If I were more confident and assertive, and loved public speaking, I might have made the following point at a recent Open Book panel. But I’m none of those things. The panel was on the all-too-familiar topic of how we can increase sales of SA fiction. People said we could lower book prices. We could encourage more people to read, especially children. We could sell people books on their cell phones or their tablets. Blah. Blah. Etcetera. There were lots of fine points raised.
But my point would have been that we have the opposite of a reading problem. All that people are doing these days is reading fiction. All day, every day. They’re just not doing it in book form; they’re doing it online.
The reason this is happening is that everyone these days is a fiction writer.
In the past, if you wanted to get inside the head of a terrorist or a stay-at-home mom (god knows why these two life paths are linked in my mind), you’d go and read a Hilary Mantel or an Elizabeth Jane Howard or an Updike, or whatever. People read to get inside the heads of other people. They had, still have, an insatiable desire to do that – call it escapism or prurient voyeurism or just plain intellectual curiosity. But it’s still being done, just not through reading books.
One goes to Facebook or Twitter or reads a blog. Plus, there’s the added frisson that the Facebook feeds or blogs are actually true. Naturally, and this is not an original point, they’re not. They are performance art, constructions of how people want to be seen – with a sprinkling of truth. Online, endless characters parade past you. You can get into the head of anybody!
You want to know what it’s like to have a passionate S&M affair? In the past, you had to try and search for it in a bookshop or a library. And you needed luck or some knowledge to come across something like Jenny Diski’s Nothing Natural. (Who would have thought Diski would have written a book like that?** Certainly not me.) I’m only mentioning it here because it’s the latest book I’ve read. But far easier, these day, just go and find a million blogs – perhaps I exaggerate – outlining the same material; and, fascinatingly, they profess to be true.
It’s not that nobody is reading. Everybody is reading. And, worse or better, depending on your perspective, everybody is an author. No wonder nobody is buying books.
*Clickbait title. Yeah. Yeah. That wasn’t right of me.
** Upon its release, the book received some backlash. Anthony Thwaite, a literary critic, referred to it as the “most revolting book I’ve ever read”.