Studies by various impressive-sounding academics have shown that, thanks to a multi-tasking whirl of texting, tweeting, one-click buying, email checking (on average 30 times an hour) and – oh, look, a butterfly! – our reading habits are officially rubbish. Statistics verified by the Associated Press suggest that our attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in 2000 to eight in 2012. To put that in context, the attention span of the average goldfish is nine seconds. Yep. Goldie could beat you at Pong.
Over the past few years, publishing pundits have predicted that this will usher in a shiny new era of short-form fiction, as authors scrabble to adapt to their attention-deficit audience. This is, they declare, the era of flash fiction, perfect for readers addicted to micro-this and insta-that. We are witnessing the rise of the Twitter novel, the return of commute-friendly serialisation via media-rich apps, and the resurgence of the short story - after all, the grande dame of the form, Alice Munro, just won the Nobel.
So upon hearing that the Man Booker Prize has been awarded to Eleanor Catton for her vast, dense and demanding second novel The Luminaries – with 12 parts and 852 pages, the longest book in the history of the competition - must we conclude that the twenty-eight year old author – incidentally, also the youngest winner in the history of the competition - is dangerously out of touch with her generation, and that the judges have no idea what the reading public enjoy?
Of course not. For every example that short books own the zeitgeist, there is equal if not more evidence that this is, in fact, the era of the epic. Last year, The Daily Beast’s Marc Wortman complained that a combination of over-easy Google research, and an ebook-influenced disregard for length, was in fact encouraging non-fiction authors to release ever-burgeoning tomes. When it comes to fiction, consider the popularity of the two previous Booker winners, Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, or the excitement around Donna Tartt’s enormous, long-awaited new novel, The Goldfinch – modeled on the nineteenth-century doorstoppers she adores. Add in the fact that most writers considered to be the world’s current finest – Jonathan Franzen, Haruki Marukami, David Mitchell – and many of the Best Young Novelists on this year’s Granta list – Steven Hall, Adam Thirlwell, Benjamin Markovits - also have a penchant for four hundred pages plus, and the short-form ‘trend’ seems distinctly baseless.
Both Franzen and Dave Eggers have recently released diatribes against our obsession with digital, afraid that the ‘Play Doh’ of social media is corrupting the publishing industry; Franzen is famously disparaging about novelists who dirty their toes in Twitter. It’s all too easy to agree with them, in a chicken-licken sort of way, but when we look at our bookshelves or ereaders, the generalization falls apart. Sure, there are plenty of bad, shallow books out there, but there’s also plenty of extraordinary, original, long-form new fiction – not to mention the fact that Eggers and Franzen, for all their self-avowed maverick status, still seem to sell their massive opuses in the mainstream rather well.
Consider, too, the people around you on the tube. Chance is, far more of them will be ploughing their way through Game of Thrones than zipping through an installment of a serial or downloading a novella. Catton herself has explained that The Luminaries was "very strongly influenced by long-form box-set TV drama”, which she believes to be the novel’s “on-screen equivalent," and it could be said that our hunger for sprawling escapism has never been greater, precisely because we spend so much of our working day hopping from half-baked blog post to Pinterest soundbite.
Earlier this year I attended a workshop at The School of Life called The Connected Brain, in which psychologist and writer Dr Tom Stafford and neuroscientist Dr Ben Martynoga examined how our brains are changing to accommodate the demands and distractions of social technologies. The overriding message was: not much. We’re good at adapting our minds to exploit new media, and we’ll happily outsource elements of memory that technology better serves, but we never loose the old skills; it just takes a bit more effort to dredge them back up.
The form of the novel simply isn’t as fluid or vulnerable as commentators would have us believe. It is led by the needs of authors; not readers, or technologists, or academics. The creative possibilities afforded by a rich, roomy, multi-plot behemoth are unique, and readers are resilient too. The attention we lend to a novel is entirely different to that which we expend online. Sure, nowadays it might take us a bit longer to relax into the slower, denser pace of a big book, but that doesn’t mean we’ve lost the capability, or the hunger, to do so.
This article originally appeared on Bookhugger.