This guy thinks that publishers ought to encourage writers to write in "smaller chapters" because his sister found the chapters in The Da Vinci Code "cinematic." "Perhaps that’s true," he continues,
but having watched her read the book over the next couple of days, I couldn’t help but think that they were even more televisual in nature. She could sit down and read for five or ten minutes at a clip, non-commitally, and even manage to finish a chapter or two in the process. She could read distractedly, as the text didn’t demand that she sustain her attention for very long. What’s remarkable is that the book, despite being more than 400 pages, hardly behaves like a substantial (as in long) work of fiction.
Scott Esposito has already pointed out the contradictions between the author's assurances he doesn't contend "that people’s attention spans are waning" and his worry that these days we're too often distracted by "a loud truck rolling by" or "the incessant drone of leaf blowers," but unfortunately the author probably does believe the greatest threat to reading is the racket generated by lawn equipment and "publishing professionals" will probably take his defense of televisual prose quite seriously.
Indeed, since taking the advice to "attune their sensitivities better to the fine-grain of everyday life" and make books safe for reading "five or ten minutes at a clip, non-commitally" is the most idiotic and self-destructive thing publishers could do, they no doubt will do it, with great dispatch. Even though such an approach thoroughly undermines all the arguments made on behalf of the "book" as an intellectually superior mode of communication and places it exactly on par with every other form of "information technology" at our disposal, and even though it subverts the very purpose of reading by assuring "readers" books will no longer "demand that [we] sustain [our] attention for very long," the "brevity-is-better" method might still extend the death agonies of the book business long enough to squeeze out another mega-seller or two. It might keep books and reading in thrall to the imperatives of corporate capitalism a little longer, and this, of course, is everything.
Sometimes the short chapter or segment can be used to great aesthetic effect. Aharon Appelfeld, for example (I've just finished reading his All Whom I Have Loved), often breaks his generally short narratives into quite short chapters, but these chapters are not simply links in a glittery chain of events. They sink in and spread out rather than serve as simply the latest plot point in the rush to get from there to there. This is clearly not what Ted Striphas has in mind. He wants books in bite-size bits that readers can consume "non-commitally." Applefeld writes books that engage our attention, profoundly. Striphas would be content with books as superficial as any other entertainment option that helps us waste our time rather than redeem it.
Publishers have pursued the "dumbing-down strategy" to the point where they have now essentially ruined book publishing as an endeavor devoted more to the cultivation of good writers--writers whose audience might extend beyond the present and into succeeding generations--than the cultivation of cash. Even those involved in its ruination know that they're doing it, but acknowledge they can't stop themselves, as this recent article by an editor who "until recently worked for a large publisher in New York" attests:
A system that requires the trucking of vast quantities of paper to bookshops and then back to publishers’ warehouses for pulping is environmentally and commercially unsustainable. An industry that spends all its money on bookseller discounts and very little on finding an audience is getting things the wrong way round. Following the strictures of their accountants, the large houses will intensify their concentration on blockbusters. High street bookshops will abandon deep stockholding, becoming mere showrooms for bestsellers and prize-winners.
If shorter chapters can get a few more people into those bookshops and continue to prop up this moribund system, why not try it?
If we're lucky, the props will come crashing down sooner rather than later, and we'll be rid both of the buttoned-down stooges who have made it so unnecessarily difficult for serious readers to find the books they still want, as well as for serious writers to find any readers at all, and of enablers like Ted Striphas. If we're even luckier, the small and independent presses (see the list to the right) that to some extent are forced to mimic the actions of the corporate publishers in order to survive will feel less pressure to do so and their implicit mission of bringing worthwhile books to those of us who actually like to read--both short chapters and long ones--can be more profitably fulfilled. No doubt the cybersphere will also contribute to a book culture focused more on bringing particular books together with individual readers than on ginning up a mob response.
If corporate book publishing were to disappear entirely, leaving books--especially fiction--to their appropriate "niche" among those who read "commitally," I, for one, would be a happy man. In the meantime, I will confine my attentions to the good books that do still, miraculously, continue to appear.