I was sharing a corner of the RHCB Christmas Party with the writer John Dougherty, sheltering from exploding glasses and from the crowds of other writers whose books I ought to have read but hadn’t. We’d got as far as agreeing that today’s young readers preferred stories that were much more pacey and quickfire than the ones we had enjoyed in our childhoods. Therefore, I said, I ought not to worry if the stuff that I’m writing seemed to me rather hurried. It was what today’s child wanted, wasn’t it?
John wouldn’t go so far. It might be what they wanted, but that didn’t mean we should always be writing it. He recalled studies on the effects of shortening attention spans on children’s intellectual development. There was a trend here to be resisted. It was good for children to read stories that demanded concentration.
Well, yes, I said. But won’t they need to hop quickly from subject to subject? Many working environments are fast, multi-tasking places. Think of your average office. I swear that the hours I had spent shooting down space invaders were just as much help to me when I was an office worker as any amount of time I had put into carefully-researched essays on medieval history.
Ah, said John. But… And he talked about further studies which showed that the butterfly mind does less well in a multi-tasking environment than the mind that is a focused beam. John is a former teacher who thinks deeply about the relationship between teaching and writing. And there’s a time when even I give up arguing with people who know more than I do. Especially when I’m in a room with a hundred other people and am having to shout to make myself heard.
Writers are entertainers, not teachers. Even more than teachers, they part from their audience at their peril. But the best stories should be about more than entertainment. They affect the way we think. They give us models to follow and ways of understanding the world. A story-teller who is not, at some level, saying to the audience I want you to think about this is an empty vessel. If the story teller is good, maybe they will listen. But is the thought a good one? The usual test is ‘do enough of us (adults) agree with it?’ Yet no one can really be sure. Whole generations can be wrong. Or at least, they can fail to see how the world is changing.