12th April, 2018
Last Christmas I watched the television dramatisation of Jessie Burton’s first novel, ‘The Miniaturist’ and enjoyed it so much read this international best-seller and then went on to read her second novel published last year (2017), ‘The Muse’. Both books are historical fictions; the first set in 17th century Amsterdam and the second in 1930’s war-torn Spain and 1960’s London. I enjoyed and learnt a lot from both novels.
My experience of novels, which is why I both read and write them, is encapsulated in what Roald Dahl writes of Matilda’s reading habit in his children’s book of the same name: “books transported her into new worlds and introduced her to exciting people who lived amazing lives.”
(See full quote on https://bookshelffantasies.files.wordpress.com/2014/05/dahl-quote.jpg)
Unfortunately, there is now an acknowledged decline in novel reading, particularly by young people, i.e. teens and young adults, and articles like Jenni Russell’s piece in the Times, 29th March, 2018 ‘Put down your phone and read a book instead’ certainly struck a chord. As a psychologist I agreed with much but not all of what she’d written, for example, she attributed a lot of this decline to new technology, an increased self-absorption and a related lack of empathy. She might have added other reasons such as the commonly held belief that individuals’ attentional capacities had reduced in the wake of multi-sensory information presentation and the range and scale of entertainment that the Internet and computer and smart phone usage ensures. She also wrote of how other art forms such as theatre and film did not offer the same unique vicarious experience that reading a novel does. This is where I take issue because I think it doesn’t have to be either/or but rather, and/ both. Neuropsychology and cognitive psychology is making steady progress in highlighting the development of the human brain. It is a hungry organ, not only for quantity but for novelty and diversity of information and so the parallel advancement of what new technology can offer and the appetite for this comes as no surprise.
There is room for both novels and what our new technology-enhanced world offers and I am curious as to how the former might be made more attractive, particularly to our young. Immersion over time, into the complexity of a writer’s imaginary world expressed through story, is a unique and sometimes transformative experience. However, there is the problem of whose imaginary world is made available and by whom. The publishing world is notoriously difficult to access and, I suspect, is self-serving, i.e. those who are in a position to validate and promote novelists have a tendency to select voices that reflect their own. This might explain why a whole generation of younger would-be readers rejects what is made available to them. It might also explain why succeeding in writing a novel if one has no literary connections is a bit like trying to gain entry to any elite and closed group.