05 May 2014 by Published in: Uncategorized 68 comments

As authors, many in my blog audience tend to focus on mundane issues like how to sell books or how to write good ones. Natural fodder given our choice of vocation, or avocation, as the case may be.

Rarely do I see commentary on how the inexorable decline in popular literacy affects society as a whole – most of the time my blog, and the vast majority of others, focus on commercial, marketing, or craft issues rather than more macro ones addressing literacy. While I can appreciate that burning questions like how to improve one’s chances of selling more books are popular with authors, I’ll invite everyone to consider the ramifications of a population that is increasingly illiterate, and which communicates in text message bursts and abbreviations instead of in English as I know it (although I’ll freely admit I see the same thing with Spanish here in Mexico – there’s an entire generation for whom spelling and whole words are unknown; a casualty of texting and tweeting).

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NOTE: All of the comments were wiped out on this blog due to a server change issue by the hosting company. I have recreated them thanks to Alexander, who is both a gentleman and a scholar.

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America prides itself on being a classless society – that’s the essence of the American dream, after all, poor boy makes good and builds himself an empire, or at least a decent home with a nuclear family replete with leased cars and mountains of credit card debt. But that classlessness is an illusion (probably has always been, when one considers the history of the land, wherein the more successful merchants and financiers became moguls and industrialists, but that’s beside the point) as a growing chasm separates the haves from the have-nots. And it’s not strictly financial, although that is certainly where the divide is most easily observed. It’s a divide in basic literacy. In our comfort with the language, and being able to read and write well enough to convey ideas more complex than “let’s eat” or “that feels good.”

I recently reread a number of pulp novels from the sixties and seventies (with an occasional eighties and nineties thrown in for fun) – not literary fiction by any means, just thrillers the likes of which I grew up reading. What immediately struck me is how erudite the books were compared to modern fare. They were written at a much higher grade level than current popular fiction, because, bluntly, the average person was more literate, and the assumption was that folks wanted a little intellectual stimulation with their car chases and explosions – that words with more than a couple of syllables could be salted through a tome without fearing a slew of one star reviews written in Pidgin English bemoaning that the author was trying too hard or must have once seen a thesaurus.

It seems to be that somewhere over the last 20 or 30 years the level of remedial literacy possessed by the average person has declined to a state where most are comfortable reading at a level I associate with Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, which is to say at an adolescent level, at best. The average literacy has slid, declined to a point where many readers have no idea what the difference between their, they’re or there is, much less the difference between shuddered and shuttered or breaches and breeches.

Why does that matter? Because as a society loses its basic grasp of literacy, the ability to impart important concepts, its very ability to reason, is lost. Ignorance of one’s mother tongue, much less other tongues, is a terrible thing, and isn’t to be celebrated. It creates a class-based system as surely as share cropping or indentured servitude does. The elite go to the best schools, are literate and capable of grasping and expressing complex ideas (either in writing or through oration), whereas the rank and file are relegated to simple-minded communications, short attention spans, and a sense of apathy that an inability to understand, much less participate in, the discussion, banishes them to. Illiteracy is exclusionary. It is a huge step backwards, to where the only ones who can read are the cognoscenti: academics, priests, and the ruling class.

If you read the Federalist Papers, or anything by the founding fathers, these were people with tremendous powers of not only persuasion, but an incredible facility with and grasp of the importance of language. Literacy was prized as the force that could move you from bondage to freedom, be it racial inequality, or social. Go watch some Youtube clips of MLK or Malcolm X if you want to see erudite arguments for social change from the sixties from men who understood the importance of the effective use of language.

I have to think that the dumbing down of the population serves no good purpose, and is divisive as any racism or bigotry. A population that can’t read at above a second grade level likely can’t reason at more than a first or second grade level, which leaves it entirely unable to grapple with the important issues of its time. It can’t inform itself because it doesn’t or can’t read – any idea beyond that second grade level is lost on it as it tunes out, preferring something more accessible, more facile to grasp. The internet certainly doesn’t help, given that it encourages the assimilation of information in small chunks – only the most cursory treatments. Television doesn’t help, either. The problem being that nuance, that complete and meaningful answers to important questions, explorations of ethical or moral of philosophical or social issues generally require more than whatever can comfortably be contained in a paragraph or two, or the equivalent of a sixty second sound bite, or a text that reads something like, “OMG, he’s so ttly fine, LOL. C U Soon!”

So we wind up with a pool of voters who don’t understand the issues they are deciding, don’t understand basic logical reasoning, don’t understand much of anything – a pool that requires their menus to be presented in pictures, their cash registers to be labeled with icons, their dialogue to be whatever can be contained in a Dr. Seuss-level discussion. That results in an erosion of society over time, as it makes it far easier for dogma to be substituted for reason, and authoritarianism to serve in the place of rational persuasion. It’s a recipe for inequality and fascism, for injustice, for the exploitation of the many for the direct benefit of the few. It creates rulers, who have knowledge and all that goes with it, and the ruled, who are largely ignorant.

I find this trend particularly appalling as a writer, because as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing more powerful than language. It can convince, scold, motivate, embarrass, enrichen, impoverish. It can cause parents to cheerfully send their children to war, to bomb innocents out of existence in order to free them, to force our next generations to foot the bill for our wastefulness by arguing we can spend our way out of debt. Language defines our perception of reality, and he who can most skillfully use language can convince the masses his way is best. It can also excuse the most horrendous of acts through rhetorical sleight of hand, where stealing becomes liberating, where killing innocents becomes collateral damage, where cheating a nation out of its financial legacy becomes equality or redistribution of wealth. Words, and our ability to use them, define how we think about things.

The less comfort we have with words, the less command we have of them, the less we can think in a meaningful manner. We lack the terms, the basic vocabulary, with which to frame the narrative or debate. We can’t reason, use logic, because we don’t understand its basic concepts and rules. We don’t understand what argument from authority or post hoc reasoning or any of the other logical fallacies are because we don’t understand the concepts or the words used to define them, so we make poor decisions or are easily deceived. Again and again. Like a smoker who makes the poor decision to light up a cigarette 20 or 30 times a day, and who ultimately winds up with respiratory problems or worse, we as a society make poor decisions on a daily basis that result in an unhealthy host, a diseased culture riddled with morbidity.

Where am I going with this?

I dislike the trend in popular fiction towards dumbing down. I understand the trend. We want to sell, and if what sells are monosyllabic screeds with the complexity of a comic, then that’s what we’ll write. But one has to ask whether there’s not a better way. A way to raise the bar some, to not pander to the lowest common denominator, and still sell well?

As custodians of the written word, of language, do we want to be the equivalent of pop songs that come and go in popularity every week, or shoot for something more substantial? Is it possible to be relevant and entertaining and popular without being slack-jawed and mouth-breathing?

Look, I write action thrillers and mysteries. I’ll be doing a foray into romance soon. So I’m not saying we should all be aspiring to be Harper Lee, or be trying to write the next Lord of the Flies. I get that we need to balance popular taste with our creativity, and produce products people want to buy. What I’m saying is that, given that the majority of the nation either doesn’t or can’t read, are we not better served trying to raise the bar a little in our offerings for those that still can?

I’m not sure I have a point here. Just more of my ramblings. But as I said, I was struck by how intelligently so many of the books from forty and fifty years ago were written – popular books, too – compared to what’s passes for pop fiction these days.

Call me a curmudgeony old man, I suppose. (Shakes fist. “You whippersnappers have no idea what it was like! The end is nigh!”) And so on. I’m sure I’m just railing against that which I can’t change. All I can do is continue to try to write well, and hope that my audience grows, however that happens.

Hrmph. Humbug.

Now go buy some of my crap. Please. You could do worse than with JET – Ops Files.

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Comments

  1. Russell Blake
    Mon 05th May 2014 at 4:27 pm

    Well that was nice. When the server cut over due to an attack, they lost the blog and the comments. I’ve since uploaded them after Alexander sent me a screen save. Yay, technology!

    My stance is straightforward: a society that doesn’t read is a society that doesn’t think, or rather, reasons in the way that those with only oral traditions do, which is to say primitively. The way knowledge is passed on, and we hone our ability to use logic, is through the written word, and the less adept we are at using our language, the less developed our thoughts, and hence, our conclusions.

    A society that entertains itself by being spectators, by watching instead of reading, is a society with an addled brain. It’s a society capable of only superficial thought, and an inability to grasp the more complex. It’s a society that’s easily duped, that’s credulous, and that is ultimately divided into the literate, and the rest. Needless to say that the rest won’t have the same opportunities that the literate have, just as in the past the illiterate peasants had different opportunities than the literate academics, clerics and nobility.

    Sorry the hosting company flushed the commentary. Pisses me off, but there’s nothing I can do about it, although I’ve got an email in to them.

    Reply
    • Larry Bonner  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 6:16 pm

      My nephew graduated Florida Atlantic University last year. In January I gave him a copy of the novel I just had published.
      His comment? “Cool. I never read a novel before.”
      This from a 24-year old ‘man’ who has a Bachelor of Arts in Accounting.
      In desperation, I sent a copy to his twin brother, graduate of a Massachusetts college of equal ‘repute.’ The reply was identical as you might have guessed.
      God save the Republic…

      Reply
  2. Mon 05th May 2014 at 8:37 pm

    I could not agree with you more. It has been said that for every ten years that pass, our educational system loses one grade level. In other words, the high school diploma of forty years ago is on the same educational level as a bachelor degree issued today. I look at programs such as Common Core and wonder if our decline is by design.

    By the way, I love the irony in the title of this post.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 05th May 2014 at 10:12 pm

      That mirrors my experience, at least with languages. A shame.

      Reply
  3. Mon 05th May 2014 at 11:06 pm

    I told you, the Bilderbergers are behind it all! See what hap……………………………….

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 05th May 2014 at 11:57 pm

      Damn you, Gennita. DAMN YOU, I SAY!!!

      And pipe down about the you-know-whos. I have enough black helicopters circling as it is…

      Reply
  4. Tue 06th May 2014 at 12:59 am

    WTF? I’m just happy that both of my kids have always been great readers and have a grasp of the English language. Nothing bugs my son more than a person misusing a word or just blowing it.

    He didn’t see the news story on television last night where they were talking with this twenty-something young woman about the loss of a friend and behind her was her pick-up truck with “Your in our hearts” painted in large letters across the windshield. If he would’ve seen that, I don’t think he would have been able to sleep.

    I believe it is a clown conspiracy and I will continue to try and write thrillers at least at the Hardy Young Men level.

    Happy Cinco de Mayo.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 12:03 pm

      Gracias, Douglas. Your tha bom!

      Reply
  5. Tue 06th May 2014 at 8:20 am

    Nice Post! I’m afraid you’re right. But, as the father of 3 fairly wild boys, I’d like to report there is some hope. All my kids are turing to reading to get away from the fast pace of their wi-fi world. I’m not sure this is a trend, but I think today’s kids are smart and will turn to books as they get older, perhaps…
    W4$

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 12:03 pm

      Let’s hope.

      Reply
  6. Tue 06th May 2014 at 8:52 am

    Sell to the masses, dine with the classes. Sell to the classes, dine with the masses.

    From my journalism experience, I can tell you that newspapers are written for a 6th grade vocabulary. The Wall Street Journal, etc, notwithstanding.

    Do you really think short-form digital ebonics is a symptom of the stupidity of the sender or a consequence of the limitations and difficulty of the format (namely having to type on a tiny/virtual keypad under character constraint)?

    Perhaps both.

    Popular culture disseminated via television certainly doesn’t help when it celebrates this dumbing-down of which you speak. Monkey see, monkey do. The problem is that the creators of the programming are hawking their wares, nothing more, regardless of detriment to society. When kids see athletes or rappers say “Axe” instead of “Ask”, they parrot it because it’s perceived as cool. Monkey see, monkey do ad infinitum until in a hundred years the USA is dumb as shiznit. I mean, dam cuz lets me axe u a qwueschun: didn u never see dat Red Dawn remake? Dat shid was crazee, dawg.

    Seriously, though. 4 kids in my family and we all read. Not sure what my mom & dad did to create this. But they demanded we get an education and there were always books in the house. Yes, we watched a lot of tv and we played a lot of video games. But we also played outside a lot and read a lot. By the time I was 16 I’d read everything Stephen King had written at that time (circa 1990).

    I think W4$ and you are both correct: there will always be a group of educated people who value books. And there will always be a group of dumbasses who think books are for dorks and who simply want to watch basketball or NASCAR or golf or clowns or whatever.

    It comes down to parenting and parents being an example. Monkey see, monkey do. Children don’t do as you tell them, they do as you do.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 12:00 pm

      I agree. However, I also note that we seem to be slipping in terms of grade level of popular fiction over the last 40 years. So something changed markedly.

      My belief is that the schools turn out illiterates, who grow up to be illiterate parents, who then propagate illiteracy via their offspring. Unlike, say, a family where the mother and father work 18 hour days in their little restaurant so their kids can go to university and be doctors, insisting that they get a leg up at every opportunity, including reading as children, the illiterates are content in their miasma of dumbassedness, and pass that on. Just as someone who has had six kids out of wedlock sees her first daughter’s getting knocked up at 14 as something to celebrate rather than cringe over, so too does my illiterate parent, who sits on the couch playing WOW with his kids, with nary a book to be found in the house except for perhaps the latest issue of 4WheelWheee!, and who beams with pride when his kid announces that books are for pussies and he wants to go hunting for his birthday (no offense to hunters or…never mind).

      Reply
      • Ryan Schneider  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 12:28 pm

        You’re spot-on about the parents working 18-hour days in their business so their kids can go to university to become self-employed professionals.

        This is what my dad wanted me to do.

        I became a writer, instead.

        Reply
  7. Tue 06th May 2014 at 2:25 pm

    Miasma of dumbassedness!

    That line just made my day. 🙂

    Reply
  8. t 03rd
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 3:38 pm

    • t 03rd May 2014 at 8:50 pm
    You got me at “reeding,” Russell Blake.

    I’m with you on the decline of literacy. As not only an indie writer but also a proofreader, I cringe whenever I see ghastly errors on the first page of the sampling of a, yes, bestselling indie book on Amazon.

    Perhaps you could get together with David Baldacci on his literary mission. Here is his link:

    http://davidbaldacci.com/philanthropy/listing/

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 3:41 pm

      The problem is the school system. It’s that simple. Or that complicated. My sense is that when you have multiple employees, virtually all making more, than teachers, you have a structural problem, not a lack of funding problem. As with all other bureaucracies, which exist to expand their reach and power while doing as little as possible as expensively as possible, the school system is a trainwreck. I don’t have any solutions, other than vouchers, which are consistently beaten down because they threaten the status quo. It’s not my problem, as I don’t live in the U.S., but in a way it is my problem as the U.S. losing its vitality and middle class will change the global balance.

      Strange times we live in. Then again, people have been bemoaning this for some time, so not really an original idea…

      Reply
      • jseliger  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 3:43 pm

        jseliger – Sun 04th May 2014 at 12:55 am

        The problem is the school system. It’s that simple. Or that complicated

        I’m reasonably skeptical of the school system too, for the usual collection of reasons (and I’ve worked in the University of Arizona as a grad student), but even then I don’t think that’s the whole story: the world has changed enormously in the last ~40 years. Americans’ TV habits have grown and more recently the Internet is a vast change. Even in 1974 TV wasn’t nearly as pervasive as it is today, and people presumably read more because the alternatives weren’t as good.

        The fucked-up school system is a real problem but it can’t be taken out of the context of the rest of the culture.

        Reply
  9. Russell Blake
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 3:44 pm

    Russell Blake – Sun 04th May 2014 at 12:55 pm

    No question that the pervasive creep of technology has eroded reading, but I think that’s overplayed. The problem comes down to parenting and schools. At some point school became a surrogate for parenting, and so we got a generation of kids who never really read raising a new generation of kids who read even less. And the reason the original generation read less was because the school system became an exercise in positive thinking and political correctness and social brainwashing rather than a system to teach children the essentials they would require to thrive – reading, writing, math, science. So the emphasis stopped being on how to think and became a factory based on memorization and depersonalization that lowered standards to meet the dimmest among us rather than holding children to a high standard and recognizing that some would fail in that system. So now we have a system where it’s almost impossible to fail, because god knows that bad for one’s self-esteem, and yet most don’t learn anything. Which results in a nation of bag boys and burger flippers, none of whom have much interest in reading.

    That’s my dour take.

    Reply
  10. jseliger
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 3:45 pm

    • jseliger
    Sat 03rd May 2014 at 11:17 pm

    A couple thoughts:

    1. Neal Stephenson’s novel Anathem is in part based on the idea of society splitting into two groups—one highly literate, intellectual, mathematical, and the other not. He also discusses literacy in some the collected nonfiction in Some Remarks.

    2. Take a look at “Twilight of the Books;” it made a tremendous impact on me when it was first published, and I’ve been referencing it ever since.

    3. Presumably the aliterate will suffer most of the consequences.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 3:46 pm

      Russell Blake – Sun 04th May 2014 at 12:50 am

      The only assumption I’d challenge is #3. I believe everyone suffers the consequences of living in a largely illiterate society, primarily because much of the mundane innovation that comes about does not happen due to the elite searching 18 hours a day for a better mousetrap to become even more wealthy or powerful. That innovation comes from the middle class. And in an illiterate society, we are reduced to those who can read, and those who can’t. There is no middle class in that model.

      Reply
      • Cinisajoy  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 3:47 pm

        cinisajoy – Sun 04th May 2014 at 5:56 pm

        Reeders are also suffering. Between the dumbing down, useless info dumps and what passes as a book these days, it is hard to find a good book. This is not limited to indies either. I tried to read a trad book the other day that the author wanted to make sure you didn’t miss that grain of salt, she put in so many dumbed down info dumps that the story got lost.
        Other complaint while I am ranting is the number of wrongly used words. And miss spelled words. I thought at one time you actually had to be able to read to write a book. This is no longer the case.

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 3:48 pm

          Russell Blake – Sun 04th May 2014 at 6:03 pm

          Cinis, yes, that’s one of the problems with writing as though your audience is a group of middling ten year olds. One could argue one writes for the masses, and that’s fine, but when the masses are either incapable of recognizing correct spelling and usage, or view being literate as unnecessary to being a writer, it’s akin to allowing the blind, drunk guy to be the bus driver, or the guy who can’t count to be your CPA.

          Remedial competence is usually considered a reasonable bar in most vocations. Sadly, not so much anymore. And I’m not talking high-minded literature they’ll be teaching in schools in a hundred years. I’m talking about entertainment reading being written for 10 year old level readers by 10 year old level authors.

          Hard to get excited by that as being progress.

          Reply
  11. Savanna-Skye
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 3:48 pm

    Savanna-Skye
    Sun 04th May 2014 at 1:15 am

    Similar to the fashion in which people have become lazy to perform physical labor, technology has enabled us to avoid using our brains. As I’m typing this very response, my Windows Surface is telling me how to spell every word of it. And why bother with an extensive lexicon? If I am reading a book and come across a word I don’t understand, I can simply click on it, and my kindle will tell me what it means. For that matter-if I am too lazy to read the book, my kindle will read it to me! I don’t have time for mundane issues like being grammatically correct, ANY of the devices I use on a daily basis will sort that out for me…. jeez old man, this isn’t the 60?s!

    I’m hoping you detect my sarcasm, my intention of replying to this blog should be obvious, I think.

    Reply
  12. Nancy Warren
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 3:50 pm

    Nancy Warren
    Sun 04th May 2014 at 3:38 am

    Thank you, Russell for a truly wonderful post. I’m not sure it’s fair to blame the school system alone, however. How many times have you seen families out at a restaurant where everybody is on a separate device? We learn first in our homes. Parents are overstressed from those mountains of debt you described, most moms work now. The smartphone, iPad etc are the new soothers. Kids are more and more lacking in conversation and social interaction, which is where language starts.

    My other response is that as a writer who came up through the traditional publishing system, I am somewhat appalled that most of the Indie publishing forums concentrate almost exclusively on sales and marketing techniques. The most commonly expressed being, get more stuff out there, fast. If you can write 2K words a day, why not up it to 5K words per day. Your cover and blurb are your most important tools etc. All of which is fine, except I almost never see discussions of craft. This same soul you described in your post, who has grown up lacking basic literacy skills is now offering books for sale with great covers and great blurbs and at astonishing frequency. These authors have not the most basic grasp of spelling, grammar, point of view, character arc and so on. I love being a hybrid author and am very happy that there are so many more options for authors these days, but I fear the dark side is an increasing sea of muck. Traditional publishers kept a lot of garbage out of the market. Now, for a reader looking for a decent story well written, they’ve pretty much got to sift through a lot of dreck to find a good read. How can this be good for any of us?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 3:51 pm

      Russell Blake – Sun 04th May 2014 at 1:35 pm

      Agreed that devices are the new idiot boxes, the new electric babysitters.

      The reason you don’t read much about craft on my blog is because I assume if you’re reading it you have a decent grasp of craft. Nothing I write in a blog is going to improve your craft much – that’s kind of the lifelong gig, not something one can get off a three para read. Having said that, while I bemoan that much indie content is execrable, a decent amount of it is quite good, but wouldn’t have gotten published because the gatekeepers didn’t get it. Mainly because the acquisition editors are looking for what they think will sell big, not what’s well executed for its intended readership. Take sci fi. It’s dominated by indies making a great living now, because trad was failing to service it. Good for us.

      Now, onto the importance of POV, character arc, etc. Most readers could give a rat’s ass about it. Those are things we are taught matter as we immerse ourselves in craft. They simply don’t matter to the casual reader in the slightest, unless they’re also a budding writer who has read something about craft themselves. At least that’s been my observation. It’s frustrating to authors because they work so hard at mastering all this stuff that those pesky readers couldn’t care less about, for the most part. Back when there were gatekeepers, who also studied the same craft elements and agreed, along with critics, that those elements were important, there was consensus, and you couldn’t really get a deal unless you adhered to those rules (unless your name was Cormac McCarthy). But now, you can put a book out, and if the story is engaging, readers will vote with their wallets, which annoys the hell out of authors who mastered all those elements readers should, but kind of don’t, care about.

      I don’t have too much issue with head hopping, character arc, etc. as those are entirely artificial constructs/rules a small sliver of cognoscenti have dictated are the right way to do things. Just as generations were told Strunk & White was the gospel of style, when huge swatches of it are plain old wrong. I do have an issue with authors being unfamiliar with the building blocks of writing: grammar, spelling, vocabulary. In other words, I think understanding how to build a sentence is important, but what you do with it once you’ve crafted it is up to you, and one lobby’s preferences WRT character arc, etc. shouldn’t really come into too much play.

      Given that I’m one of the authors many might say violate those rules of style, not because I’m unfamiliar with them, but rather because I think they’re often silly, I would have been locked out of a trad deal. Now, I earn a very comfortable living writing for those who appreciate my approach. I’m fine with that. I don’t require NY to figure it out. I do think it’s an exciting time to be an author, and couldn’t really care less how many ill-crafted, poorly edited or written screeds clog the drain, as I’m selling very nicely, and continue to, regardless of the ocean of dross that is in circulation.

      And readers seem to be able to find my stuff in sufficient quantities to keep me in tequila and trouble, so can’t complain.

      Reply
  13. Cinisajoy
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 3:52 pm

    cinisajoy – Sun 04th May 2014 at 6:02 pm

    Here is what a reader wants. Give me a good story that keeps me entertained and I will be your slave for life or at least keep you in tequila.

    cinisajoy – Sun 04th May 2014 at 6:11 pm

    Last time I looked home video games and HBO came out in the mid 70?s. So I don’t understand your comment. I think it is a lack of good books.

    Reply
  14. Terry C
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:00 pm

    Terry C – Sun 04th May 2014 at 9:01 pm

    The dumbing down of our society is not merely a coincidence. It is deliberate. Yet, the subtlety keeps people from realizing it. Take away a couple of lessons here or there, year by year, and no one seems to notice, much less care. It is common in the middle east. A society without logic or reason lacks the necessary components to resist. It’s a matter of mental fortitude. And penmanship is almost a lost cause. How many children…strike that, how many people under 30 could actually read the United States Constitution as it was written? And, by that, I mean the way it was physically written. We use technology, nowadays as a crutch, instead of a tool. Not only in matters pertaining similarly to literacy, but also as a scapegoat. The status quo now is to just sit down, be quiet and let the system tell you what to do. Do not question authority. And the best way to maintain that is to keep the people dumb and sated.

    Reply
  15. Jeff V.
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:00 pm

    • Jeff V.
    Sun 04th May 2014 at 9:24 am

    Besides the school system, look at parents. I wonder how many kids actually SEE their parents reading. My own children — all four of them — are keenly aware of how much I read and the value I place on reading. The oldest, who loves books, actively seeks out new writers. The youngest, who’s six, is getting ready to move our of the early readers into chapter books. The middle two, who don’t seem to enjoy reading, much to my dismay, know that 30 minutes a day is required of them regardless of their feelings on the matter; I’m hoping that soon they’ll find some authors who really grab their attention.

    Some of my favorite writers are those thriller/suspense writers from the 50s and 60s — especially John D. MacDonald (whose END OF THE NIGHT blew me away) and Charles Williams (of A TOUCH OF DEATH fame).

    Would you mind listing some of the novels/authors that prompted this post?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:04 pm

      Russell Blake – Sun 04th May 2014 at 1:41 pm
      Sure. I reread Leon Uris QB-VII, Forsyth’s The Dogs of War and Day of the Jackal (which was slower than I remember), Trevanian’s The Eiger Sanction and Shibumi, Michener’s Shogun, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and No Country for Old Men, and Marathon Man. Contrast that to most of the stuff being put out by trad pubs to reach their male audience, which is either written at a sub-custodial level, or so formulaic and politically correct that it feels like it was written by a committee of right-thinking Browne University lit majors. Ain’t a pretty picture.

      Reply
      • Larry Bonner  –  Fri 23rd May 2014 at 8:07 am

        Excellent group of what are now golden oldies, Blake. I keep re-reading most of those myself. Are you having tequila-induced visions of yourself morphing into the Nicholai Hel of the Millenium?

        (Oh–Shogun written by James Clavell, not James Michener, but who’s being a niggling pain in the ass?…

        Reply
  16. Jay
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:05 pm

    Jay
    Sun 04th May 2014 at 2:49 pm

    Wow. You just wrote something that’s been on my heart for some time — the decline of reason, and the linkage to the decline of language. I struggle against poor reasoning on a daily basis, the key to which is right in the language we use. Questions haunt me about whether some of it is because of higher participation rates (in the discourse) that in generations past. But I picked this up on Black Mask and now I find myself wanting to read one of your books. Thank you.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:06 pm

      Russell Blake – Sun 04th May 2014 at 4:11 pm

      The question is whether it’s by design, or accidental, or a combo of both. An illiterate population of consumers is far easier to control. Stupid people will believe anything, and one way of ensuring most are stupid is to control the educational system, ensuring that the cogs in the wheel are just smart enough to operate the machines but not smart enough to ask what the machines do (apologies to George Carlin). If you can throw in a healthy dose of patriotism with a collective wisdom that it’s verboten to question official explanations, you have the perfect recipe for fascism – which, incidentally, and ironically, ALL fascist societies are told by their leaders aren’t fascist, as well as by their centrally controlled media.

      If you had told the average person fifty years ago that America would be effectively a police state where the population lives in fear of its government, most of its rights having been confiscated or diluted to the point of nonexistence, and that the only freedom it would have was the freedom to choose which meaningless consumer items it can buy on credit, you would have been laughed out of the room or branded a loon.

      Nowadays, the preferred method of dealing with anyone that questions the official dialogue is to either brand them a nut or a traitor. After years of denying that the government was spying on everything and everyone, Snowden’s revelations make it clear it is. When the Federal Reserve is told by Germany that it wants its gold back, it has to admit it doesn’t have it – because it’s a privately owned cartel and it basically stole other sovereign governments’ gold that it was holding for safekeeping. Our youth now has to pay inflated rates for mandatory health insurance it neither needs or wants so it can subsidize those who do need it. Price inflation of real goods is through the roof while official rates say there isn’t any. Society keeps trumpeting that equality is being attained even as the average family has less than it did 30 years ago. The largest reallocation of wealth in history took place in 2008 due to massive fraud, and not a single person was prosecuted. Everything we’re told is an obvious lie, and we’re so resigned to it that we’re apathetic.

      These things wouldn’t be possible if the population could reason. It can’t, and it is comfortable with a media it knows lies early and often, and a government that’s among the most untrustworthy on the planet, all the while as it’s told that it’s morally superior because it has more malls and shiny objects to buy. So it nods along blindly, believing that choosing between two cartoonish political choices that are made side by side in the same factory is self-determination, and that having a choice between Lexus or Infiniti is the same as having liberty and freedom.

      Don’t get me started. And I don’t even live there.

      Reply
  17. Kara Skinner
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:07 pm

    Kara Skinner
    Sun 04th May 2014 at 5:18 pm

    I definitely agree with this post and all the comments before it. Being a junior in high school, I feel pretty confident saying that both schools and parents are at fault. I was lucky growing up in a reading family, and I now have a scholarship to a good high school. In middle school, however, my English teacher taught everything with indifference and never gave us any reason to enjoy what we were reading– I don’t think she even knew what character arc was. The school library was full of books that make Fifty Shades look good, and all the good books sat in a tiny alcove marked “Classics” where no one could get a book even if they wanted because there was almost always a couple making out in there.

    I know parents are also a problem. One of my friends lives in a house where video games are the main form of entertainment, and the parents don’t put time limits on them and have no problem buying them. The father once told me it was because video games are a fairly cheap form of entertainment, and I almost told him a library card was free. It’s depressing to see the maturity of a lot of my peers and their parents, and to also see them watch shows that are intent on spreading ignorance. Anyway, great post, and I’ll definitely look for the books mentioned in the comments above.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:07 pm

      Russell Blake – Sun 04th May 2014 at 6:13 pm

      Parents are the first line of defense, but if a parent’s, say, 35-40, he or she was likely a product of the current school system, and so will have the values and beliefs that system instills. So because he or she sat staring dully at a screen playing video games or watching mindless crap on TV in his or her formative years, he/she will then see nothing wrong with his/her progeny doing the same. “I turned out real good, so WTF, LOL, OMG!!!”

      There’s an old saying that fools believe they know much, and wise men know how little they know. Pretty sure one doesn’t become wise by consuming the entertainment equivalent of cotton candy.

      Mediocrity is a great leveler. Alas, if everyone is racing to be in the middle of an ever-declining bell curve of intellect and literacy, that regression to the mean results in a society of dullards. And dullards typically don’t innovate or create much, which results in that society first becoming a predominately consumer society rather than a producer, and then eventually becomes a society that simply can’t do anything but consume, worshiping it as though consumption were noble, and confusing consumption with production as someone unskilled in accounting might conflate assets and liabilities. Think the Roman Empire as an example. Eventually that society implodes under its unproductive weight, or falls to stronger, more able assailants, because it’s gotten soft and complacent and stupid.

      That has never ended well.

      Reply
  18. Autumn Kalquist
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:08 pm

    • Autumn Kalquist
    Sun 04th May 2014 at 5:24 pm

    Part of me wants to agree with you, because I think our schools could do better, but I’m not sure I buy this argument. I think the way we communicate is just changing. I also think the way we enjoy entertainment is changing.

    Books now have to compete with TV, movies, and video games. So of course they’ve had to change.
    I like reading stories where the language doesn’t get in the way of the story. A well-written TV show does that…entertains me without breaking the “fictive spell”.

    I want to read for *enjoyment*. I read non-fiction when I’m interested in a topic and want to learn more. I don’t mind slogging through something when I want to learn. I do mind slogging through prose when I’m trying to relax and escape my everyday life.

    We’re on a bell curve…there have always been people who were more “intellectual” than others. The curve hasn’t changed. The types of entertainment available have changed. And unfortunately, there have always been people who don’t question things, who can’t or don’t want to analyze life too deeply.
    So, I’m not as doom and gloom about it, though I do worry about how well books will sell in the future!

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:09 pm

      Russell Blake – Sun 04th May 2014 at 5:42 pm

      Well, if your reading taste runs to the less demanding, that’s fine. However, and this is a huge however, I’m comparing mass market paperback thrillers then, and now. I’d say those published “then” scored at about a ninth-tenth grade reading level, and now they score between a second and fourth.

      I’m afraid I can’t sign up to reading at a second to fourth grade level as being progress of any sort, unless one believes that being an adult who has the reading comprehension and ability of an adolescent is laudable. I remember growing up, when my friends across the street would be glued to the TV all day while I was out doing stuff, or reading. Needless to say they didn’t do as well in school, and later in life, in their careers – because they hadn’t developed any intellectual muscles to flex when the time came. Put another way, plenty of people enjoy eating ice cream and candy all day instead of exercising and eating nutritious meals, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, it just means that plenty of people are fine consuming garbage and don’t mind the negative toll it takes on their bodies and minds. I’m not dissing those who enjoy light reads. I’m looking at men’s fiction, specifically, which is what I read, and scratching my head that it now has more in common with an issue of Ranger Rick than with something geared to sentient upright bipeds.

      I don’t view reading artfully crafted prose as a slog. Defenders of the Nancy Drew movement in literature point to the casual reader’s desire to not have their intellect challenged, and I agree with that to a degree, however my point is that what was put out 40 years ago for casual reading is at least four to six grade levels higher than what is today, telling me that the average casual reader is relatively illiterate. I encounter that all the time, from MBAs who can’t write an articulate business letter, to teachers who routinely misuse their mother tongue, to authors who can’t spell simple words correctly because they simply don’t know they’re illiterate by any reasonable standard (illiterate as I use the term meaning not knowing the meanings or spellings of many words that one would be expected to know in sixth or seventh grade several decades ago). I’m afraid I can’t celebrate illiteracy as changing communication, any more than I can celebrate becoming a monosyllabic society incapable of reasoning beyond that possible using language that a ten year old can easily grasp as progress of any kind. It’s actually de-evolution, and creates a society of those who are conversant with their mother tongue, and those who aren’t. The future has never been particularly bright for those who aren’t. Guess who winds up with all the opportunities?

      The written word is largely how we learn the rules of rational thought. Of logic. Of science. Oral traditions and simplistic written ones are inadequate to express complex or nuanced ideas – they simply lack the vocabulary to do so. A society where most prefer, or are limited to, second or third grade level communications, is a society that reasons at the level of ten year olds

      Reply
    • JOHN CAMPBELL  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:10 pm

      JOHN CAMPBELL – Sun 04th May 2014 at 6:31 pm

      With my deepest respect to Autumn Kalquist, I have two thorny questions for you: What is (1) the argument that you do not (2) buy? Is it Russell’s statement that illiteracy is on the rise? (a demographically verifiable fact). Do you not agree with him that a large part of out efforts as authors is to entertain our readers, and that to do so we must use the armor at our disposal: language and our use of it (aka, style)? When you correctly point out the very real competition from television (more so than from movies—an art form debatably more illiterate than books/ reading), then I’m sure you would agree that the new Golden Age of Television in which we now happily find ourselves in, has emerged in large part because of the immensely gifted writing of these shows’ scripts: Damages, Mad Men, Downtown Abbey, Scandal, and even the longtime franchise Grey’s Anatomy, in which characters have been developed with extraordinary care and nuance. The list is very long, but my point is: It is through language that the characters in television and the more superb films (from here in America, but almost more so from abroad) are expanded, enriched, and intelligently developed. The new Golden Age of television did not magically appear because of shrewd advertising or actors’ appearances on The View. These sophisticated changes have occurred almost entirely through the dynamism of language that does not fear to be gracious and compelling alongside murderous and gut-wrenching. Autumn Kalquist, I say the following with an open mind and a gratitude to you for posting your provocative remarks: I would venture that your position toward illiteracy (“I’m not as doom and gloom about it…”) is similar to that of the very teachers who have casually let things slip to the point where now, we suddenly find ourselves in dire trouble. Your final phrase (“…though I do worry about how well books will sell in the future”) can not follow logically from your overall position about “slogging through prose.”

      Reply
  19. JOHN CAMPBELL
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:11 pm

    • JOHN CAMPBELL
    Sun 04th May 2014 at 6:04 pm

    This piece is brilliant, Russell, but more important: it is thrilling. It thrills to see a hugely complex problem, such as illiteracy, exposed to the core without a sniff of arrogance or superiority—something “illiterate” people like to fling at us as a way of hiding behind buts and butts, mats and mattes, perspicuity and perspicacity, infer and imply…. ET CETERA. A stirring essay, Russell, and one on which we—as authors, agents, editors, and so forth—should focus attention, since we may well end up becoming the very teachers of language and style that, for some reason, the formal education system has given up on. Let’s make an effort, as writers and editors, to gently lift each novel to a slightly higher level, especially if this is done honestly and imperceptively. You already do this, Russell, and so do other fine novelists such as Maggy J Carson Black. I’d love for us to take on this large challenge and gradually improve our readers’ literacy through no means other than sharing the joy of language and gift of communication.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:12 pm

      Russell Blake – Sun 04th May 2014 at 6:26 pm

      To be fair, my self-interest isn’t based on making a living writing books. If I languish and fall out of favor, my life won’t change much, other than perhaps having more time on my hands. My self-interest is based on what I perceive as a dangerous decline in the average person’s ability to reason, and I argue that unreasoning masses tend to be a bad thing, both because they can be manipulated into doing stupid, violent, ugly things, and because they’ll believe just about anything and so can’t be reasoned with.

      Our big brains are what separate us from our primate brethren. Our ability to reason and to use logic, and its close cousin, skepticism, is one of our strongest traits. When you look at history, illiterate societies where the ability to read was largely confined to the elite resulted in terrible circumstances for most. It’s a bad precedent.

      I’m not trying to bag on those who write, or read, at a simpler level. I just think it’s a shame how far popular fiction’s declined in only a couple of generations, because it tells me that the population’s ability to read has declined by that amount, at least. And remember this is the minority that reads at all. Most don’t. What inference can we draw from that?

      Reply
  20. Ruth DJ
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:13 pm

    Ruth DJ
    Sun 04th May 2014 at 6:10 pm

    I think there’s plenty of blame to go around, from politicians who interfere with the teaching process by implementing the latest popular (fad) programs without regard to actual effectiveness, to administrations that act like teachers are serfs and overwhelm them with more and more testing and chores instead of letting them teach, to parents who are too busy/tired/overwhelmed (or just lazy) to help their kids.

    I’m not published as a fiction writer — yet — but I don’t plan to dumb down anything I write. I don’t go out of my way to use big words, but if it’s the right word, that’s the one I’ll use. And if someone has a problem with my style, well, being a Type A cleverly disguised as a B, I can brush it off and move on. After I stomp around the room and use some of the magic blue collar words saved up for things like dropping a hammer on your toe or something.

    I’m so compulsive that I check my text messages for typos before I send them. Just ask my kids. LOL!

    So, just keep writing. Your readers will either catch up or learn to “read over” a big word and figure it out in context if they can’t be bothered to look it up.

    Reply
  21. Kim Cano
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:13 pm

    • Kim Cano
    Sun 04th May 2014 at 6:42 pm

    Both my parents love to read, and I read a lot as a child. But my brother hates reading, and has never read a book in his life. When we were kids, my dad offered my brother $100.00 to read a non-fiction book he felt was life changing. He wanted my brother to learn its message. My brother never read the book, and passed up a $100.00, which in 1975 was a lot of money, especially for a kid. I said I would read it, that I wanted the money, but my dad said I was too young to understand the book.
    When I read an article like this it reminds me why my audiobook sales are steady. Most people I come in contact with say they don’t like to read, but when I tell them they can get my book in audiobook, their eyes light up. They say, “Well that’s different. I’d listen to that.” I’m not sure what that means for literacy.

    Maybe like Amber said above, the medium is changing.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:14 pm

      Russell Blake – Sun 04th May 2014 at 7:00 pm

      I disagree that the medium is changing – it’s literacy that’s changing. It’s declining. The reason those who don’t enjoy reading will listen to an audiobook is because they can do so and be doing something else – like driving. I have no problem with that, but what it does is creates a culture that’s bound to oral traditions, which is a huge step backwards from one that passes its knowledge along in written form. No question it’s easier to listen to things than to engage one’s brain and read them, but that doesn’t mean it’s good to do everything the easy way. It’s easier to duck problems than face them, easier to drink away one’s failures than turn them around, easier to settle for a life we don’t want than to forge one we do, but my experience is that leads nowhere good. I have plenty of friends, some literate, some not so much, but the ones who are not so much have experienced nowhere near the kind of vocational success that the literate ones have, which over time has translated into marked differences in their lives, none good.

      The real world doesn’t reward illiteracy, although it doesn’t mean that if you’re literate you’ll get an automatic reward. But your odds of turning out well will greatly increase.

      Reply
    • Kim Cano  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:15 pm

      Kim Cano – Sun 04th May 2014 at 7:37 pm

      I just remembered the book my dad wanted my brother to read. It was Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich. I guess it would’ve been a bit much for a 7 year old girl, but I was motivated to get that hundred bucks!

      Reply
  22. KR Cox
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:16 pm

    K. R. Cox
    Sun 04th May 2014 at 8:48 pm

    Living inside a house makes us forget the environment.

    A sunroom on the north side of a home isn’t really a sunroom. Finding the right carrot for the right donkey is the way of the world. And apathy is the easiest way out by plodding along with entropy. No, I’m not psychotic, I’m philosophic. And this intangible argument about the state (haha) of literacy pulled me twain like old taffy.

    It was fun to read though.

    Seriously though, chagrin eats at my mind when I see the drivel available. And the popular vids on YouTube make me cringe to think those teenagers will be managers and leaders one day.

    I think at some point every writer gets their knickers in a twist over this, and for myself, I’ll throw in an obscure word or idiom here and there in my work to give a bit of mind candy for the reader to click on and learn a new word if they want.

    What else can one do?

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:17 pm

      Russell Blake – Sun 04th May 2014 at 9:59 pm

      The point is that most of those teens won’t be leaders or managers. Just as the illiterates of my generation largely didn’t accomplish much, or anything. They stumbled along, wondering why opportunity passed them by, why they made less, why everything seemed to be happening in a way they didn’t understand, and now they are at the lower end of the socio-economic curve, living in a world where events take place that they have no control over for reasons they don’t grasp. Because they don’t really know anything more than they could by watching TV or playing some infantile game, so they never learned anything; never learned how to learn. And they are raising another generation of good citizens who have no clue as to why anything takes place or how to effect change, assuming they even realize that change is possible.

      But they are constantly reassured that all is well by a system that requires them to submit, march in lockstep to the checkout stand, and worship it as benevolent daddy capable of destroying or rewarding them as it sees fit. I’m not sure when the concept of government as master to be feared replaced government as servant of the citizenry as an ideal, but we’re there.

      Interestingly, here in Mexico everyone understand their government’s a bunch of liars, cheats and thieves. Nobody expects anything else, and you’re viewed as a kind of naive child if you believe anyone will spend millions to get a job that pays a quarter mil a year unless they plan on robbing the country blind in one way or another. It’s only in a few industrialized nations that conceit still exists, in spite of all available evidence.

      But if you can’t read, you have no way of parsing the evidence, so you wait for the bought and paid for anchorperson to tell you what it all means and how to think, and believe that parroting notions you barely understand is a substitute for reason.

      Literacy is the antidote to ignorance. It’s not an optional ingredient in the miraculous human experiment. The less literacy there is in a population, the more oppression. The church and the royals justifiably feared the advent of the printing press because it harkened the end of their reign of absolute power and terror. They knew that an informed population was a population that could organize and expect better. There’s a reason that the pen is considered mightier than the sword. A very good reason. Rhetoric has long been the weapon of revolution and the overturning of unjust policies. Witness Gandhi, MLK, etc. Words are powerful in skilled hands and are a direct threat to the status quo, so those in power traditionally favor a marginally literate population that can read just enough to work, but not enough to innovate and compete with the established players. Put another way, if you own all the liquor stores in town, the last thing you want is some upstart figuring out a better way to operate stores at lower prices and competing with you. If you can ensure he won’t be able to reason his way out of a piss soaked paper bag, you’re safe.

      Reply
  23. Anna Drake
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:18 pm

    Anna Drake
    Sun 04th May 2014 at 9:43 pm

    I saw a post recently that I thought interesting.

    “In less that 100 years we’ve gone from teaching Latin and Greek in high school, to teaching remedial English in college.”

    I also remember when people preferred to expand their vocabulary rather than shrink it. And I just hate to see an end come to beautiful words.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:18 pm

      Russell Blake – Sun 04th May 2014 at 10:06 pm

      If that isn’t the saddest truth I’ve ever heard…

      I remember my grandfather spoke Latin, some Greek, reasonable French, and a little Russian. My father spoke the same, because he was raised in a home where those sorts of things were valued. I grew up speaking several languages. I was reading on my own before I was out of diapers. Because literacy was prized in our home, such as it was. He’s probably spinning in his grave at my little stories, but hey. At least I spell most of the words correctly…

      Reply
  24. Mike Dennis
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:19 pm

    Mike Dennis
    Mon 05th May 2014 at 1:21 am

    “That results in an erosion of society over time, as it makes it far easier for dogma to be substituted for reason, and authoritarianism to serve in the place of rational persuasion.”

    That’s the crux of the problem, Russell, and well put. But you know, it’s always been the crux of the problem. Throughout history.

    And of course, history is the result of actions by those who have ignored history.

    Reply
  25. Matt Ryan
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:20 pm

    Matt Ryan
    Mon 05th May 2014 at 3:32 am

    Russell, if you can stomach the stupidity, I’d recommend you watch Idiocracy. It’s a comedy based on a future where the world has become so dumb they cease to be fully functional people.

    Also, I’m reading something right now that touches on this as well: HG Wells Time Machine(published in 1881). I get the sense HG Wells felt the same way you do; that the upcoming generation(s) is lacking the same skills/intellect he grew up on and he surmised each generation would become weaker, dumber until they all would end up like the Eloi’s in his book.

    I think each generation feels this way. They see what they knew slipping into the history books and with it a bit of their own history. I think these thoughts are common through history and develop at a persons age when our ideas shift from thinking of what I can build and create to what my legacy is—what am I going to leave behind. In a natural way, we put those who came before us above us. We grow up looking up to these people, our forefathers, how could we not?

    They are the ones who brought us to where we are and since they got us to where we are they must have come from a better place, a better time. But the people below us(age wise) are taking it from us, they are changing the things we built, the things our forefathers built and hurting our legacy. It is easy to resent them for mucking with it all because we lay it out for them, we graded the hills flat for them, it’s our legacy, our words, our culture, our way, slipping into irrelevancy.

    But we’re wrong.

    The great thing about humans is we die. With it, there is a constant renewal of ideas, thoughts and entertainment predicating and building on the old ones. Each generation can shape the path to fit the era they grow up in and put their name on it. This renewal, now more than ever, is critical. The world is on hyper speed.

    So do I think the world is getting dumber? No. Can you imagine trying to explain how to create complex HTML5?s to a person from 1970? Or how to make the James Webb Telescope or how about the most complex machine ever created by man, the Large Hadron Collider. Our generation created these things. It will be part of our legacy. But I guarantee the next generation will build something even greater, even more complex and will make new discoveries not imagined by there forefathers. The new comers aren’t dumber, they are just smart in different ways. Ways that are important to their generation, their legacy.

    Song as old as rhyme, tale as old as time.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:21 pm

      Russell Blake – Mon 05th May 2014 at 12:32 pm

      Would that you were right.

      HTML, the James Webb Telescope, the Large Hadron Collider, were all developed by people who could read, who were literate, using the science and physics passed along in written form to create better mousetraps. Exactly none of the advents in recent history were created by illiterates who write in text talk and can’t absorb information more than a paragraph long, filled with monosyllables.

      In my opinion, you’re mistaking coincidence and causality. Yes, those who can read, who are literate, will create wondrous things based on their building upon prior technology, taking it to its next logical levels. But it won’t be because they had to sound out the words in Twilight or had formulated their opinions watching Duck Dynasty or Toddlers & Tiaras.

      Reply
  26. Merrill Heath
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:22 pm

    Merrill Heath
    Mon 05th May 2014 at 11:16 am

    OMG! This is awsom! Way 2 go Russell. U rock!

    Seriously, I have very much enjoyed reading this post and all the comments. I would add my thoughts but they have already been eloquently stated by others. So I won’t be redundant.

    However, I assume this is the case, but I still feel compelled to ask – is the mistake in the title intentional?

    Reply
  27. Dave
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:23 pm

    Dave
    Mon 05th May 2014 at 11:53 am

    Interesting article. I’m not sure I agree. History tells us that the average person today is far better educated and more literate than ever. The key here is “average.” A few thoughts-

    1- In the past, it was taken for granted that a large percentage of the population was illiterate or barely literate and didn’t have the disposable income to buy books, so authors didn’t bother writing for a mass audience. Writing at the level an author chose was less of a risk back then because the reading populace had comparatively few books from which to choose. If you were buying and reading books, you weren’t average; you were far above that.

    2- While many of the older books, even thrillers, might have a richer vocabulary, many of the other conventions are weak, even trite, by comparison their modern contemporaries. I loved Doc Savage when I was young, but I look at those books now and they’re written on what would be, at the highest, a middle-grades level today.

    3- It’s possible that the prose in older books seems elevated because language is dynamic and many words fall out of common usage.

    4- The Founding Fathers were the elite and they knew they were writing for posterity, not the average reader. Also, the changing nature of language mentioned above means that historical documents aren’t a good measure of average literacy.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:24 pm

      Russell Blake – Mon 05th May 2014 at 12:52 pm

      Well, I’m not talking about historically, in a larger scope than my lifetime, which is fifty years. I limited my discussion to examining men’s fiction novels written during that time – beginning with Day of the Jackal and working forward (1962). These were not novels written for the elite. They were mass market men’s fiction from two-three generations ago.

      I’ve never read Doc Savage, so I can’t comment on those.

      The prose in the older books is elevated because the word choice doesn’t assume that the reader is a moron. It’s not that books written fifty or forty years ago are filled with arcane words that have since gone the way of the dodo. It’s because many books are written today for an audience that everyone understands is relatively stupid and illiterate, and if you want to shift the most copies, you need to write to the lowest common denominator.

      Fair enough on the Founding Fathers. We can cheerfully ignore the letters of folks like Ben Franklin, blow past Mark Twain, and pick up the discussion post WWII, which is probably more appropriate given that there are very few living folks who were around much earlier than that. The reading level of the books I read (admittedly not a scientific sampling) are four or more grade levels higher than what’s being put out now.
      We could argue that language has ceased to be meaningful in our modern world, and that the complexity of ideas in an admittedly more complex world are better communicated with simpler language containing fewer words and syllables, but I’m afraid I don’t agree. The answer is easier to arrive at: there is a growing divide between the elite, those with advanced degrees from wealthy families who went to the better schools, and the rest of the population. Those creating new technologies and innovations are not members of the class who can’t reed and rite so gud cause it doesnt matter. That creates a class-bound society wherein you have those who are literate and slowly pull away in the prosperity race, and those who aren’t and do worse over several generations. One only has to look at the distribution of wealth over the last decade, as greater amounts of it are concentrated with fewer individuals and the corporations they own, to see this at play. It will get worse.

      As to our founding fathers, if you read the work of Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry for examples of writing that was intended to stir the “common man” of their time, you’ll find it considerably more nuanced and elevated than that intended for a population raised on Grand Theft Auto and for whom People Magazine represents the limits of their literary comfort level.

      Reply
  28. Alexander
    Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:25 pm

    Alexander
    Mon 05th May 2014 at 12:53 pm

    Well done. More fat in the fire to get things spitting and spluttering.

    Oh dear nostalgia. At my youngest son’s graduation in 2000 his tutor read out a quotation about
    “With the youth of today what was the world going to do?”

    He paused saying it seemed a comment for today. A murmur of agreement ran around the hall.

    He then said with a grin it had been written in 50 BC or a long time ago.

    I am now an old man now and at times think the same only then to chuckle as life moves on. I agree much writing is shallow today but then I recall much was in my youth. There is so much to read out there and what a world we live in now beyond all comprehension and different to 40 to 50 years ago.

    The quantity and sound volume and vision of media is currently almost overwhelming so no wonder there is abbreviation and summary.

    I wait to look back in 50 years time!

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 06th May 2014 at 4:29 pm

      I’m not sure that eliminating most polysyllables from our vocabulary is the same as abbreviation and summary as much as it is a loss of vocabulary. I do plenty of texting with my small keyboard and limited bandwidth, and it hasn’t resulted in my communicating in illiterate Pidgin English snippets. As with breaking rules of literature, it’s one thing to break them because you know and understand them, and find them lacking. It’s another to break them because you’re unaware they exist. One is self-expression that would indicate thoughtful consideration of the rules’ utility, the other is ignorance.

      I hope you make it another 50. There are quite a few folks who will lose money on their wagers if I make it another 50 months…

      Reply
  29. Henry
    Wed 07th May 2014 at 8:56 am

    Dear Russell,
    I recently read your “reeding” blog (loved the play on words), and wholeheartedly agreed with it. I am in my early twenties, so have not had the opportunity to experience the pulp thrillers you read while in your youth. I’m interested to know the names of some of those authors, as I have long been searching for more intelligent books to read, with, as you so eloquently put it, some character development between the car chases and explosions. I also agree with the fact that not only are literacy rates declining, but that many mainstream thrillers are now written at a much lower grade level than they used to be or, to be brutally honest, should be. It is frustrating that reading is fast receding as a means of entertainment, as it means people will, as you pointed out, be misled far more easily by unscrupulous governments and others in positions of power, without even thinking about what is actually occurring. I hope you continue to write well crafted, intelligent and entertaining books for years to come, because there are still those, even of the often doom labelled younger generations, who wish to read something that does not resemble something a sex/bdsm/gore crazed 8th grader would have written, and I am being generous.
    Yours sincerely,
    A loyal reader

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 07th May 2014 at 11:09 am

      Hey, Henry. James Lee Burke has been writing masterpieces for decades, and is without question my favorite living American writer. If you haven’t read his work, do so – it sets a high bar. Daniel Silva writes a pretty decent intelligent thriller. Ken Follet and Frederick Forsyth are both well known for intelligent thrillers. Trevanian is rather good if you don’t lose sight that his thrillers are parodies of thrillers while being readable as straight fiction, too. Nelson DeMille writes a mean one. Even Ludlum’s stuff until his later years eclipses anything being put out these days.

      Reply
      • Henry  –  Thu 08th May 2014 at 8:21 pm

        Thanks very much Russell. These suggestions look really good, and I had bought some of them already, such as the Ludlum and DeMille books. I knew of Ken Follett, as it is pretty hard to miss him here in the UK, (I think he may actually be British? Correct if I’m wrong) and his trilogy beginning with Fall of Giants looks especially interesting. I am surprised, I have to admit, that you like Daniel Silva, as he seems very similar to Vince Flynn, who I like very much, borne out by the fact I am reading my way through the Mitch Rapp series, which you may count as one of the dim modern thrillers you were railing against, but what do you think? Trevanian also sounds interesting, and I will definitely give him and James Lee Burke a go. I don’t know whether it was just me, but I was also surprised to see you were co-authoring with Clive Cussler, as I thought he was one of the modern thriller writers you think are part of the dumbing down effect, or is it just because I have only read his later books? Finally, just to say I have read Upon a Pale Horse, and found it a thrilling read, which did not however have the effect of shocking me, as I’m so jaded, skeptical and cynical that I was unsurprised at the possible origins of AIDS. It was still a great novel, and I burned through it in a day and a half!

        Reply
        • Russell Blake  –  Fri 09th May 2014 at 12:41 am

          If you read Clive’s non-co-authored efforts, the man can write. He’s sold over 100 million books for a reason. Read the first 20 pages via the look inside of any of his early books and you’ll see what I mean. I’ve never read Vince Flynn, but I know he’s got tons of fans, and he’s next on my list. I’m still working my way through all JLB’s books, which if you haven’t read any, shame on you and blech – do so immediately. I’ve got In The Electric Mist on my kindle right now, at full price, and not a penny of regret. The value is in every syllable.

          Reply
          • Henry  –  Fri 09th May 2014 at 6:02 am

            I hear and obey, o great King Russell. I will immediately make the investment in James Lee Burke’s first novel. I had an inkling that Clive Cussler’s earlier books would have a higher standard than his later co-authored works, most of which are just bad pulp dreck (although I like the Oregon files, so my taste may not be that sophisticated) excepting your of course! Vince Flynn is fantastic. Even though he writes about the CIA, he echoes your cynical and skeptical attitude towards those in authority, so he does not suck up to those in power. Unfortunately, he died last year of cancer, so won’t be writing anymore of his brilliant books, unless his name get Clancyfied, which I hope does not happen, as it just will not be the same at all.

          • Russell Blake  –  Fri 09th May 2014 at 12:27 pm

            Skepticism in our first line of defense from predators.

  30. Savanna-Skye
    Wed 07th May 2014 at 4:50 pm

    I have to agree that there is a serious decline of standards in the public school systems. I have three children enrolled in public schools and it seems to me that their efforts with the children are largely driven by funding issues. My kids are encouraged to collect box tops and sell crappy knick-knacks from magazines and chocolates. Excelling at these fund raising shenanigans offers great rewards. But I’ve yet to see incentive for reading or writing offered.
    Reluctantly, I have managed to keep my children interested in literacy. It really doesn’t take very much. I have learned that, despite all the materialistic objects you can reward your children with, they value your time above everything else. For people that are struggling to keep their children interested in reading, I read someone’s comment on…. do their children see them reading? And I know most parents have read picture books to their little ones, but I think I really got mine hooked the first time I read them a chapter book. We did a chapter or three before bed. And despite the iPads and the Wii, this is something that my kids still beg me for….. more than games or apps.
    I’ve also noticed that if you put them on restriction from electronics, books seem to take over their little worlds…. So, against the odds of the public school system, I have successfully raised three little binge readers, hiding under the blankets at night, pretending to be asleep with a flashlight illuminating the pages of a book…. I know there are other parents out there who have managed to do the same. All it takes is a little time spent.

    Reply
  31. Fri 09th May 2014 at 7:07 pm

    I saw your title, mumbled “Not Russell,” but then quickly realized that this was a “must-reed,” as I suspected flogging with a touch of sarcasm and nostalgia.

    What I would like to say (and agree to) has already been expounded here. Furthermore, it tells me why my stuff doesn’t sell despite enthusiastic reviews from “erudite” readers. You see, I never acquired the English of the masses. I was just glad I got those pesky irregular verbs, their tenses and conjugations down correctly. (And I was equally thankful that I never had to “learn” German which has a few wicked rules of its own).

    But thrash me with a royal flail (sorry, I write mostly Egyptian HF), I simply cannot write in today’s popular “tone.” The astoundingly successful first-person, present-tense narrative – to me – has no cadence, no melody. Yet, it sells like hot-cakes. (Your point precisely.)

    The broader question is: Who will come out the winner? After any revolution, the “proletariat” invariably gains power – for an unfortunate period, at least – until the tide turns again. I would surely like to see that happen. But I am not holding my breath.

    All in all, a courageous article, Russell. I commend you for standing up for the written word as it should be read.

    Reply
  32. Morgan Jameson
    Fri 16th May 2014 at 8:01 pm

    I recently sent my 2nd book to my agent, knowing that at 544 pages, she would think it’s too long. It doesn’t matter that I spent the last year and a half editing it carefully, and this was, if not the fonal edit, at least the tenth, and two sets of readers had told me that they couldn’t put it down, and stayed up until 1 am reading.

    My agent’s response was that publishers just won’t accept a debut book that’s longer than 100,000 words and I really needed to cut it. While I am all for cutting the fat, to cut 43K words out of the book (approx 172 pages) would essentially ruin it.

    Imagine all the incredible debut novels that never would have seen the light of day if editors throughout the ages had stuck with the 100,000 word rule. Now, I’m not writing Moby Dick here, but it really makes you wonder.

    As a result, I have decided to self-publish, and am in the middle of final edits / final line edits. In an age where a Japanese ‘author’ who penned a serial novel on her cell phone can get a book deal, I still believe that there are people out there who enjoy a good yarn, and will pay for 544 pages if it is good.

    If the publishers want new, GOOD material, then they need to pull their collective heads out of their asses and open the window a little so they can feel which way the wind is blowing.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Fri 16th May 2014 at 8:45 pm

      Morgan, here’s the missing piece: While there are no doubt many conscientious, hard-working, talented folks at trad publishers, acquisitions editors are, for the most part, mid-level employees of large corporations. And here’s the hard truth about employees. They aren’t owners. They are people whose imperative was to first get the job, and then, keep the job. Nowhere in there is it necessary to do a great job. There’s a kind of mediocrity inherent with large corps and the faceless cogs that work in them, as well as incredible arrogance and privilege, all the more so in corporations in the entertainment industry. So you have mid-level employees who have abysmal hit rates of being right, behaving as though they know precisely what will sell and what is good or bad. Add in that they are usually over-educated and elitist due to their education and taste, thus further elevated above what the common reader might like or not like, and you have the perfect recipe for absurdity: people who have never penned a hit, who have a 90% or worse rate of predicting what might sell or be well received, arbitrarily putting their educations to use establishing rules and guidelines for what they’ll sign, meaning what they’re 90% wrong about (probably worse than 90%).

      That’s why it’s so frustrating. But it’s not isolated to publishers. It’s the same at record companies. At film studios. At virtually all large corporations where most of the people working there didn’t have to be right much, didn’t have to build their business by being particularly clever or correct, but rather had to, A) get the job, and then, B) keep the job. It’s the difference between owners and managers. The book business is now a business run by managers, not owners. The owners, the visionaries, are all gone. Merged or acquired out of existence. Now you have accountants, mid-level bureaucrats terrified of making the wrong decision (and so making only the safe ones, usually by committee consensus), who are fighting to keep their jobs and are embroiled in all the petty rivalries and BS that typify corporate life.

      Where in all that is “discover something great and recognize it as such?” Or “discover something that will likely go big?” It’s not there. What is there is “make safe committee decisions you can’t be fired over, recognizing that 90% of them will be wrong, even though we’ll pretend as though they weren’t wrong, just…it’s hard to be right and the market’s really fickle.”

      That’s what you’re facing. And it’s nothing new. Somebody at Decca turned down The Beatles. James Lee Burke was declined by NY 110 times, and he’s America’s greatest living writer. You’re pitching to people who, to put it charitably, are right far less than they would be flipping a coin.

      Sorry. But there it is.

      Reply
  33. Tue 20th May 2014 at 1:12 pm

    I just thought of something on this topic. You know how you said the recent books you’ve read were written at a lower grade level compared to the books from the seventies? Were the current ones written in the first person or third? Because when I read Twilight, written in the first person from a sixteen year old girl’s perspective, I say she nailed it. But when I read fiction you’ve written, which I think is all in the third person, the narration is brainier but the dialogue matches the characters. I was thinking maybe that’s what’s going on with the recent books you read, that maybe they’re in first person. If not, then they must be dumbing em down. Not that every first person narration is dumb, but it tends to match the character.

    Reply
    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 21st May 2014 at 1:23 pm

      The vocabulary, sentence structure, all of it is substantially lower grade level than the books from the past, whether first or third. So no, that’s not it.

      Reply
  34. Fri 23rd May 2014 at 8:38 am

    My father was a laborer, a brick-layer, who insisted that my sister and I read, even though he was too exhausted at the end of the day to do anything more than eat dinner and sleep.
    But he commanded with an iron fist (how’s that for old school!) that we read, read, read until we both managed to put ourselves through college, which we did. He knew that if we were ignorant, illiterate, we would have as difficult time as he had, He revered literacy as the path to salvation.
    He died four years ago at age 94, and now into my sixth decade, I’m glad that I’ve inherited some of that iron fist from that wonderful man.
    Reasoning, literacy, depth of intellect are things which cannot be taken by any despot or king. They are our only true possessions.

    Reply

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