As a writer-in-residence my teaching program occasionally goes by the wayside in lieu of far more interesting and often enlightening (for me) discussions about writing. Today was one such day. Students in a year eight (13-14 y/o) group asked me if I had read Playing Beatie Bow. I had. When I was young. Very young.
“That explains a lot,” they said, rolling their eyes.
I was intrigued. They were astounded that the book was “that old.” Ahem, actually it’s not ‘that old’ - it was published in the 80s. (I did a double take when I counted back and realised 30 years had passed. Okay fine, so it’s a bit old.)
As it turned out, the students wanted me to give them a synopsis of the book before their next English class. Curious, I asked why. Turns out none of them had actually read the book despite it being on their study list.
I’d loved the book when I’d read it ‘all that time ago’ so I wondered what the issue was.
“It’s boring… nothing happens…too slow… too hard to get into… can’t understand the speech…”
A similar thing had happened the term before when I’d been working with an advanced year 6 class (11-12 y/o), they couldn’t get into it either. It became counter-productive to persevere and the book had to be dropped for a more contemporary tome.
Playing Beatie Bow is a classic. Well, it was… in its time…
So what has changed? Story content? Writing style? Reading habits? Kids? I’d hazard a guess and suggest that it’s all of the above. But I think the greatest change has been technology. Technology is changing the way kids read.
Once upon a time, kids would sit down and read a book in a linear fashion—that is, left to right, cover to cover. The structural rhythm of dialectal narrative would masterfully draw the reader into a magical linguistic journey. The writer meticulously created a scaffold from which the reader would leap into an abyss of subjective imagination to interpret and create the imagery they’d constructed using words—just words.
But the technological revolution has brought with it instantaneous injections of prefabricated information at the touch of a finger. Images, animations, music, movies, news and advertisements bombard the consumer every time they turn on the computer--which for the typical teenager, is several times a day. Young people have become accustomed to having the world at their fingertips, anytime of the day or night. They consume information, including narrative, in a variety of formats but in shorter and shorter bursts. This, in turn, has (anecdotally) led to a reduction in the capacity of a young reader to concentrate for longer periods of time. And there’s little wonder when we consider Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, wikis and the myriad of other social media modes that dominate young people’s time and space.
Social media, smartphones, tablets and eReaders mean that it is no longer necessary to rely on one’s ability to extend the imagination beyond what is before them. The interpretation of imagery becomes redundant when it’s all laid out for you. As a result, the traditional linear method of narrative consumption is being challenged. I’m not suggesting it doesn't happen; it just happens differently. Conversation and interaction have become an integral part of consuming narrative.
So what does this mean for writers? We know that the marketing of books is currently in the process of great change.
Nowadays, a book needs to have a social media presence to have a chance of being noticed. Once upon a time a reader would go to a bookshop and browse using titles or spine art to prompt pulling a book off the shelf for the purpose of examining its cover and/or reading the blurb. Now it seems it’s the books with engaging trailers using enticing images and seductive music that are drawing readers in.
And while word of mouth always has, and will continue to be, the most powerful means of book promotion, these days word of mouth promotion happens via social media.
But how do these changes affect the way in which writers create narrative? Does it make a difference? Are the students who boycott books like Playing Beatie Bow communicating more than just discontentedness with dated material? I think so. Playing Beatie Bow is a very well written story about a girl transported from her time (the 80s) back to early settlement days some hundred years prior. In terms of content, the story is a classic time traveller tale, most of which is set in 1870s Sydney. The endurance of this type of narrative is indicative in titles such as Hunger Games (future) by Suzanne Collins and Ancient Future (past) by Traci Harding, among many others of note. And it’s not necessarily that narrative set in the past is passé for young adults either, Henderson's Boys (past - WW2) by Robert Muchamore remains very popular among young adults.
So then, what is it? Well, Collins and Muchamore both have author websites where we can find out more about them as writers; but they also both have engaging interactive websites for their books where readers can have a conversation, watch excerpts, sign up for membership, play games and perhaps effectively even influence the plot of future instalments. Readers become a part of the narrative in ways never dreamed of by authors as little as five years ago.
This means that readers can jump around the narrative as they choose. Watch a bit here, read a bit there, blog or tweet or chat, as well as interact and play a bit with other readers—sometimes all without even picking up a paperback or eReader.
Cover to cover, linear reading does not appeal to everyone, but I don’t necessarily think this technological change is a bad thing. It means a higher probability of engaging non-readers in narrative consumption than traditional reading does. And if a young reader engages with text—in whatever format—that can only be a good thing.
But I digress. Back to what it means for us authors - the creators of narrative, and the way in which we write.
To survive and thrive in a changing environment, we must be prepared to adapt our practise and our writing style. Fast-paced, action-based is what appeals most to young people (whether that action is physical, transformational, emotional, or relationship based). I’m not sure that we have the luxury of writing long dreamy sentences thick with superlatives that ebb and flow and create the scaffolding of projection or supposition. Young readers want it straight up. And if they can’t get it straight up, they’ll switch modes until they can.