I was struck by a recent article comparing school reading lists from 1908 and today, and what it revealed. It’s structured in such a way that it’s hard to pick usable excerpts from it, so I’ll simply recommend that you read the whole thing. Briefly, the author pointed out that the books on the modern reading list were much less challenging to their readers, much less informative about our cultural and historical background, and very limited in their vocabulary. She concluded:
Unless we give our students challenging material to dissect, process, and study, how can we expect them to break out of the current poor proficiency ratings and advance beyond a basic reading level?
Go read it all. It’s worth your time.
Of course, this makes us wonder about those who are – and who will be – our readers. Most of us are writing to and for a market. We want our readers to be able to understand where we’re coming from, be aware of the cultural clues and cues and assumptions that inform our writing style and themes and vocabulary, and be able to assimilate them within the context of their own world view. The question is, is that still possible for most modern school-leavers? Has the “dumbing down” of education, as revealed in reading lists and other evidence, produced a generation that can no longer be automatically assumed to be capable of doing those things?
There are those who’ll argue that’s a function of one’s home life, not school. In my youth, they’d have been right. My parents made sure that we kids had a huge selection of books to feed our minds and intellects and curiosities. We all grew up with Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and Andrew Lang’s “fairy books of many colors“, and Baba Yaga. I ate up the books of C. S. Forester, and Ronald Welch, and Monica Edwards, and Arthur Ransome, and Rosemary Sutcliff, and J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis, with a big spoon. My sisters had their own reading preferences, some similar to mine, others very different. (Yes, boys can enjoy girls’ books too! I recall Elsie J. Oxenham‘s “Abbey Girls” series with real pleasure.) When it came to schoolwork, we had access to serried ranks of Time-Life reference sets, and no less than three different multi-volume encyclopedias, and shelves groaning with reference works used by our parents (which they were delighted – even though we were not! – to explain at the drop of a hat, and assign to us for further reading).
All those influences meant that I was extraordinarily widely read, even among my generation. I read over 700 fiction and non-fiction books in my final year at school (yes, I kept count, for a class project), and served as head librarian for the school. That, in turn, has influenced and informed my writing. However, I was initially surprised (although I shouldn’t have been) to be told that I was writing at a level that was described as “too high-falutin’ for American readers”. This really took me aback. I simply hadn’t considered that in the intervening years, reading for pleasure had taken a back seat (sometimes a very distant one) to television, and movies, and increasingly to social media. It seems modern society’s attention span is continually decreasing under the influence of technology, so that we’re no longer interested in spending hours absorbed in a book. We wants our entertainment, and we wants it now!
This also applies to our choice of vocabulary and manner of expression. To this day, there are some readers who dislike how I write conversations in my books. They regard them as unnaturally forced, long-winded, wordy. On the other hand, I’m writing what I consider to be “normal” English (rather than American) conversation – at least, normal for my age, upbringing and level of education. I’ve had to adapt my style, “improving” it by bringing it more into line with modern expectations. I haven’t altogether succeeded, because I simply don’t think or talk that way. To me, it appears unnatural, simplistic, “dumbed-down”. That’s almost certainly unfair, but given my upbringing, it’s also probably inevitable. My conversations, in written form, remain a work in progress.
There’s also the aspect of word play. My parents delighted (and taught their children to delight) in using the English language to its fullest extent, searching out synonyms and antonyms to enrich speech, enjoying puns and Spoonerisms and feghoots and limericks and other plays on words, and so on. Nowadays, how many children are brought up to do the same? I fear very few. On the other hand, I know many writers who take equal delight in them, so much so that some conversations at SF and fantasy conventions can lead to onlookers screaming in mock-agony as the puns flow! It’s one of the reasons I go to such gatherings. (I’ve also been known to inflict them on my friends in comments at their blogs from time to time. Sorry, Alma!)
At any rate, let me simply say that I think our society has grown more and more impoverished, from the perspective of grammar, vocabulary and linguistics, by the impact of modern technology. We’ve been “dumbed down” as a whole – and that means our future readers, the generations growing up who we hope will enjoy our books, are arguably less capable of doing so, because we’re writing from the perspective of earlier generations who simply knew so much more about language than they do. How do we address this? If we write to the “modern norm”, are we not acquiescing in this “dumbing down”, rather than trying to resist it? Is that, in fact, our job, or would it be considered “farting against thunder” (to quote one of my favorite African expressions)? How can (or should) we use our writing as an example to our readers, trying to make them want to explore language and culture more deeply, instead of getting a quick, cheap literary “fix” and then moving on to the next one?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. If you do, please share your views with us in Comments. Let’s get this discussion going. I think we’ll all benefit.