Friday, May 13, 2016

Because Something is Happening Here But You Don’t Know What it is, Do You, Mister Jones? Redux

When you are writing, do you read other mysteries? Or are you afraid it will affect your own voice?

by Paul D. Marks

Not to be party pooper, but we had a similar question a few weeks ago, in February. And since I don’t really have anything new to add to what I said then (you can find it here:, I thought I’d run a piece I did for another blog a while ago. As it deals with people who have little intellectual curiosity, cultural touchstones or desire to read, I think it’s something that might interest both readers and writers.

So, I hope no one minds my rerunning that piece here:


One of the things that scares me most as a writer is an illiterate society. Not only illiterate in the sense of people being unable to read and write. But “illiterate” in the sense that, as a society, we have touchstones that everyone or at least most people are familiar with. Or I thought we did at one time. I’m not so sure anymore.

Let’s start with plain literacy on a personal and anecdotal level.

When my wife and I were looking for the house prior to our current house we noticed something odd, at least odd to us. We’d go in various houses in different parts of Los Angeles. But, unlike some of the shows on HGTV, you could still see the real people’s stuff in their houses. Their junk, ugly sofa, hideous drapes and kids’ toys strewn all over, laundry baskets, cluttered closets, etc. One thing we didn’t see much of were books. Sure, a house here or there had them, but the majority didn’t. And if they did they had a coffee table book or two of some artist they thought would make them look chic or intelligent or maybe a book of aerial views of L.A. One place we expected to see lots of books was in kids’ rooms or a potboiler on their parents’ nightstands. But, alas, the “cupboards” were bare.
This was twenty or so years ago, so well before smart phones, Kindles and e-readers. So, it’s not like all their multitudinous libraries were in e-form. No, there just weren’t many books to be seen.
We found this odd, as we have books stuffed to the rafters, as do most of our friends. Here, there and everywhere, in the living room or the dining room, library, the hallway, and even shelves upon shelves in the garage.

Flash forward: Cultural Literacy

When we went hunting for our current house, about ten years ago it was more of the same. By then there might have been some e-books and the like but the real revolution still hadn’t hit full bore yet.

Again this seemed odd. But more than odd, it’s scary. Especially for a writer. Because a writer needs readers. And if people aren’t reading, I’m out of a job, and maybe likely so are you. Even scarier though is the fact that, imho, we are becoming a post-literate society. And we are losing our shared background, some of which is gotten through books. Aside from the greater implications of that in terms of the country, it makes it harder as a writer because when we write we assume some shared cultural background. And we make literary or historical allusions to those ends. We mention composers or songs or symphonies. Books, authors, “famous” or “well-known” quotes that we assume most readers will be familiar with, some foreign phrases, even biblical references. Hemingway and even Bob Dylan songs (and I’m talking those from the 60s before he found religion in the 70s), as well as other writers, are filled with them. But often these days readers are not familiar with these references, so they miss the richness of the writing. So then we begin to question whether or not to include these references and sometimes end up writing to the lower common denominator. And that diminishes our works and our society, even if it sounds pompous to say that.

Maybe people won’t know who Rudy Vallee is, and that's understandable, but many also don’t know who Shakespeare is in any meaningful way. (And Happy 400th Birthday to the Bard -- And Many More!)

When I would go to pitch meetings in Hollywood I would often have to dumb down my presentation. I would try to leave out any historical or literary allusions. Hell, I’d even leave out film allusions because while these people may have heard of Hitchcock, few had seen his movies. And they were mostly from Ivy League type schools, but they didn’t have much of a cultural background. So when you have to explain basic things to them, you’ve lost them. They don’t like to feel stupid. And sometimes they’d ask me to explain something to them about another script they were reading by someone else. One development VP asked me to explain to her who fought on which sides in World War II, because she was reading a WWII script someone had submitted. The writer of that script already had points against him or her since the development VP didn’t even know the basics of the subject matter. And I would have thought before that incident that just about everybody knew who fought on which side in WWII. And this is just one example. I have many, many more experiences like this.

After college, the stats show that many people never—or very rarely—read another book. Literacy rates in the US are down. A lot of young people aren’t reading, but they think they’re smart because they look things up on Google. But looking something up on Google isn’t the same as knowing, though it’s better than nothing, assuming people do look things up. See:

I’ve seen several authors, some very well known, ask on Facebook if they should include X, Y or Z in a novel because their editor says no one will get the references, even though the references aren’t that obscure. But even if they are, what’s wrong with using them and having people (hopefully) look them up. Isn’t that how we expand our knowledge? But nobody wants to challenge anyone in that way anymore. We’re dealing with generations now that have been told how wonderful they are without having earned it. So when we unintentionally make them feel stupid by using references they’re not familiar with, they turn off. Is it just me or does our society seem to have no intellectual curiosity, no interests or hobbies other than texting or watching the Kardashians? They don’t have the will to look further than the screens of their smart phones?

I know I’m generalizing and that there are pockets of intellectual curiosity (like the readers of this blog!), but I feel like we are becoming a minority.

And when you do a book signing or a library event, do you notice the average median age and hair color of the audience? More times than not they’re older and grayer. And where are the young people? That’s scary.

I wish more people would make New Year’s resolutions to improve their minds as well as their bodies, to exercise their brains as well as their muscles. So maybe we should do yoga for the brain as well as the body.

At this point I’d even settle for grownups reading comic books or graphic novels as long as there’s words in them.

All of this scares me, not just as a writer, who might not have an audience in the future. But for society as a whole. We need to have a shared background, a common knowledge, a literate society of people who are engaged. Not everybody can know everything, of course. But there should be some common background that we can all relate to.


Shakespeare picture: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -


GBPool said...

It is the zombie apocalypse out there. I even see it in some of the gray-haired crowed. Nobody reads or has a hobby or even cooks anymore. When I do meet someone who can actually do something, I am giddy as a thirsty man at an oasis. It reminds me of the movie The Time Machine with all those blond kids sitting around doing nothing. I can almost see the iPads in their hands waiting for their doom. God, this is a morose topic. I keep thinking about Fahrenheit 451 and those people keeping books alive in their minds. Maybe our books will be stored in someone's brain for future reference. Here's hoping.

Art Taylor said...

Hi, Paul --
A provocative post here--and yes, cause for concern in so many ways. I often ask my gen ed classes at Mason how many of the students read outside of class, and few do, I have to admit, though often a couple of them cite lack of time beyond what's required for their assigned reading and promise that they do read during the summers, etc. But generally, readers are a minority.

In my creative writing classes and upper-level English classes, that shifts tremendously. Those students are often voracious readers, even in the midst of busy semesters.

So there are some who read and some who don't--and the real question is how much that has shifted over time... and then what is being read. Certainly all of us read more than ever (we're surrounded by words at every turn here in the Internet culture) but then there's the question of the depth of what we're reading, something that's been written about extensively, how the Internet has changed how we read, what we read.

Lots of things to think about here, of course--and thanks for the post. (And yes, I thought the week's official question was one which had been answered not long ago.... Thanks for confirming my suspicions. You see, I DO read here!) :-)

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Gayle. I’m sorry to hear that even much of of the gray-haired crowd aren’t reading or doing hobbies, etc. And I know exactly the scene you’re talking about in The Time Machine. Hopefully we can stave off the zombie apocalypse (a perfect analogy)…hopefully!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Art. I’m sorry to hear that readers are a minority in your gen ed classes. Hopefully being exposed to it on some level will make them come back to it as they get older. But I’m glad to hear your upper level classes do have voracious readers. So maybe there is some hope…

And you’re right about all of us reading more than ever, but as you suggest much of what we’re reading has little substance. Personally, I find it very frustrating when I’m talking with educated people and I mention something, sometimes a common phrase, sometimes something historical or a literary reference, but all pretty basic stuff, and more often than not they have no clue what I’m talking about. But I suppose they can name all of the Kardashians or Jersey Shore-ites so I guess they’re on top of things ;)

Glad you enjoyed the post.

Unknown said...

Thanks for scaring the bejeebers out of me, just when I was thinking the world seems to be reading more than ever lately! I guess that's because I'm surrounded by readers and writers these days. But I know what you mean and where you're coming from. Sometimes -- just watch the news -- I think we're doomed. I think (hope) what will win over is that young people seem to want to express themselves -- didn't we all? -- and writing is a great outlet, and once they start writing, that spins curiosity about what has been written, and it snowballs from there. In fact sometimes it seems to me everyone writes, to the point where I'm shocked when I meet someone who doesn't. I'm often surprised to find out who reads, too. The guy who renovates my house, I would peg him as strictly beer and hockey -- he bought my book, and a couple more for friends of his. I asked him if he reads this kind of stuff. He said hell yeah. Also when I get depressed about how bottom-of-the-bucket-scraping dumb the world is, I listen to interviews of writers and other smart types -- I've got a few reliable podcasts to tune in on. That's when I realize that we're wading in muck but swimming in brilliance.

Travis Richardson said...

Good, thought provoking read Paul,

I think we're sort of in the best of times, the worst of times scenario. (Of course after the elections it may the worst, straight up.) We have access to so much information and people than we've ever had. We can read (watch or listen) the profound to the lowest of lowest common denominator media out there. It is all overwhelming and time consuming. It takes more discipline than ever to cut away a chunk of time and read a book. I think a lot of us do it for the love of the reading, the craft and the habits formed from our less distracted past. Unfortunately many new generations raised on the internet are definitely missing out on the slow methodical page turning, satisfying accumulated build up of a long story/novel. They'll get it in high school and maybe college if an English class is required. That might be it. The rest will be 24/7 distractions. (Even 2 hour movies are rare these days.) For all that being said, the future while looking bleak for novelists, may offer a glimmer of hope. Perhaps counter-programming of a sort. Challenges to go offline an hour or two a day and read a book. Something like that. Perhaps that challenge can be a "gateway drug" to pure, unadulterated love of literature. Libraries have reading challenges for kids over the summer, maybe something for Millennials and Gen-Xers?

Paul D. Marks said...

I always aim to please, RM :) . Actually, didn’t mean to scare the bejeebers out of you, but I do think it’s something to be concerned about. And I agree with you 100% that everyone is writing a book, or so it seems. The problem is that many are not reading them and haven’t. And much of what’s being written is unreadable. Well, to me anyway. I also think you’re right when you suggest that you (and many writers, myself included) are surrounded by readers. But, unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the majority of people out there. Though you’re lucy your contractor does read. Of course, there are readers in all spheres, but I worry that it’s diminishing rapidly. And I hope, as you say, that people who start writing will work backwards, so to speak, and start reading and catching up. Would love to know what podcasts you listen to.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Travis. And I would agree about the best of times, worst of times scenario. The question that comes to mind as I wrote that is…how many people would get that literary allusion these days? And yes, there is a lot of access to information or as I’d put it “information,” but of what substance? Not everything has to be serious, of course, but I think much of what people are reading these days on the net is lacking much nutritional value. And it is harder to find time to read these days. I find that myself and lament it greatly.

It would be very sad if long stories and novels were to fall by the wayside. Two hour movies as well. One of the things I personally like about novels vs. movies at all is the ability to get deeper into the characters and more levels of stories. As I mentioned though, I’m not even sure how much people are getting in high school or college because when I talk to people they have a very small frame of reference, well many do.

So I hope you’re right that counter-programming will take hold. I don’t think it’s too late, but I do worry.

Susan C Shea said...

A post-literate society? My worst nightmare as a writer, reader, and a person who likes to talk about books with other readers. At a talk yesterday, the speaker was nonplussed that Fifty Shades of Gray made it through the edit process until someone explained to her that there was no editing process. My thought: It was fast-food writing, from head to computer, to scanning eyeballs. Season with cheap catsup, wash down with empty sugary calories....

Paul D. Marks said...

I think you’re right, Susan, about Fifty Shades being fast-food writing. But I think there’s a lot of that out there. And it gives other writers a bad name. Still, I’d like 1% of the royalties from Shades :)

Sally Carpenter said...

How odd that schools are forcing STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) on students to make them "smart" but neglecting the classics of art, history and literature. And when the people who run mega-movie-studios don't know a thing about WWII, it's time to run. Part of the culture gap is that media is so scattered. Back when people only watched movies at cinemas or only watched the same three TV networks, everyone saw the same shows. Now entertainment streams in from umpteen cable channels and internet sites. Cultural touchstones no longer exist. As for me, if someone is reading a book I assume they have some intellect. I dumb down for no one. And it makes for bad reading for two characters to explain something that they both obviously know (a common sin in SF).

Paul D. Marks said...

Sally, I think you’re right about how there’s more choices today and everything is scattered so that contributes to the lack of cultural touchstones. And I think you make a good point: if someone’s reading a book hopefully they have some intellect. I think it’s great that you don’t dumb down. I try not to…but sometimes I give into my evil weaker side. And when I was writing for radio and other media I actually got called on the carpet for using too big of words and other things, like literary allusions and stuff.