(The video version of this blog can be found here).
I love Zadie Smith. Not just for her writing, but for her outspoken and thought provoking opinions. In addition to her novels, I’ve watched/read many interviews with her (I rarely watch TV, but I watch author interviews like they’re the latest serial) and I’ve ploughed through her online essays. Anyway, during one particular interview, Zadie was asked for her opinion on contemporary fiction. Her reply? “The novel is anti-culture,” which is a description I utterly love. (I pretty much like anything that is anti-mainstream culture).
Zadie went on to explain that as a society, we have become trained to consume content quickly. Social media, sound bite news and the dropping of a whole season of your favourite TV show, rather than weekly episodes, are just a few examples. I’ve often blogged about our tendency to whip out our phones the moment we are faced with a pause in action: standing at traffics lights, waiting in line at the grocery store or hanging out in the waiting room of your local GP. My god people! Take a book!
The point is, SOME studies show that our attention spans are shrinking. One survey conducted by Microsoft claimed that we now have shorter attention spans than goldfish…well if that headline doesn’t qualify as click bait, I don’t know what does! Of course, many studies have proved that this claim is totally false (shocker). Besides, goldfish don’t even have eight-second memories; that myth has also been disproven. If you care to read more about this topic, here is the link to the BBC’s dismantling of Microsoft’s report.
Novels are anti-culture because they aren’t quick! Yes, you can dip in and out of a novel. You can read a few pages at a time, sipping away at its contents rather than gorging on multiple chapters, but it requires time and discipline to read a novel; two things the human species is becoming dangerously short on.
People who feel embarrassed about their reading habits often claim to be time poor. I don’t have time to read. You don’t make time. I’m too busy to read. Not too busy to watch three hours of TV before bed every night. I’ve just got so much on my plate right now. Who doesn’t?
Sidenote, though the reading and writing community may be a small one, it’s a thriving one. Independent bookshops experienced a steady decline between 1991-2009, only to have a massive resurgence within the last few years. Through the use of social media, the hosting of author events, the addition of food and beverage services and live music, indie bookstores have found a way to become relevant (and exciting!) hubs within the community. Okay, tangent over—now back to my argument.
Novels are anti-culture because they require self-discipline. Scrolling through our phones or watching a Law and Order re-run asks so little of us. You are not required to be present during these exchanges. Reading is different because you are co-creating the experience. Admittedly, the author has done most of the heavy lifting…but a book cannot fulfill its purpose until it’s in the hands of a reader. It’s the reader’s job to be generous with that book, another quality we’d do well to cultivate. The reader must be present with the book in order for its magic to work and storytelling is a kind of magic. Words on a page have the power to transport us to different times and worlds, they can make imagined people feel real and they can make you care whether or not these imagined people get what they want.
Novels are anti-culture because they encourage us to develop empathy. They show us that we are more alike than we are different. While sensationalised mainstream media and poorly research posts on social media strive to convince us that the world is divided into people who are like “us” and people who are not like “us”—and that people who are not like “us” should be feared—literature reminds us that the world is NOT that simplistic. Literature peels away the Halloween mask to reveal the truth: most people are more alike than they are different.
Novels are anti-culture because they ask us to think. They challenge our beliefs, present us with new knowledge and encourage us to read between the lines. Novels are deep… okay, not ALL novels are deep… but even the latest best-seller has layers! The story is never just a story. On a surface level, you may learn how a different culture operates or how a different industry runs. If you’re reading a historical fiction novel, you may learn how WWI started or how we willingly repeated this event twenty-one years later. Either way, beneath this educational layer, lies the heart of the story. Is it a meditation on grief, family, corruption, struggle, love or faith? Is it a subtle exploration of philosophical themes like, “What does it mean to be human?” You can read a novel to experience action, adventure, or complicated family dynamics, but it’s in the deep analyses that you will find true gold.
Novels are anti-culture and that’s why I love them.