors of quality fiction? All the evidence suggests that we are headed toward a paperless society. We’ve already seen the explosion of eReaders and eBooks flood the market. Bookshops are collapsing all over the place, publishers are shrinking and morphing into electronic shadows of their former selves in an often vain attempt at relevance in a marketplace that no longer requires a gatekeeper to fiction, and readers are turning to links instead of chapters.
Does this mean writers must become developers to create fiction that YAs want to read/watch/interact with/consume?
I suspect that strong narrative writing will remain where it’s always been, a place where readers seek respite from their chaotic existences, for the experience of losing oneself in another reality. It may just be that the ‘other reality’ for the writer, will turn out to be in cyberspace.