June 15, 2011

You’ve Got Thirty Pages


The Melville House "Art of the Novella" series

In the introduction to Neil Postman‘s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1985), Postman relates our society to that of Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, arguing that we are oppressed by our addiction to amusement. To prove his point: You can now watch a YouTube adaption of the introduction to Postman’s book here. Perhaps it is not oppression exactly, but an increase in our demand for short literature is certainly noticeable. In a commentary for NPR, Dick Meyer bluntly noted the trend two years ago: “There is an aversion to long chunks of sentences.” This trend has only gotten more noticeable in the interim. Short entertainment is addicting, and generations get conditioned to expect it.

It seems readers want to be intrigued and satisfied in fewer pages than ever before. But if poetry is a dying art, flash fiction, novellas and chapbooks seem to be emerging more than ever.

Why is it that so many readers are demanding to be entertained in such a short period of time? Because we want literature we can read while walking to the bus stop, we want stories we can finish over lunch, we want novellas we can finish in a couple days of subway rides. And perhaps more importantly, because our attention spans have become the same as a goldfish, at least according to one BBC report.

It’s all part of the desire for instant gratification.  When we hear a song, we like we want to own it instantly, and such it has become with literature; when we read a paragraph we are intrigued by, we want the whole plot revealed before we arrive at our next destination. We don’t want to wait for answers for our questions (hello Google) so why should we wait too long for the conclusion of a story? Even a lonely bar mate doesn’t want to listen to a stranger’s story for longer than it takes to finish half a beer.

There has even been an influx of chapbook contests that promise a winning author a chance to publish in a short form: Rosetta Books The Galaxy Project chapbook contest is one such contest.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean authors are not providing quality work to their audience; it just comes in smaller packages. Flash Fiction Online and Everyday Fiction are just two examples of providers of  literature in snack sizes.