Friday, October 19, 2018

Too Much Distraction

We live in a world of TVs at the gas station, split screens, crawl lines, sound notifications, personal message alerts and a thousand other pipes feeding information direct to our over-stimulated brains. What's the place of books in all of that clamor? Do you worry about the future of reading?

by Paul D. Marks

Personally, I hate all those screens everywhere you go. I hate them at the gas station, I doubly hate them in doctors’ offices where I want to read but can’t because I can’t concentrate cause some stupid show is on. I hate them everywhere but at my home where I can choose what to watch and when.

I hate people talking on their cell phones, always looking down. What important business are they talking about? You ever listen in? They ain’t saving the world.

I like computers, I like the net, I like being connected and having access to all sorts of information and videos and friends and other things. But I also think there can be too much of a good thing.

And as it relates to books, I do worry very much about the future of reading. Do you think all those people looking down at their screens are looking up Sartre or the history of the French Revolution? Or are they just glaring at themselves in selfies the way Narcissus glared in the pond?

And, of course, I want people to read. I want them to read in general. And I want them to read my books in particular. Like the recently released Broken Windows, sequel to my Shamus Award-winning White Heat.

I wrote about my thoughts on my fear for the future of books and reading on SleuthSayers about three years ago, but I think what I said there is apropos to this week’s question, so I hope you don’t mind if the rest of this piece is a rerun of that:

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, but many 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 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.


And now for the usual BSP:

I’m honored and thrilled – more than I can say – that my story Windward appears in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2018, edited by Louise Penny and Otto Penzler, which just came out this week. I wrote a blog on that on SleuthSayers if you want to check it out: .

I’m doubly thrilled to say that Windward won the Macavity Award at Bouchercon a few weeks ago. Wow! And thank you to everyone who voted for it.

And I’m even more thrilled by the great reviews that Broken Windows has been receiving. Here’s a small sampling:

Kristin Centorcelli, Criminal Element

"Although it’s set in 1994, it’s eerie how timely this story is. There’s an undeniable feeling of unease that threads through the narrative, which virtually oozes with the grit, glitz, and attitude of L.A. in the ‘90s. I’m an ecstatic new fan of Duke’s."

"Duke and company practically beg for their own TV show."

John Dwaine McKenna, Mysterious Book Report:

"This electrifying novel will jolt your sensibilities, stir your conscience and give every reader plenty of ammunition for the next mixed group where the I [immigration] -word is spoken!"

Betty Webb, Mystery Scene Magazine:

"Broken Windows is extraordinary."

Please join me on Facebook: and check out my website

Shakespeare picture: Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -



Jacqueline Seewald said...


As a reader and a writer, I am concerned about the changes in our culture. On a good note, both of my sons are readers and prefer to read an actual physical book when they have some free time.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Jacqueline. I'm concerned as well, but maybe your sons and people like them offer us some hope for the future. One can only hope.

Brian Silverman said...

It definitely effects me. I'm seriously distracted by the temptations of screens. It's cut into my reading time and work time, sadly. If only I had that old discipline back. I do get the work done, but it's a more scattered schedule as it probably should be.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Brian. I know what you mean, I'm distracted too at times. I can get lost looking at music videos on YouTube for hours. But hopefully we still find time for reading and writing.

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Susan C Shea said...

The very idea of a 'post-literate' society frightens me, far beyond the effect it has on writers' careers. I think we should still challenge readers with words, references, quoted people, even if it's a losing battle. I don't remember the word, but one early editor of mine asked me if there was a 'simpler' word I could use to say the same thing, I said no, but what I really wanted to say was why?

Paul D. Marks said...

I agree with you, Susan, the problem is bigger than just how it affects us as writers. And I have argued with people. I may have mentioned this before, but I used to write for a radio show. Just an entertainment show. And the producer/host called me and another writer into his office one day and dressed us down, in no uncertain terms, for using too-big words. It's happened in Hollywood too. Which is part of the reason I wanted to go into prose writing, so I would have more control. But we don't have total control there either. Anyway, I find it all scary on a lot of levels. And I wonder what your editor would have said had you asked "why"?