Welcome to the blog of the Consulting Editors Alliance. This is our forum for sharing views on the wonderful, bizarre, enormously frustrating and satisfying (depends on the day) world of book publishing and our roles in it as freelance editors, writing collaborators, and ghostwriters. Please join the conversation!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

How's Your Attention Span?

I had an interesting discussion with a friend recently, during which she asked if I was seeing a shift in the kinds of books that people are reading and writing. We eventually got around to the question of whether attention spans have gotten shorter, and if so, did that translate into the reading and writing of shorter books, or books that could be read quickly even if they were long because they didn't require deep thought.

"No," I said pretty quickly myself. "I'm not seeing that." I was thinking of the gorgeous 162,000-word novel that I worked on last spring. "I see plenty of long, complex novels." But then I got to thinking about it. Actually, I don't see plenty of long, complex novels. As usual, I'm seeing plenty of good books with plenty of good writing, but for the most part I'm not seeing novels that create a spacious, compelling world and then sustain story, depth, and elegance of writing for many hundreds of pages. Nor am I reading many of them after publication. It would be too simplistic to say that people aren't reading and writing roomy, complicated novels because attention spans have gotten shorter, but I have to wonder if that's part of it, if indeed there are fewer of these books being written.

Two exceptions come to mind: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski, published two years ago.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, published last year. Kingsolver's The Poisonwood Bible, published in 1998, fits into the ambitious-in-scope-and-achingly-beautiful category, too, but I'm really looking for more recent titles.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005) is a possible addition to this list. Ultimately, however, the scope of her story is not quite as quite as broad, and there are too many unsympathetic characters for my taste -- but boy can Zadie Smith write.

Does anybody have any other ambitious and relatively recently-published books that I can add to my reading list?


  1. I can add two that I read just this past summer:

    Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts (944 pages) is a sprawling novel with a large multicultural cast that moves from India to Afghanistan and back and chronicles the experiences of it's picaresque hero/villain, a convict escaped from an Australian prison, and the many people who move in and out of his life.

    Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (a mere 688 pages) is a beautiful novel set in Ethipoia and New York City that tells the story of separated Siamese twins adopted at birth, and follows their lives into adulthood. Verghese, a doctor (and medicine plays a central role in this novel), is a wonderful writer and the author of two previous memoirs, one of which--The Tennis Partner--I read a few years ago.

    Both these novels are way too complex to describe adequately in a couple of sentences, but well worth the hundreds of pages it takes to tell their stories.

    Judy Kern

  2. Thanks, Judy. Cutting For Stone is actually on my bedside table waiting to be opened. Don't know Shantaram but I'm willing to give it a go. 944 pages. Yikes. I guess I should be careful about what I ask for.

  3. You couldn't ask for a book with larger themes than FREEDOM, Jonathan Franzen's fearless exploration of our current social, environmental, and political landscape. His concerns range from the slaughter of songbirds by domestic and feral cats in America to the dangerous perversion of the very concept of "freedom" by the right. There is no novel I can recall that so forthrightly confronts the truth about the state of the planet, while still providing a compelling -- and hugely enjoyable -- narrative. Oprah picked a winner!

  4. I had a hard time sustaining interest through THE CORRECTIONS, so I wasn't wild about diving in to FREEDOM. But I will now. Thanks, Judy.

  5. Jennifer, what a compelling comment on FREEDOM. You make me want to read it, too.

  6. Nan--

    That's another good thing about the Kindle. It doesn't have page numbers, so if you read something as long as Shantaram, you're not so intimidated. As I recall (and I wasn't around when it was published, thank you), Gone with the Wind was 1037 pages in it's original hardcover edition--or at least that's the urban legend as I heard it.

    Judy Kern

  7. The National Book Award Finalist, "I Hotel" is pretty hefty, and has a large cast, and an ambitious storyline (rather storylines). I haven't read it, but Ron Charles has convinced me to give it a try.

    Also on my "to read" list is "The Wizard of the Crow" by African Author Ngugi wa'Thiong'o (who was listed as a Nobel front-runner this year) it sounds truly ambitious and clocks in at 784 pages

  8. If 600 pages is enough, "Wolf Hall" by Hilary Mantel qualifies. Can we ever get enough of the Tudors? But this is so intimate, the reader is drawn into the palace, the church, the complex politics, the personalities and the details of everyday life, like dealing with the annual arrival of the plague. And you are seeing England as a Catholic Country and are reminded what a huge historical moment this was. Thomas Cromwell as a sympathetic central character! What an idea. Yet Mantel does not smack you over the head with her research, that deadly downside of so much historical fiction. There is a kind of sober moodiness over the narrative, yet it is not depressing, quite the opposite. Mantel makes you care about these people, the ultimate tests. I was glad to see the paperback crawl onto the best seller list--bet it will be back, thanks to word of mouth.

  9. I'm now remembering a book I heard about last spring that I've wanted to read ever since: MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes. Sebastian Junger says this in his April 10, 2010 NYTBR review:

    "Karl Marlantes’s first novel, 'Matterhorn,' is about a company of Marines who build, abandon and retake an outpost on a remote hilltop in Vietnam. According to the publisher, Marlantes ­— a highly decorated Vietnam vet — spent 30 years writing this book. It was originally 1,600 pages long; now it is 600. Reading his account of the bloody folly surrounding the Matterhorn outpost, you get the feeling Marlantes is not overly worried about the attention span of his readers; you get the feeling he was not desperate or impatient to be published. Rather, he seems like a man whose life was radically altered by war, and who now wants to pass along the favor. And with a desperate fury, he does. Chapter after chapter, battle after battle, Marlantes pushes you through what may be one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam — or any war. It’s not a book so much as a deployment, and you will not return unaltered."

    I can't say that I'm looking forward to reading the book. Too painful. But I'm looking forward to understanding that emotionally and psychologically brutal war through yet another lens.