I stopped reading novels last year. I think you did too.

I’ve gone from writing a regular column on scifi books for The Guardian, to a year without reading novels. What happened?

I keep having the same conversation about novels. I tell people that I don’t think anybody is reading novels any more. Usually, the response is outraged. I have a lot of writer friends. Clearly, none of us like the idea that the readers are drying up. Then I dig a bit and it becomes clear – they haven’t actually read a novel themselves in years.

My primary evidence for the death of the reader is the death of my own reading. It’s been a year since I’ve read a novel. “Well you must just be one of those dumbasses who doesn’t read!” I hear some folks thinking. That would be less worrying, wouldn’t it? But the truth is that, until quite recently, I was a professional reader.

While I was writing my regular column on sci-fi books for The Guardian I was getting through five or six full books a month, and looking at maybe two dozen in part. Plus reading for reviews with SFX magazine and elsewhere. I would trawl through the new releases looking for anything promising. And while doing that, something happened.

I was finding less and less I wanted to read.

How the novel lost its magic.

I remember as a kid spending afternoons at the local library, selecting books as though I was selecting magical portals to step through. Then I would rush home and lose myself in the magic for hours, days at a time.

Of course we all grow up. We can’t spend our whole live teleporting to other realms. But, at every new stage of my life, new kinds of book would open up new kinds of magic for me. I found The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami when I was twenty-eight. A whole decade of new reading experiences began there, authors like Michael Chabon and Alice Munro came along and reading stayed electric.

But now in my early forties, I haven’t found equivalent new voices. The last novel that really caught me was Noah Hawley’s Before The Fall. Beautiful storytelling from the show-runner of Fargo, a real talent. Maybe I haven’t looked hard enough. Maybe it’s out there waiting to be found. The new seam of novelistic beauty just waiting for me, the reader, to mine it.

But I don’t think it’s me. I think, dear novel, that it’s you.

So…what happened?

There’s no doubt the novel is facing some stiff competition for our attention. Hands up who doesn’t spend 100% more time on social media than they did 20 years ago when it didn’t exist? The smartphone is engineered to swallow as much of your eyeball time as it can. Which, often, is all of it.

But I don’t believe the novel is as vulnerable to digital distractions as some might say. We’re all HUNGRY for deeper experiences that stop as from paddling in the shallows of social media. When high quality tv drama of film releases come along, we’re there for them. But not, it seems, for novels.

No, I think a more serious ailment is afflicting the novel. And I fear it’s a self inflicted malady, that it’s going to take quite some time and care to care get over. But that healing process can’t even begin until the novel admits it has a problem. Maybe at a kind of metaphysical AA meeting for dying art forms.

“Hi. I’m The Novel. And I’ve been arrogantly over sure of myself as the natural home of high quality storytelling.”

The novel was always where people who valued real high quality storytelling went to find it. Films and tv had their moments, but they were largely packed with junk. But over the last couple of decades the tables have turned. Prestige tv shows are where we go now for the best storytelling. Novels seems more and more junky. Call it the Dan Brown or Fifty Shades effect. However it happened, I just don’t expect to find good storytelling in novels anymore.

Ebooks aren’t helping (but they could)

As a writer, I find NaNoWriMo inspiring. Yes new writers, you go for it!

As a reader, I find the idea of having to read anything written as part of NaNoWriMo truly horrifying. My time is precious, and your 50,000 word novel written in a month ain’t getting a second of it.

Increasingly, this is my feeling about the entire field of digital publishing. It’s hard to find anything polite to say about the Amazon Kindle self-publishing scene, the writerly equivalent of America’s Got Talent, except without the talent.

If anything killed the magic of the novel, it’s seeing the novel utterly degraded and disrespected by the fevered egos who crank out junk and self publish it on the Kindle. I really wish this didn’t effect how I see the novel, but inevitably, it does.

And mainstream publishing isn’t all that much better. They don’t seem to invest anywhere near enough into developing talented new writers. New writers are published too early, then disappear before they have a chance to develop, which rarely happens before half a dozen lesser novels have been published.

All of which is really a great shame. Because ebooks and digital publishing could so easily unleash a renaissance in novel writing, as a space for experimentation and the development of new talent. But instead we just get endless cash in genre novels, all with their cadre of fake reviews.

Can the novel redeem itself?

2019 has been my worst year as a reader. But I’m hopeful, and excited, that 2020 will be better.

Everything has a cycle. The novel has produced incredible richness of storytelling and works of art over the centuries. I’m sure it will again. Right now we’re at the bottom of the cycle for the novel. It’s swamped by really awful work, packed full of imitative genre fiction. But it’s when an art form is at its worst that you might start to see green shoots of renewal popping up.

If the novel’s going to win me back as a reader, it will have to tear down and rebuild how it does the art of storytelling. As the tv show went through a complete revolution to give us Mad Men or Breaking Bad, I can see signs of the novel entering a similarly revolutionary period.

I suspect it won’t be Kindle self publishers OR authors with traditional publishing deals showing us the way. The internet is so rich with unexplored publishing opportunities, I suspect the novels that grab my attention back as a reader will be quite untraditional in how they are published.

Have you spotted authors re-inventing the storytelling of the novel? Give me a lead, I’d love to read them.

30 thoughts on “I stopped reading novels last year. I think you did too.”

  1. It sounds like you’re just a little burnt out with reading. It happens. You can take a break from any hobby if you start to feel a little burned out.

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  2. I do read fewer novels than I used to, but mostly that’s because there are so many other things that demand my time (and I can’t argue with most of your other points).
    Yes, finding a book that truly interests me is harder to do than it used to be, and a lot of that is due to the incredible amount of shlock you have to wade through to find it, and the unreliability of the voices you used to depend on to help filter all that for you.

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  3. As it happens, I’ve read less this year than ever before. I have stacks of novels to read and not many are grabbing my attention. I will start something, and more often than not, put it down. This year I’ve managed to read: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, The Radley’s by Matt Haig, Orchard on Fire by Shena Mackay, The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter. Of these, Orchard on Fire is one of the best novels I’ve read, though it’s not exactly new (1995). The End We Start From is almost poetry. Gaiman I’ll always love for the escape into another world, and I liked Haig’s humour. I am think I am bored with the novel in general though, I find them too formulaic and overwhelmingly middle-class. I’d also say I find they don’t leave enough to the imagination… I’d love to come across something that engages me as much as Alan Garner’s Red Shift or Ursula Le Guin’s Dispossessed. Both of these made me think, and they’ve stayed with me for this reason. I do have in my possession a copy of David Wharton’s Finer Things…

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  4. I stopped reading for years, and started again four or five years ago. With I must say great joy. Reading novels is one of the great pleasures of my life.

    Right now I am burning through novels and trying to get everybody to read the ones I am particularly enthusiastic about (lately, Yoon Ha Lee’s books and A Memory Called Empire).

    Maybe it’s not the novel, it’s you?

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  5. I think another aspect of this is the demise of the bookstore. I used to read 10x as much when I could wander in to a Walden Books, Barnes & Noble, Kroch’s and Brentano’s and spend an hour perusing book spines for interesting titles or covers. Then picking one up and reading the overleaf, then maybe the first few pages. A lot would get put back, but I would buy some.
    You can’t do that on Amazon.

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    1. Actually you can.

      Most ebooks I’ve seen on Amazon allow you to request a sample, often the first chapter or two. If you like it, there’s a helpful link at the end of the sample back to the page in the store. If not, delete it and move on.

      Only real difference is, you aren’t picking up paper products.

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  6. Too many science fiction or fantasy novels are part of a trilogy or longer series. I search for “complete in one book” novels. The others just seem like too much time and money to invest. Need more like Chop Delaney’s NOVA or Ursula Leguin’s LEFT HAND of DARKNESS.

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  7. Perhaps you are falling into the same trap as many listeners of modern music – only reading those voices which emerge from the same small group of publishers.
    Look at all of the self-published works available on Kindle or online and you will find a treasure trove of goodness just waiting to tempt you with their visions of the future.
    I give you, as an example of a meteoric rise, the Galaxy’s Edge series. Check it out, and you will not be disappointed.

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  8. You said that you used to read/review science fiction and fantasy stuff right? If you like urban fantasy with a diverse cast of characters and a cool dieselpunk feel, you might want to check out ‘A Hard Magic’ by Larry Correia. Lots of fun, and restored my faith in UF being more than just “sexy vampire” stupidity.

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  9. All those authors you’ve disparaged in the past seem to be doing quite well Damien. You might find yourself less burned out if you were reading darned good stories instead of the Social Justice approved junk you so proudly champion. We told you it was SJ crap, but you insisted on critiques of authors instead of ignoring names and READING the books before judging them. You are; however, still amusing to read now and then as I watch my author friends you’ve trashed go on with their successful carers and more importantly enjoyable lives. Larry, BTW, has finished the place on the new mountain and enjoying that humongous game room… Sleep well as rough men guard your freedom to criticize the talented instead of showing them the “right way” to write a great novel.

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  10. Strange. I’m still reading 2 novels a month, plus short stories, and books recommended by the company book club. But then, I don’t turn up my nose at Indie publishing, nor do I dismiss self publishing out of hand. I also care very little for an author’s politics, as long as the story is engaging and entertaining. Some of my favorite books are written by people so far from me politically that we shouldn’t be in the same area code. But they’re good books, and they don’t beat me over the head with how everything I believe is wrong.

    Maybe you should try reading stuff that you normally dismiss for [reasons]. You might be surprised by what you find.

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  11. Wrong.
    Just finished one this morning.
    I am having trouble finding books I want to read. Since I am getting old, I figure I am not really part of the target market, any more. That would explain why I find fewer books to read.
    So I read a lot of samples before I find a book I want to read. Sometimes that is a fail, too, though.
    And occasionally I re-read a book I love.
    But I like the wide-open frontier created by the Kindle and other eReaders.

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  12. I read a ton these days, I own far more books and read more authors now than at any time in my life. Some are great books, and others are just not. I think the real problem is that there are a lot of people who are writing stories to make a point rather than to tell a good story. Good story tellers with compelling characters still sell tons of books. Real readers try lots of writers, and end up finding some good one, tepid readers get tired of wasting time and end up waiting until they get a good recommendation from someone they trust. Write good stuff and it will likely go well, write trash that others don’t want and well…….

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  13. Maybe you’re going through a change in tastes that you haven’t figured out yet.

    This happened to me recently, and it was quite fascinating once I figured it out.

    A few years ago, I found that many of the genres I’d preferred for years weren’t interesting me anymore, with occasional exceptions. I was also living in a country where English was not the first language, and my fluency was not sufficient to read and enjoy novels in that language.

    With my options for English-language novels more limited (or just different), I started picking up books that I probably would not have picked up in years past. Some examples of novels I read and loved:

    The Age of Reinvention by Karine Tuil
    The Invisible Life of Ivan Isaenko by Scott Stambach
    My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
    The Green Road by Anne Enright

    I picked up short stories, which usually I don’t enjoy, but I loved the collections I read by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kolyma Tales by Varlam Shalamov. I even read a couple of modern westerns by C.J. Box that I liked. I found a great fantasy series (The Name of the Wind) that I loved but never read previously because I usually don’t like first person stories.

    What I found were new experiences in new settings and new ways of telling stories (at least to me) that I found fascinating.

    Maybe you just need a change and a break from the sorts of things you were reading. I did.

    I’m still reading and loving novels, just a very different sort than I had read for years. You can too.

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  14. I’m 45 and been through this several times. After I hit 30 I discovered I’d ‘read everything there was to read’. I knew my error as having simply read to much so in additions to slowing down I read outside my chosen genres and discovered I still liked reading.

    With self-publishing there is the risk of someone sending their book out into the world without the proper editing, writers have even found readers willing to binge-read their prose and simpler story lines (KU?) but there are plenty of indie authors who take their work more seriously than the trade pub.

    My advice: expand, try the book and see, give yourself permission to put the book down unfinished. Best of luck.

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  15. As a lover of genre fiction, particularly fantasy and science fiction, I found parts of this article insulting. Those of us who enjoy the art of playing with tropes and story structure have been having a good time this decade. Someone like Naomi Novik has put out back-to-back quality one-off takes on fairy tales with Spinning Silver and Uprooted in recent years. I’d consider giving those a try if you’re not completely averse to fantasy.

    Hope you find something that’s up your alley, be it with traditional literature or with something genre-related. Just please ease off the gate keeping a bit.

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  16. Inflammatory title, poised to draw the ire of the crowd
    Click-Bait’esque, don’t you think?

    But it worked, kind of. I’m here at least, a handful of others it appears, too.

    1) The market is saturated: true. Finding quality in the sea of schlock is nearly impossible.
    2) We’ve become ever more discerning. Our acceptance bars creep up yearly. And, if you’re a writer, you can’t help but wear your /editor/ hat as you read. How many 1st pages have I read only to pass?
    3) I have plausibility issues as I’ve grown older. I just cannot brook the impossible any longer. I used to read Fan-Sci-Fi all the time. Today? The reality of a scientific Universe dispells all possibilities of ghosts or magic.
    4) Time, there isn’t any anymore.
    5) Exercising the mind. I exercise mine all damn day. We used to do a lot more manual labor. But millions of us have thinking jobs today: knowledge workers, finance, IT/programming, data science, engineering. Give me some diversion I don’t have to unravel.
    6) Diversions. Fifteen minutes on Instagram and I’m good for hours; my entertainment fix is mainlined and coursing through my veins.
    7) At the end of it all, the day that is, I’m laying in bed, my digital master open to some library novel I’ve spun down, ten minutes later I’m asleep.

    Surely good stories will continue to be written. Hell, I intend to write some myself. But I agree, the fundamentals of the novel have changed. Maybe, with literacy exploding in the third world, there will be a rebirth of story telling that we haven’t seen yet. Maybe.

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