READING TV: THE END OF THE NOVEL?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Literature students do not read. To be precise, just as, obviously, Austen’s man of good fortune is not really in want of a wife, many Literature students do read. Experience tells me, however, that this does not necessarily mean that student readers do read what we ask them to read but what they please to read. The non-readers simply don’t read.

This tongue-twister recaps worries occupying some of my time in recent days. Last Monday we had a Literature teachers’ meeting to discuss, once more, what we can do to have more students read more. My personal impression is that only a minority (say 20%) read all the set texts, a majority read some (say 50% to be on the generous side) and the rest get by using internet summaries and class notes (30%).

What is worrying, as I have noted here several times already, is the growing number among the non-reading students who have adopted an in-your-face attitude and do not hesitate to tell us as rudely as they can that they don’t and they won’t read. Recently, we even had a girl who demanded our praise for her honesty (and passing the exam). Now, the consequences of not reading are serious: undergrads can be expelled after registering for a fourth time in a subject–even so, some are beginning to express their, so to speak, ‘right’ not to read.

As usual, the problem is that the recalcitrant students do not approach any Literature teacher for a chat on why they don’t read. So, I have to make do with the ones who do read.

The less dutiful have clearly explained to me that there is a principle of selection at work: you want me to read so and so, fine, I’ll choose what interests me and fool you about having read the rest. A few weeks ago, I found at my door one of my most brilliant students: he was finally reading, after taking my Victorian Literature class four years ago, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights… and loving it! He is famous for having publicly declared that he got an A for my subject without having read any of the (four) books. When I called him to my office to justify this boast, I had him explain his method to me rather than fail him. He had worked quite hard reading summaries and essays and, anyway, the paperwork to fail him retrospectively was so messy I let him be (also, well, he is a compulsive reader). Still, we had other students demand their right to pass the subject as he did, students who based their claim on their not having read the books, either… nor even the summaries.

Anyway, two of the brilliant, dutiful students who do read plenty told me more or less the same story when I asked them this week: the 1990s generation may not be readers but they certainly are consumers of TV series. Both girl students, committed readers since childhood, explained to me that they are quite capable of consuming TV in very long bouts. When I say TV, I should be cautious, for they actually meant series made for TV but watched on the computer independently from broadcast schedules. Everyone, they told me, is watching at least two or three series at the same time, sometimes combining ongoing with already finished products.

As I have noted here, I don’t like watching series. I prefer movies and tend to see one every evening, instead of watching TV (my only ‘appointment shows’ are Polònia and APM Extra on TV3). Also, as I have noted here, this is because I prefer variety to following long narrations; I learned to control the time I use for a particular story after the fiasco of Lost. Yes, I did write that pioneering book about The X-Files (https://ddd.uab.cat/record/118437) but the experience also taught me that consuming a very long series is, for me, too taxing, too little relaxing.

My students tell me the opposite: for them, reading requires concentration and is, thus, increasingly subjected to a shorter attention span. As one of my colleagues hypothesised, the reason why students don’t read too much is because their reading practice was not sufficiently strong before they reached us; lacking practice, they find reading time-consuming and unrewarding. The more complex the texts we ask them to read are, the less they enjoy reading as, naturally, they need greater concentration. These students, of course, still enjoy storytelling, which they get from TV. Now, fancy this: it might well be that both the non-readers and the readers are consuming plenty of TV series because they are easier to follow than a printed text. For different reasons in each case.

Back to my two students, one quite surprised me by declaring that when she completed her MA dissertation she let off steam by watching The Gilmore Girls over a few days. This series is 7 seasons long with 22 episodes per season (seemingly 60’ each), more than 140 hours?? She clarified to me that her record, watching 10 episodes on one day, has to do with her ability to multitask–she does not sit in front of the TV but takes her laptop all over the place as she does different things. The other girl, who also uses TV series to relax, gave me a similar account of her habits, stressing that you need not follow all the episodes in detail, ergo, there is no need to concentrate unlike what happens when you read. Sadly, when I observed that, at least, our students’ oral and verbal skills must be improving with so much audio-visual input she told me that not all enjoy the original English-language version.

I told a colleague about all this and he wondered how this generational portrait as, mainly, TV consumers fits their other portrait as readers of Rowling’s Harry Potter. Supposing the overlap is large, of which I am by no means sure, I’ll argue that it is perfectly possible. Rowling only turned a fraction of her readers into readers for life and, anyway, a passion for reading is not incompatible, as we can see, with a passion for TV series. Perhaps the real testing ground should be provided by A Game of Thrones. Before the TV series started back in 2011, this story was known as A Song of Ice and Fire; A Game of Thrones (1996) is actually just the first novel in Martin’s ongoing series. Ask the 1990s generation and you will see that most refer to it by their TV series’ title, as this and not the books is what is mostly consumed. The TV series is surely getting more readers for Martin but I am sure most viewers are satisfied enough and feel no inclination to read the books.

I do wonder, then, whether the 15 years mediating between 1996 and 2011 will be seen retrospectively as the years that killed the novel, and whether we will ever come to the conclusion that the construction of reading fiction as a (cultural) habit has more to do with the availability of technology than with anything else (if Shakespeare or Dickens had had a camera then…). I am well aware that cinema has not killed the novel and that novel sales are still very high, yet this massive TV series consumption might be indicating something else: the final victory of middle-brow, easy-to-follow storytelling over all other forms of fiction.

I’ll leave the matter of whether TV series can be avant-garde for another post…

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2 comentarios en “READING TV: THE END OF THE NOVEL?

  1. People often say things like «people don’t read any more», but I wonder which percentage of the population were avid readers 100, 200, 500, 1000 years ago, or which percentage even had books at home. It’s the same story with spelling – when was this golden age when everyone could write properly? And let’s not forget that Shakespeare wasn’t originally something people actually read.

    I don’t think books or the novel are dead. My theory is that we only notice how many people don’t read because it’s only now that so many people have the ability to read, but don’t. There was a time when the percentage of literate people who actually read was perhaps close to 100%, but only because they were a tiny minority.

    Having said that, your students have no shame!

  2. Samuel,
    Sure, many more people read today than ever and there was no golden age… What I’m describing is a small collective (students of Literature) of persons who should be ALL OF THEM readers, I’m not describing society at large. As a colleague told me, imagine students training to be sports teachers who refuse to exercise… Just this.
    What I think we’re fast losing with all these TV series is the nuanced perception of human psychology that the best novels used to transmit. I say ‘used’ because I’m no longer sure that the novel is as brilliant as it used to be in this sense.
    Thanks,
    Sara

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