23 July 2019

The Future of Writing

Many of us have nostalgic, warm feelings of curling up with a book in the rain. For a lot of us here at SleuthSayers it’s more than likely a mystery or a thriller, though I’m sure we all read many different kinds of books, mainstream fiction, non-fiction, a little of everything.

But how many of our kids have that warm feeling? How many of our kids enjoy reading just for the pleasure of it? How many people read paper books anymore? And are young people reading these days? They do seem to read YA books, maybe on Kindle and iPad but not often in paperback. But they are reading less than previous generations and spending more time playing games on their phones, texting and watching movies instead of reading. More distractions and shorter attention spans. They’ve grown up with everything being faster and getting instant gratification. Do they ever read classics or history or something that’s a stretch for them? And how many never read anything longer than a  Facebook post or Tweet?

My wife, Amy, who takes the train to work, says, “I notice on the train a lot of people staring at their phones. Some are reading, but the really serious readers have paperbacks or Kindles and don’t read on their phones. Most are texting or playing games. And it’s time that could be spent reading but they don’t. And that’s scary. I understand wanting to do something mindless and entertaining for a little while, but we also need to exercise and stretch our brains and imaginations sometimes, too.”

It seems to me that, while there are still some places to buy books besides Amazon, and that people still read, I’m not sure how many people read or what they’re reading. So the question is, is fiction a dying art? And how does that affect our writing?

Many people, of all ages, would find Don Quixote slow to come to a boil. Nothing happens for too long. That’s the way it is with a lot of books from earlier times and not even all that earlier. Hemingway was known for his “streamlining” of the language, but many people these days find his books slow going.

The same applies to movies. Even movies made 20 or 30 years ago are too slow for many people today. And when they watch movies they often watch them on a phone with a screen that’s five inches wide. How exciting is that? And many movies today are of the comic book variety. I’m not saying no one should read comic books or enjoy comic book movies, but it seems sometimes like that’s all there is in the theatres.

And novels have become Hollywoodized. I like fast paced things as much as the next person, but I also like the depth a novel can provide that movies or TV series often don’t. And one of the things that I liked about the idea of writing novels was being able to take things slower, to explore characters’ thoughts and emotions.

In talking to many people, I often find there’s a lack of shared cultural touchstones that I think were carried over from generation to generation previously. That also affects our writing. Should we use literary allusions, historical allusions? If so, how much do we explain them? And how much do we trust our audience to maybe look them up? The same goes for big words.

Way back when, I was writing copy for a national radio show. Another writer and I got called on the carpet one time and dressed down by the host. Why? Because we were using words that were “too big,” too many syllables. Words that people would have to look up. So, we dumbed down our writing to keep getting our paychecks. But it grated on us.

But in writing my own books and short stories I pretty much write them the way I want to. I’m not saying I don’t stop and consider using this word instead of that. But I hate writing down to people. When I was younger I’d sit with a dictionary and scratch pad next to me as I read a book. If I came on a word I didn’t know I’d look it up and write the definition down. And I learned a lot of new words that way. Today, if one is reading on a Kindle or similar device, it’s even easier. You click on the word and the definition pops up. That’s one of the things I like about e-readers, even though I still prefer paper books. But I wonder how many younger people look up words or other things they’re not familiar with.

And what if one wants to use a foreign phrase? I had another book (see picture) for looking those up. But again, today we’re often told not to use those phrases. Not to make people stretch. I remember seeing well-known writers (several over time) posting on Facebook, asking if their friends thought it was okay to use this or that word or phrase or historical or literary allusion because their editors told them they shouldn’t. That scares me.

So all of this brings up a lot of questions in my mind: What is the future of writing? Are we only going to write things that can be read in ten minute bursts? And then will that be too long? What does all this mean for writers writing traditional novels? Will everything become a short story and then flash fiction?

In 100 years will people still be reading and writing novels? Or will they live in a VR world where everything is a game and they can hardly tell reality from fantasy?

So, what do you think of all of this?


And now for the usual BSP:

My story Past is Prologue is out in the new July/August issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. Available now at bookstores and newstands as well as online at: https://www.alfredhitchcockmysterymagazine.com/. Hope you'll check it out.

Also, check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus Award-winning novel, White Heat.

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website  www.PaulDMarks.com


  1. It is a worry. If children are not guided to read fiction in school, I don't know when they will ever start. During my Catholic school education, I was forced to read novels and short stories beyond what was in the English textbooks. We had summer reading assignments and breaks in class to read. My 7th grade art teacher read us MOBY DICK as we did art projects and by the midway point in the book, no one was drawing anymore. We wanted to learn what happened.

    As a substiture teacher in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I found little, if any, required reading in the schools.

    The Harry Potter books showed there was still a large audience of young readers. The problem is after high school. My kids had to read a lot of books in high school but once they got to college, the only classes that required substantial reading were upper level English Lit classes. In my conversations with college students when I was a university police officer, nearly all of the students who were not English or English Lit majors said they did not have time to read fiction. Most of my huge family (at one time I had 95 first cousins) do not read fiction. I dedicate books to many of them and they still don't find time to read.

    Wish I knew the answer.

  2. Thanks for your comments, O’Neil. But they are really troublesome and scary. Especially the comment about almost no required reading when you were a substitute teacher. As you say, if children aren’t guided to read fiction in school, they probably won’t ever start. And that’s pretty unsettling that even after you dedicate books to your family they don’t even bother to read those books.

    I don’t know what the answer is either. But I think the first step is talking about the issue, then maybe someone will figure out what to do.

  3. During my last few years of teaching, I fought a losing battle against a watered-down reading list. Many classics were replaced by contemporary YA novels. That would have bothered me a lot less if the replacements were well-written, but most of them weren't.

    I still remember a discussion on a committee to select a few books for students to read over the summer. I don't remember the title or author, but the story involved a group of high school students harrassing a gay man, and eventually throwing him into the river. He couldn't swim, so he drowned.

    The latter half of the book involved the fundamentalist minister and his cronies defending the boy who tossed the victim into the water, and one of my allegedly educated colleagues complained that the book had "too much bible stuff" in it. She couldn't even understand that the religion was crucial to the book. She was the product of the previous decade of dumbing down the curriculum.

    Reading teaches readers to think. One reason the country is in its present condition is that few people still exercise the critical thinking skills we used to cherish...and take for granted.

    I still visit my local library several times a month, and almost everyone I see there is my age. There's a children's section, but it's never crowded.

    I don't have a solution, but it's a serious problem.

  4. I found a watered down reading list and curriculum as well during my years of teaching. It is discouraging. But I do believe there will always be readers. Unfortunately, children today are hooked on their electronic devices and games are what draws them.

  5. My daughter had a summer reading list back when she was a incoming freshman at a Catholic high school. I was surprised to see some classics on the list. She picked the shortest book and read THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA and loved it. She went on to read A FAREWELL TO ARMS and I moved her to THE GREAT GATSBY and THE AGE OF INNOCENCE. My wife guided her to the Harry Potter books and she also read much Stephen King and Neal Gaiman. She's an avid reader. Wish I could say the same for my son. He's a great kid and a wonderful father. He just doesn't read much.

  6. Steve, thanks for your comments. You make a lot of good points. And I’ve also seen that at libraries but also at a lot of book events the majority of people there have gray hair. I don’t think that bodes well for the future. And I don’t have any great ideas on how to change things.

  7. Thanks for your comments, Jacqueline. I agree that there will always be readers. But I fear that the numbers will keep diminishing. And I don’t think there’s a lot of intellectual nourishment from video games and other electronic pastimes.

  8. O’Neil, your son and daughter seem to be the yin and yang of the situation. The $64,000 question is how do we get more people to be like your daughter?

  9. Paul, there will indeed always be readers. But right now we're in a return to the 18th century, where only a minority of people actually read books, even if they could read at all. I think this will change, because - unless they really do come up with wetware for all before the grid goes down - the envelope will get pushed to the point where people return to the good old days of a book in front of the holographic fire.

    BTW, the kids may be on games all the time, but I can't tell you the number of times kids have come to visit (with their parents) and walked into my office library, or the downstairs library, and just become hypnotized. And say, "I want to have one of these some day." There is hope.

  10. I’m glad you’re so optimistic, Eve. I hope you’re right. And I love the image of people reading a book in front of the holographic fire.

  11. As a substiture teacher in the early 2000s, there was a tremendous amount of required reading. The school district I worked for made reading a high priority.

  12. Well that was depressing. Thanks a lot Paul! It sure feels like there are more un-read dummies running around than ever before. The fall of Mad Magazine-by no means great lit but often fun satire-can’t be a good sign. On the plus side, I have two pre-teen daughters and they’re addicted to books. Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Dork Diaries, Big Nate, and now Potter, are just a few of the kid’s/ya series that they can’t put down. I’m sure Hunger Games is right around the corner. I bet a lot of kids are that way. Once you get ‘em hooked on books, you can only hope the habit sticks. The big slide in reading happened decades ago when TV hit the scene. But to paraphrase Monty Python, books aren’t
    dead yet.

  13. I can't tell you the number of people who sign up for my Crafting a Novel college course, who haven't actually read a fiction book in the last year. Usually, these are younger people, under 40. I ask them why they want to write if they don't read. Well, if they write a book, someone will want to make a movie of it, right? Just like Stephen King. Or JK Rowling. And then they will be famous.
    I weep.

  14. I too have often wondered what the future of reading fiction would look like. But then I work at events like YALLWest which is a huge book festival with over 100 YA authors. Fans are clamoring to meet their favorite authors and to see so many kids excited about books and reading is very encouraging. I don't think it's as grim as we fear. Great post, Paul.

  15. Thank you for this thought-proving post. No doubt there are far more entertainment options available today than in the past and competition for time and eyeballs is intense. Almost seems that reading is analogous to baseball (slower moving) while video-based options are the NBA -- newer, faster, cooler.

    I think public opinion surveys do show that young demographics don't read much, but I wonder whether that has always been the case. Anecdotally at least, people seem to read more as they mature.

  16. I know someone who's a librarian at a college, and claims that pretty much the only thing students use the computers in her building is to play online poker.

  17. My daughter purchased a Kindle a few years ago when she was traveling a lot for her job. Me, I only have the free Kindle software. And I refuse to pay money for electronic rights to a digital book because I have heard of cases where they have been erased from one's electronic stash.

  18. There is a quiet satisfaction in reading that no electronic device can supply. I hope the device addicts can come, someday, to appreciate it.

  19. Thank you all for your comments. I’m going to respond to a bunch in this one post so I don’t have to do the verify thing several times:

    Kevin, I think the kids in your district were lucky. But I’m not sure all kids in various districts are.

    I’m glad could start your day off with a cheery smile, Larry ;-) .And what do you mean Mad Magazine isn’t great lit – them’s fightin’ words. But I agree with you about the satire, which is something I like writing myself on occasion. And you’re lucky that your daughters are addicted to books, but that’s probably because you and Grace gave them the spark for it. Not all kids are so lucky and I think less and less over time.

    Melodie, before I actually read your whole comment I just caught glimpses of it. And my first thought was, yes, lots of people want to write novels – they just don’t want to read them. So when I read your comment more I just started laughing. It really is “funny” how many people want to write fiction without ever having read it. And I love the responses they give you, too. They just want a backdoor to Hollywood, fame and riches. I’ll bite my tongue about my thoughts about them, but I will say they are unkind… I do actually write about these types of people here there, including in my novel Vortex. They don’t come off looking good.

    Thanks, Sarah. And I hope you’re right that it’s not as grim as we fear. But I also fear that those fans are very small minority of younger people. On the other hand, I guess readers were never a big majority anyway.

    Thanks, Peter. I love your analogy of reading to baseball and video to the NBA. That is a great comparison. Well, I’m a baseball guy myself, so I guess that says something about me both in terms of baseball and entertainment options :-) . I think in the past people did read more as they matured. The problem today is that young people often aren’t exposed to reading or the joy of reading. So, if they’re not exposed to it then many of them won’t go back to it as they get older.

    That is pretty scary, Jon.

    I didn’t realize that about the electronic books till recently, Elizabeth. But apparently you don’t own them. They’re kind of yours on long-term loan but they can be taken away, which doesn’t make sense from a consumer point of view. But I guess does from the company pov.

    I couldn’t agree with you more, Pam. I do read books, both fiction and non-fiction in e-form, mostly for convenience sometimes. But much prefer a paper book. Even reading the same book in the different formats gives a different experience. And the paper experience is much better.

  20. With ebooks, they're sometimes removed from an account because the rental expires after a certain period of time & the item disappears. I don't have a problem with that.

    Several years ago, someone who worked for Amazon in its Kindle ebook department, & I think it was ebook sales, not rentals ... DELETED all copies of George Orwell's 1984 from all the Kindles out there! Why? Because of an alleged copyright violation that nobody bothered to check.

    Micro$loth is as bad or worse ... https://www.idropnews.com/news/microsoft-will-delete-all-of-your-ebooks-this-month/110311/

  21. Thanks for the additional info, Elizabeth. I think Microsoft just made people's books disappear who bought books through them. I don't see why we don't own them outright...

  22. During the years when I was a bookseller, I saw so many young kids who loved the books they were buying so much, they were reluctant to let go of them when they had to be scanned at the register. But those were kids with parents who brought them in, and presumably read to them at home. That makes a difference. Kids have to be taught to value reading. Sadly, I also remember lots of teenage girls, who had been great readers, who found they'd rather spend their book budget on clothes. On the whole, I fear fewer and fewer people read. In my online writing classes, I even find that many people who want to learn to write can't be bothered reading the lectures. I can't imagine a life without reading.

  23. After I retired from the insurance business, I discovered I didn’t like staying home all day. I found a part time job driving a school bus. When one of the teachers I became friendly with learned I was a published author, she invited me to speak to her Kindergarten class about writing.

    Now, I love talking about writing. I jump at the chance to meet with a group of readers or writers, make a presentation at a conference or seminar, or appear on a panel. I’d do it on a street corner if I could get the audience to stand still long enough.

    But, how in the world would I talk about writing to a room full of five-year-olds?

    While I fretted and worried, I learned something interesting. At this particular school, Rockenbaugh Elementary in Southlake, Texas, all grades from Kindergarten to Fourth Grade have a class in creative writing. I’ve long worried about where the next generation of writers will come from. Most young people I know spend their time thumbing meaningless text messages on their phones with no regard for spelling, grammar or creativity. I was astounded and heartened to learn these young people were being schooled in writing. Maybe there’s hope for the future of writing after all.

    (If you’d like to know how it all turned out, go to earlwstaggs.wordpress.com and scroll down several pages to “My Kindergarten Challenge.”)

  24. Thanks for your comment, Kris. The first part gives me hope, then you sort of dashed those hopes in the latter part. And isn’t that true that even people who want to write don’t want to read, whether it’s your lectures or the type of writing they want to do. Makes no sense to me. And I love reading, too.

  25. Thanks, Earl, for your comment. I think it’s great that they’re teaching writing at Rockenbaugh. But they also need to learn to enjoy reading and I hope that’s happening to. ’Cause what good are writers without readers? And see Kris’ comment above about people in her classes not even wanting to read the lectures. It’s a symbiotic thing and hopefully both will happen on some scale. And I do want to see how it turned out so I’ll check out your link.

  26. Wow! I could write a post just responding to this post. In fact I have posted about portions of it, like big words. I agree about people being glued to their phones. Sometimes I’m glued as well, but not as often or for as long as some folks. A few years ago I was in a class and we were waiting for the teacher, who was late. A couple of people napped, but everyone else scrolled through their texts and FB feeds, in silence. And I thought, “Is this the death of eavesdropping?”

    As for e-readers, I’m of several minds about them. Like most, I like paper, the feel of it, etc. and certainly don’t want to see books and bookstores disappear. But we need to consider all the reasons that people might prefer e-readers. I have a vision impairment and e-readers are MUCH easier on my eyes. I read paper books, as long as the font isn't too teeny.

    Now the big words--- I was told in a critique group to ditch the big words. One such was “diatribe,” a word I didn’t consider especially big. I say, get a dictionary. Like you say, Paul, the e-readers have a built-in feature.

  27. Thanks for your comment, Maggie. One of these days maybe we can have a discussion about all the different points. But to respond to some of yours. I would agree that diatribe is not a big word. Anyone who graduates high school should know that word. It’s scary and disheartening. I guess we’re just supposed to use single syllable words and write fairytales. And I do think that e-readers have their place. I don’t really have a problem with that. But I think most people who you see scrolling here and there aren’t reading, they’re looking at FB or Instagram or texting. Well, I guess we can always hope…

  28. They start by playing on your feelings, disclosing to you that they will offer you the chance to openness your writing style and your name on their site. Garbage. essay writing service cheap


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