The Future of Fiction? Its meaning?

Over the past few years, there’s been what I’d call a desultory, on-and-off debate, if it can be termed such, over the future of books, and of fiction. While few believe that either books or fiction in some form of print will vanish, it’s clear that changes are occurring, and those changes both reflect current trends in society and foreshadow future changes.

Over the past decade the number of fiction titles and the number of copies sold are up, but not so much as population growth. Other studies suggest that there actually may be fewer readers, but that those readers are individually buying more books, as a result of the growth of chain bookstores and on-line stores. This possibility is bolstered by the distribution of sales figures as well. With the exception of authors of block-buster works such as Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code, and the top romances, most authors are writing more books, but the numbers of copies of each title sold tend to be lower. In the F&SF field, more than a few authors who used to be mid-list authors published by major houses are now being published by smaller houses, even while they’re getting quite favorable reviews and positive critical attention. Recent surveys also indicate that fiction reading has dropped off enormously among the 16-25 year old age-group.

What do these changes mean? For one thing, I personally believe that they largely reflect a change in personal entertainment preferences, and that change is driven, in large part, by the impact of technology on our lives and in the corresponding transformation of the nature of work. A greater and greater percentage of work has moved from physical labor to tasks requiring mental efforts or services with social interaction, if not both, and the hours worked have not decreased in the U.S.A., and in many fields, have actually increased significantly. I have heard more and more individuals say, time and time again, that when they get home from work, they’re simply too exhausted to be able to concentrate on a book, and like it or not, reading does require a certain amount of concentration.

Bookstores are also carrying larger and larger sections of graphic novels, anime, and manga. This isn’t totally surprising, given that younger Americans are a more video/visual entertainment generation, which also explains the growth of video/computer games. The concern that I have about this shift is that reading, fiction in particular, requires the reader to construct a mental image of the setting and the events, rather than merely to observe and participate, as is the case for visually-based entertainment.

Where will these changes in entertainment preferences lead society as a whole? Will they have that great an effect? Some preliminary studies suggest that the brain development of the video generation is different, but I haven’t seen any work that says what the change in development does to perception and behavior. Some differences that I’ve observed and that concern me are: (1) the younger generation seems to have a greater difficulty in visualizing or imagining things described only in words; (2) they have more difficulty in transferring skills learned in one application to a different application; (3) their writing skills, in general, are far weaker than those of earlier generations; (4) while constructing and supporting statements/arguments logically and factually has always been difficult for students, that difficulty seems even greater now than in earlier generations.

Even assuming that my observations are true and hold for a larger body of young Americans than I’ve observed, will they affect the future of the United States? How?

Based on history, one has to wonder. Certainly, a significant number and great percentage of our ancestors either could not read or never read fiction. In fact, the first recognized novel [Pamela, by Richardson] wasn’t even published until 1740, relatively late in the development of what we call civilization. And, generations ago, fiction was considered by some pillars of society to be frivolous and mentally damaging, just as video and computer games are by some today.

In the end, the question may not be about how many people are reading fiction, but who those readers happen to be, and what they take from it.