Do people even read anymore?

When reading over discussions of long, 19th century novels here, it occurred to me that such tomes are something of an indulgence in contemporary times. Today people are exposed to such a vast number of choices in what they can read, it behooves us to be as succinct as possible given the limited amount of time people have. When you add to that the greatly diminished attention spans of the contemporary public it suggests that we have to be economical in our choice of words.

I recall a message someone sent me on Facebook after reading a post referencing an article I had written. She basically said it was great, but did it have to be so long? This was something less than 700 words, or the length of a typical column, yet it seemed “long” to the reader! In an age when many people no longer have an attention span much greater than a Tweet it is clear that we have to seriously parse our words to keep many readers attention. This necessarily means sometimes ruthlessly cutting as much as possible even though it may be painfully counter-intuitive. For modern audiences shorter is definitely better.

Somebody tell George R.R.

But you’re right about “sometimes”. That’s especially true for consuming news, readers expect them to be short and to the point. Otherwise… especially when it comes to fiction: If the words are interesting and add to the story, there aren’t “too many” of them.

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I think it very much depends on genre. The Harry Potter books are over a million words for the series, with the longest (Order of the Phoenix) coming in over a quarter-million by itself. George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series is more than 1.7 million, and he’s not done yet. At the other extreme, 100,000 words would be extremely long for a romance, with most coming in closer to half that.

As for the 19th century, it’s important to remember that serial and magazine publication were much more common then. Bleak House is more than 360,000 words long, for example, but it was first published as a 20-part serial.

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Plenty of readers still pick up Jane Austen because they enjoy her writing. I know several readers in their late teens and early 20s who are diehard Austenites and have read most of her work.

A lot depends on the reader, the purpose of the piece, and–as Katherine noted–the genre. I’m a fantasy fan, and I feel cheated if an author publishes a fantasy series with books shorter than 500 words pages.

There’s one author in particular who I really love, but their work hovers around 325 pages for this one series. Each time I finish the next book, I’m grumbling about being “cheated” out of the other 200+ pages it should have had. But, I keep reading because the world-building in that series keeps me interested.

(Edited, thanks to Vincent_Vincent’s kind note. See, this is why I don’t play on the forums much. :upside_down_face:)


It also depends on the format. I have combined print + digital subscriptions to several magazines, and find that longer pieces are much more pleasant to read on paper.

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I do that too increasingly because I keep building up piles of unread magazines that drives my wife crazy. On the other hand with just digital subscriptions I find I read them a lot less.

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Most people can read, but they don’t want to. People who read for pleasure are a shrinking share of the population- but in terms of raw numbers, there are more readers than ever, I believe. I think that the fraction of the population that would read War and Peace if it wasn’t assigned has always been small, but one difference today is that, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, we admired people who read the hard stuff. It seems the fashion more recently is to set the lower tiers of readers as the standard to write to.
If what you’re after is money, that makes sense. If you have something you want to say, you should use as many words as it takes, IMO.

Too many notes!

Agreed. I read mostly nonfiction, so when I made the original post it was mostly in that context. Most of the fiction I read is the great book classics that I haven’t gotten to yet.

Not for nothing, James Patterson, the best-selling author alive, did market research before writing his first novel. One of the things he learned about best-selling novels is that they tend to have many short chapters, so the reader can sample the book and come to a resting place in a couple of minutes.

As the years have gone by, the chapters in his books have become shorter and shorter. In his current books (which still dominate sales charts), each scene is its own chapter.

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Discretion is the better part of hoarding, as my ex-wife said often enough, and explosion of choices should lead to discipline in choosing and not a distraction or a dissuasion. One hopes for words and books!

In my opinion, it doesn’t matter how long a piece of writing is. What matters is not whether the readers’ attention spans are short, but whether the content keeps its readers engaged long enough. If your writing isn’t engaging, then no, people are not going to stick through to the end. I think it also depends on the kind of writing it is. For example, I hate short stories with a passion. @RuthS mentions feeling cheated if a fantasy novel is below a certain number of pages. I feel the same way about short stories. Often they leave me wanting and feeling cheated that there isn’t more.

Many well-known writers have said that short stories are the hardest thing to write well. They are like swiss watches, where all the moving parts must be done in miniature, with exacting precision. Otherwise the stories don’t work.

New writers are often attracted to the short page count. They haven’t learned yet that it’s much easier to write a long book.

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I agree.
But would like to bring a tiny precision:
It is much easier to write a long book than the same page count in cumulated short stories…

But both are otherwise difficult, each for their own reasons.

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That wasn’t my meaning.

IMHO, it’s much easier to write a middling novel than to write an exceptional short story. It takes a bit longer to type, but the effort and challenge is much lower.

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I don’t know if I’d say that novels are “easier,” but they’re different. Short stories, because they’re short, have an intensity that’s impossible (and probably not desirable) to maintain over the full length of a novel. Novels, because they’re long, can bring a solidity that’s probably not possible in a short story. But they are different skills, and not many writers are equally good at both.

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Step 1: Delete social media, if not possible delete them from your phone.

Step 2: Star consuming long form written content and podcasts.

I have the belief that social media conditions people to only read 5 sentences at most, and from that generate your own biased and incomplete opinion.

I like to read two chapters a day, one from nonfiction and the other from a novel.

I see that claimed as a fact so often but no one ever provides research to substantiate the claim.


You’d also need to revive a few people from the past…

But proof is everywhere… – just look around you.
New movie standards (Xmen etc)
Any art form aside visual arts (painting).
Write long sentences (and throw a bunch of commas in there), see what kind of a reaction you get…

Answer “Not great” next time someone asks you how you are doing, and watch them talk away as if you answered positively…

A lot of the longer works of the past were first published serially. Breaking Bad lies in the same tradition as Bleak House.

Whatever you think of the artistic merit of the Marvel movies, actually watching them (23 movies and counting) is a pretty time-intensive endeavor.

Certainly the nature of the internet favors shorter works. But that’s not the same as saying that people can’t focus for long periods. The same people who scroll through social media are binge watching entire seasons of their favorite shows. And of course many of those same people have extremely demanding jobs requiring years of education and hours of consistent focus. It’s kind of rude to say that someone has a short attention span just because they prefer hobbies that are less demanding than their work.

Actual research results on attention span are much more nuanced than the headline numbers you see in mass media.


I wasn’t talking about time.
I think the question pertains way more to one’s level of focus.

If the movie is all bombs, CGI and having characters that magically fix plot holes (the most common of superpowers, in the end), what is there to actually miss if you are somewhat distracted ?