‘Maybe in 50 years there won’t be novels’

Claire Messud: ‘Maybe in 50 years there won’t be novels:’ As her fifth novel is published, the American writer warns that shrinking attention spans could prove the death of long fiction” makes an interesting point that is definitely plausible and may also be correct. Still, while average attention spans may be shrinking, elite attention spans may be as long as they ever were—they have to be to do good work. The people who make Twitter, Facebook, and SnapChat need intense concentration to do the work they do (everyone ought to at least attempt a programming class, if for no other reason than to understand the kind of mental effort it entails). If we’re going to keep the lights on, the Internet working at all, and the world running, we need to be able to concentrate long enough to really understand a topic deeply.

As fewer people can do this, the value of doing it rises. My own work as a grant writer depends on concentration; part of the reason we have a business is because most people can’t concentrate long enough to learn to write well and then apply that learning to grant applications. As I wrote in 2012, “Grant writing is long-form, not fragmentary.” Cal Newport makes a similar point, although not about grant writing, in Deep Work.

The contemporary tension between an attention-addled majority and a deep-working minority fuels Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem. It’s not the most readable of novels because the made-up vocabulary of the future is so grating. The idea is a reasonable one (our present vocabulary is different from the past’s vocabulary, so won’t the same be true of the future?), but the novel also shows the technical problems that attempting to implement that idea entail. I wonder if Messud has read Anathem.

Anyway, to return to Messud, I suspect this is true: “That we can’t fathom other people, or ourselves, is the engine of fiction” and as long as it remains true there will be an appetite for novels among at least some people.

By the way, I’ve started a couple of Messud’s books and never cottoned to them. Maybe the flaw is mine.

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