Friday, May 4, 2018

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

Free Speech Week -- in which each Criminal Mind gets to choose their topic.

by Paul D. Marks

Since we get to write about anything we want this week, I thought I’d revisit a piece I originally did for another blog. I’ve changed it up a little, but the sentiment still applies and concerns me greatly.

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’re losing the touchstones that everyone or at least most people were familiar with.

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 into 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, 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, a little over 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. 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, classical 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.

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 sides in WWII.

Another time I was working for a radio show/radio producer, writing segments, doing interviews and the like. The producer was also the host, you know Mr.-Deep-Voice-I’m-Mr.-Kewl. Mr. Slick. He called another writer and me into his office—literally on the carpet—to bawl us out for using too big words. He literally wanted us to dumb it down in no uncertain terms……even though what we were doing wasn’t exactly sesquipedalian 😉.

And these are just a couple examples. 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: Google Makes Us All Dumber - The Neuroscience of Search Engines article

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.

As writers, we generally get to hang with authors and others who are fairly literate, so we tend to forget that much of the rest of the country isn’t like that, including people with college educations. 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.


And now for the usual BSP:

I'm happy to announce that my story "Bunker Hill Blues" (EQMM Sept/Oct 2017) made it into the top ten of the Ellery Queen Reader's Poll -- #6. I'm very jazzed to have made it into the top ten.


My Shamus-winning novel, White Heat, is being reissued in May by Down & Out Books. It’s available now for pre-order on Amazon.  Release date is May 21, 2018:

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website

Shakespeare picture: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
Blonde on blonde album cover: "Bob Dylan - Blonde on Blonde" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia -


Steve Liskow said...

Great post, Paul.

As a former English teacher, I see the same stuff you're worried about. People look stuff up on their phones now to settle an argument, but that's a "yes-no" answer instead of any real understanding.

I have an event coming up this weekend, and my wife and I have already made a bet on how many people under age 50 will attend.

Since we're about the same age, let me quibble. Your title/quote is from Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man," which is on the Highway 61 Revisited LP, but you show the cover of Blonde On Blonde, the LP which followed it.

Robert Petyo said...

All true, and all sad.

The story about not knowing who fought World War II was frightening. Knowledge of our cultural history (Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Rudy Valle, Mark Twain, Poe, Dickens) is important, and so is world history (Wars, political upheavals, depressions, scientific explorations). Our past shapes everything we do.

I guess there is always hope. My two year old grandson has been showered with books by his parents since he was born. But will it last? I hope so.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Steve. I agree with you about people settling arguments but not having any real understanding. And I find that scary. And good luck at your even this weekend. I’d like to hear which one of you won your bet.

As to the Dylan cover: you’re right. But I like the Blonde on Blonde picture better. It’s more moody. And there’s nothing to distract from him. Though Highway 61 Revisited is my fave Dylan album.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Robert. And I thought it was pretty scary that that development VP didn’t know that about World War II…or much else. And yet she’s passing judgment and making decisions. And you’re right about the past shaping everything we do, but many people don’t realize that.

I hope your grandson breaks the mold. I also hope there’s a lot of others out there like him and his parents.

Dietrich Kalteis said...

Good post, Paul. That's true, there aren't as many younger readers that show up at book events.

AJ Wilcox said...

A parent that reads to their children will raise children that read. My daughter and my grandsons are all voracious readers. I agree Paul that so many are functionally illiterate in this time is extremely concerning. When even the president of these United States brags about not reading I'm worried for the future.

Susan C Shea said...

This terrific essay is well worth re-sharing, and it's scary as hell: Who fought on which side in WWII? (Leads straight to Was there really a Holocaust?)My kids and grandkids have been raised with books and they read. But the grandkids are also too attached to their electronic tools, I think. And, as librarians warned us early on, Google is now The Source, an instant, no-questions-asked supplier of information, some of it shallow and even dubious.I use Google too so I can't diss it, but I think you're right: This is fast becoming a post-literate society. Breaks my heart.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I was nodding my head as I read your discussion. As a former high school English and college teacher, I'm well aware of the dumbing down of the anthologies and text books students read.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Dieter. Sad but true, unfortunately.

Paul D. Marks said...

AJ, kids like your grandchildren give me hope!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Susan. In a sense, I’m sorry to hear that you agree about us becoming a post-literate society. It’s sad and scary. Hopefully your grandkids are (sometimes at least) reading books on the electronic devices :-) .

Paul D. Marks said...

That’s scary, too, Jacqueline. The dumbing down of anthologies and text books. You’d think we’d be getting smarter and being challenged more as we progress but it seems to be the opposite.

GBPool said...

More and more society has turned into the Eloi from the movie/novella The Time Machine. They sit around doing nothing until they are eaten as the cattle they have become. Cows don't read, either. I refuse to dumb down my work even if I'm the last literate person on the planet. Fahrenheit 451 at least had people memorizing those words in great books so they won't be forgotten. It ain't the Apocalypse... yet. (PS: I had to look up sesquipedalian. Thanks for the educational boost.) Read on.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Gayle. Glad to hear you don't dumb things down. I think we shouldn't, at least for the most part.

Lisa Ciarfella said...

Wow Paul, this is scary but true.

While subbing high school English last week the teachers plans were to use the Chromebooks to do research and write a paper on google.
But the net went down,and with no back up plans and no books to read,there was literally nothing for them to do. And since they don't even carry paper or pens,I couldn't even assign a writing prompt!
They laughed when I asked where the teacher kept the writing paper and or books...he doesn't!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post, Paul. My opinion,"We" pass culture down through the next generations. "We" are the problem, and the answer.

Paul D. Marks said...

That's pretty scary, Lisa. Are these people going to be able to do anything or know anything for themselves? I'm glad I'm not a kid today.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Madeline. I agree, we pass culture down but for one reason or another it doesn't seem that we're doing that. And I also agree that we are the problem -- the fault lies with us.