Sips and not Gulps: A subtle shift in the transfer of information?

Apologies, the title promises much more profundity than this early morning reflection may yield.  (Dogs got me up and now, I’m up.)  I was recently watching an episode of the Colbert Report with Sherry Turkle.   For those who do not know, Sherry Turkle is an M.I.T. professor and author of several books about technology and the social impacts it has.  She was on Stephen Colbert’s program plugging her new book Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other and generally lamenting the fact that people are texting, checking their email, or updating their social networking pages at ‘inappropriate’ times, like during Thanksgiving dinner, funerals, etc. (guilty).   I have not read Professor Turkle’s book, obviously, because I just found out about it, but I added it to the ever-growing Nook-queue.

I think one reason for this phenomenon is that the web has given us all voices.  Voices that lend our opinions disproportionate weight, or rather lead us to believe that others actually care about our opinions.  After all, we have social networks to update, tweets to send, blogs to post (O Irony, thou art a cruel mistress).  Voices most of us don’t deserve to be frank and we’ve lost our sense of perspective.  People used to be aware of their station and level of importance.  Now, people are the stars of their own films playing out inside their heads with everyone else playing bit player roles or relegated to ‘extras’.  I honestly think that’s why people think they can get away with texting while driving.  They’ve boosted their  level of self-importance in such a way that they believe, subconsciously or not, that they can actually drive while not paying attention to the environment around them.  It’s not limited to driving.  How many times have you been in a meeting or a presentation and no one ‘attending’ the meeting is actually paying any attention?  They are all present but busy tapping away on their Blackberry’s, ‘putting out fires’ that could easily wait weeks if not minutes or doing other, allegedly, more important, work.  (That’s if they aren’t sleeping or otherwise not contributing to anything in a meaningful way).  It’s what allows people to hang up in the middle of telephone conversations with a tired and trite, “Okay bye,” without realizing they’re being incredibly rude.  It’s why the comments left behind on many websites are so full of self-righteous and indignant vitriol against any other poster who dares to share a differing opinion.  It’s why social gaming will always be more civil than computer gaming (and why ‘griefing’, the practice of doing something stupid repeatedly in order to annoy and ruin others’ gaming experiences, is rife in the latter and not tolerated in the former).  It’s why civility is rapidly becoming a thing of the past in our society.  But all that is neither here nor there as far as this post is concerned.

During the interview on the Colbert Report, Professor Turkle alluded in passing (and I’m paraphrasing here) that in our quest for more immediate answers we have lost our respect that some arguments require the ‘long form’.  Some arguments do take a book.  (Just think of our political debates, everything is locked down tight to fit in the proscribed time-slot so the airing network won’t preempt the repeat episode of “American Idol”.  The media machine makes sure to reduce any substantive discussion to a pithy sound bite to fit neatly into the 24-hour news cycle and so it can be re-aired on the various clip shows and most often, taken wildly out of context).  Professor Turkle made the point that we email each other so much that when you reach a particular volume of email — fifty, a hundred, three hundred — that we ask more and more superficial questions.  We start to ask simpler questions we can get simpler answers to.  We start to believe that everything has a two-sentence or less solution.  We fail to account for the fact that some problems, and some answers, are complicated and require a discourse that may take more than 140 characters.

This led me to think about the practices of our modern publishing industry, namely with how agents and publishers deal with the volume of submissions writers offer up for representation or publication.  At the recent Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference, Literary Agent Kristen Nelson suggested that she might receive upwards of 36,000 queries a year.  Now assuming that she is a moderately successful agent, I’m going to assume that her figures are normal industry-wide.  That breaks down to just under 100 queries a day.

Now for those not in the know, the myth of writers sending their completed manuscript to an agent or a publisher in entirety is just that, a myth.  What really happens is that a writer will complete their manuscript and subsequent drafts and then work on a synopsis.  The standard synopsis will range anywhere from 1-10 pages, but most agencies / editors would like them to be around 2 pages.  So that’s an entire novel distilled down to 2 pages, rough, but it can be done.  However, from answers I’ve received from editors and agents, the majority of those synopses go unread.  What is read (sometimes, if done correctly), is the query letter, which is done more and more often through email (the cost savings and convenience are obvious).  Again, judging from answers I’ve received from editors and agents, that majority of the query letter goes unread.  Most agents skim the letter to find the ever-important pitch paragraph, a lone paragraph in your three-paragraph query that sums up and tries to sell the writer’s novel.  The key to that pitch paragraph is a hook or logline.  So, in actuality all this comes to one sentence that boils down the essence of the novel.  If you were talking face to face with the agent this is sometimes described as the elevator pitch, a distillation of your story in 30 seconds or less.   But sometimes even that is too much, and folks want the ‘high-concept’ description (“Bladerunner” meets “Field of Dreams”) to catch their attention.

I feel for the editor’s and agent’s plight.  They must sort through the chaff of 100 email queries daily, not counting other emails that are just the normal cost of doing business, to try to find one or two items of proverbial, and hopefully lucrative, wheat.  However, if we take what Professor Turkle is suggesting into account, are they expecting simpler and simpler ‘answers’ to their ‘questions’?  From a writer’s point-of-view, we have now had to distill 100,000 words or more, the discussion of an argument in book-length form, down to a high-concept sentence that we can relate in 30 seconds or less.

If Professor Turkle is noticing this subtle shift in the simplification of the questions and answers we are demanding of ourselves.   What is this process doing to our culture’s literature?   It may follow that only the easy-sell simpler concepts are making it to the bookstands.  And since these exact trends and methods are even more prevalent in our nation’s film industry, would this help to explain the rash of puerile and insignificant films Hollywood has been churning out for the most part in the last decade or so?  And are we as consumers content with these simpler answers to our simpler questions?

I look forward to reading Professor Turkle’s full text.

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