Slow Writing?

I can’t say that, with a few notable exceptions, that I’ve found many books to be slow reading. I’ve found books that I thought were less than well-written, books whose action sequences, upon reflection, seemed to have little point, books where I didn’t care about the main character, and books where there was less action, but I didn’t think of them as “slow.” I can only claim to have found one set of books truly slow, the Gormenghast Trilogy, but I know that there are a few readers who don’t find it slow.

One thing I have noticed, though, is that more and more readers are complaining that books are slow. I was astounded to find a huge listing of “slow” fantasy books on Goodreads. Some of those listed as slow included Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series, George Orwell’s 1984, the Harry Potter books, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and even George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. The list of “slow popular books” was over 900 books.

As I’ve mentioned before, I try to read a number of new writers every year, and it does seem to me that there are fewer and fewer books with slower pacing every year… and yet the number of readers complaining about slow books seems to be growing.

So… is it about the books? Or is it that more and more readers are used to fast-paced [and often shallow] video-based entertainment and expect books to be “faster” in the same way? Or could it be that more and more Americans have less ability to concentrate and possess reading skills inferior to the readers of previous generations? Given the huge expansion of graphic novels and manga, there certainly seems to be a segment of the “reading” public that prefers fewer words and more pictures. Is this because of declining reading skills or because the expansion of “visual”/video culture has stunted the ability of some portion of the reading public to create mental images of what they read? Perhaps both?

Certainly, the scores of teachers I know and have asked about this all believe that, in general, students in high school or college have more difficulty focusing,tend to avoid reading whenever possible, and complain that reading assignments that would have been considered light or easy a generation ago are too long and too hard – and that includes even students who score high on SAT or ACT tests, suggesting that they’re not lacking raw brainpower.

Slow books? Maybe. But I’m inclined to believe that it’s as much poor and slow readers as slow books.

5 thoughts on “Slow Writing?”

  1. Shannon says:

    I tend to agree with you that the fault lies with the audience and not the book. I’ve noticed in going back to law school, my younger classmates complain much more than my older classmates about the length of the assigned readings, generally 30-40 pages per class meeting, and if it’s more than that, they just don’t do it. The younger ones also seem to get less out of the reading than they’re supposed to. I’m not sure if they don’t understand what they are reading, or just read to get through it and not to understand.

    Your fantasy novels are some of my favorites. They require me to think and broaden my perspective. While I definitely cannot read your books in one sitting, I can certainly spend a few enjoyable hours lost in the worlds you create. Thank you for writing such wonderful novels and for your insights on these blog posts.

  2. John Prigent says:

    It all depends on what the reader expects. Some will skip over descriptions of rooms, for instance, while others study them to get a feel of the ambience involved but skip over many of the action scenes. But I suspect the most common complaint about popular authors to be that they are slow writers and it’s a long time to wait for the next book.

  3. I think you’re correct that the perception of books as slow has much to do with readers and their expectations.

    That said, there are books that I do read slowly for various reasons. Sometimes because I find the book hard, and stop to look things up or to re-read a paragraph. This is more common with non-fiction, but occasionally happens with fiction. When reading poetry books, I often pause to absorb what I’ve read or to re-read parts again (maybe aloud, if I am alone). Similarly I occasionally slow down when I particularly like the prose style of a novel.

    I think when readers complain that a book is slow, they usually mean that it didn’t hold their attention. If I don’t care about the characters, books subjectively drag. Your books are the opposite of this: I am so drawn to the characters and so immersed in their story that I am gripped by low-key scenes. (Thank you.)

  4. JakeB says:

    I’m sure you’re at least partially correct about this . . . because in my own experience I sometimes find books written in the 19th century or earlier to be somewhat slow going. Not those books that go very directly into descriptions of people or actions, but those that linger lovingly on descriptions of rooms, for instance, or that engage in psychoemotional wankery (Henry James, I’m looking at you). I’ve wondered if that’s because both the pace of life was so much slower back then that books tended to emulate that pace, and that there were so few entertainments that books did not need to compete to hold on to readers’ attention to the degree they do now.

    That people could complain that the Harry Potter books or The Martian is slow going strikes me as further evidence that our race is doomed.

  5. David Sims says:

    Gormenghast is literature and it’s appeal is more in the narrative description than in the plot. The funniest scene in Gormenghast is the one where the teacher sleeps soundly while the pupils engage in suicidal games. That scene made up for a lot of slow pacing elsewhere.

    Not there there weren’t any plots. There was the conniving of the poor boy to usurp the estate. I’ve forgotten his name. But he commits arson and murder while accepting the charity of the family of his benefactor. He’s a really sneaky SOB, but you can empathize with him.

    And there’s the butler or majordomo who was on to the wicked young man almost from the beginning, but gets dismissed by the duchess when, in a fit of anger, he throws one of the duchess’s precious kittens at the young man. Poor fellow, loyal to a fault, reduced by this misunderstanding to living like a hermit in the woods.

    That’s how literature is. The goodies don’t just fall into your lap. You sort of have to mine for them. It isn’t everybody’s thing to do that, though.

    Not all “slow” books are bad books. Steven Erikson’s series “Malazan book of the fallen” are, all of them, slow books. But they do provide the reader with significant rewards here and there. And most of the volumes end with an especially good and poignant reward.

    Like a woman who kills her sister not knowing that it is her sister because of the armor she was wearing, while two of her loyal allies, being witnesses and knowing everything, make sure she doesn’t find out. Stuff like that, or on that level of poignance. (If that is a word.)

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