Monday, September 18, 2017

Are Bestsellers Getting Dumber?


According to the September 2017 issue of READER’S DIGEST, bestsellers are indeed dumber. The article demonstrates that the language of the most popular novels today is much simpler than just a few decades ago.

Author Ben Blatt discusses this in his book NABOKOV’S FAVORITE WORD IS MAUVE from which the article is taken. Blatt collected every digitized number one NEW YORK TIMES bestseller from 1960 to 2014 and ran the Flesch-Kincaid test on all 563 of them. His research maintains that most books meant for a general audience fall within the 4th to 11th grade range as do all of the bestsellers. In the 1960’s, the median book had a grade level of 8. Blatt’s research places today’s median grade level at 6. Interestingly, bestsellers at the lowest score range (grade 4.4) were written by three high volume writers who generally top the bestseller list: James Patterson, Janet Evanovich and Nora Roberts.

Blatt also breaks down books by genre. Thrillers and romances are singled out in particular for what he calls the “dumbification” of popular fiction. Stephen King, Danielle Steel and Harlan Coben all rank at or below 6th grade reading level.

However, Blatt doesn’t castigate these writers for using simple language. Popular writers want to embrace the masses, to reach as many readers as possible. He sees this as a good thing.


As a writer, the advice I’ve run across most frequently is to use language that is clear, concise and simple. George Orwell said it best: “Good prose should be transparent, like a window pane.”

 Yet as a former teacher as well, I have observed that the interest and ability to read has diminished to some extent in our society, at least in my lifetime. Perhaps you disagree or agree?

Your thoughts welcome here.



36 comments:

  1. Great post, Jacqueline! I for one find this information terrifying and disheartening. Language is what distinguishes man from beast, and to see it continually dumbed down is not good. Words are things. They enrich our lives. To bring everything down to the lowest common denominator is to denigrate our civilization. I believe that writers should use the language to enrich communication, not pander to the uneducated. Susan, aka Janis

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  2. Hi Susan,

    You've stated this very well indeed.

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  3. What does "denigrate" mean?

    Dan

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    1. Nothing like the interjection of a bit of humor--okay to use interjection?

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  4. Strunk & White, who wrote the bible for many generations of writers, stressed the use of plain words to get a message across. Some like Hemingway and Elmore Leonard used that premise in the best way while in the hands of others it has succeeded in dumbing down the language. I enjoy both of the writers mentioned, but I also love the more intricate language skills of Nabokov and James Lee Burke. As a journalist I believed we had a duty to both inform and educate our readers. I think the same applies to fiction. I don't see it harmful to send your reader to the dictionary now and again.

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  5. That's funny, Dan. I love your sense of humor. On the off chance that someone reads this, though, and really doesn't know, I will add that denigrate means disparage or belittle. Susan, aka Janis (PS - according to Google doodles, today is the 308th birthday of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who to all intents and purposes invented the dictionary. It's a wonderful and sublimely useful thing!)

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  6. I agree completely with the research you provided. I read four pages of a Harry Potter book several years ago and could not believe how "second gradish" the prose was. I realize those books are for kids but still, are we to perpetuate this dumbing down of the language? Every time I see (or hear) a phrase like "the team ARE" I cringe. Since when is one team plural? Who made that decision? And now, it seems every book, phrase on TV or wherever uses the completely incorrect grammar like, "My mom, she did...." or "My team they ...." My English professors are probably rolling over in their graves. Thanks for the information, Ms. Seewald.

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  7. Thanks for this Jacqueline. I write at my grade (whatever that is) and frequently revert to dictionary and thesaurus. I love Nora Roberts and Tolstoy. I think our world is dumbing down in general. My husband and I often point out flaws in plots on TV, poor casting, or incomprehensible dialogue. It might be our age. But I don't think so. And screens tell us what to do, what to try, and advise what others think we would like. Soon, if we're not careful, we won't have to decide for ourselves. Or even worse, be able to...

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    1. I'd like to see more children of today looking at dictionary and thesaurus when they encounter unfamiliar vocabulary rather than just skipping by them.

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  8. I've noticed this, too. Makes me kind of sad. What also bothers me is that many best-selling novels are written to what I consider "male fantasy" standards. Just listened to a James Patterson book (because it was free on Audible.com) and every single plot point seemed to turn on some kind of grandiose vision of male ego-boosting, if not male supremacy. I expect best-selling women's fiction also has unrealistic portrayals of women and people in general. I remember one novel by a REALLY famous best-selling author (can't remember his name), and his heroine put in a pair of night-vision contact lenses, and went merrily about her business of saving the world from the bad guys. If you've ever worn contacts, you know that's not how it works. You have to get used to those suckers. Sigh. Piddle on that, say I. And so do my hounds :-)

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    1. It seems like the male-oriented bestsellers include more violence and lewd sex scenes than ever. Definitely appealing to male fantasies. But of course romance novels do the same for women.

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  9. I think the "dumbing" down of prose has something to do with our political discord. Our vocabulary in general has become so limited that many people are unable to explore different ideas because they don't have the thought that comes with a broader vocabulary. We can't know and recognize a feeling or emotion if we don't have a word for it. We can't understand the consequences of a political choice if we don't understand the terms used. Just as younger people are losing the ability to navigate streets without a GPS telling them where to go, younger readers aren't learning important distinctions among ideas. We are losing our capacity to think deeply about important topics.

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    1. Susan,

      I agree with your comment that younger readers are losing the capacity to think deeply. Reading has become superficial with many.

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  10. I'm convinced this is a trend, along with shorter chapters and shorter novels. The public has short attention spans which means less time for luxuriating in rich prose. Still, authors like John Irving, Wally Lamb, and Pat Conroy have big followings. Some people still seek challenge and meaning from the written word.

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    1. Quality literary fiction is still part of the English curriculum and for many it encourages making good reading choices in adulthood. But you're right about the trend. People have much shorter attention spans these days.

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  11. such interesting information!
    thanks for sharing
    Good luck and God's blessings
    PamT

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  12. I see this trend not only in books, but on TV as well. It can be expected on sitcoms, but have you noticed talk-show hosts increasingly using language familiar to a teenager? It's disheartening, and a poor example for young people.

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  13. Definitely represents the dumbing down on language verbally as well.

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  14. It is sad to realize using anything but the simplest of words makes a novel too difficult for today's audience. We have become a society that wants everything fast and simple. Lots of white space, simple words, shorter novels...and start with the action.

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  15. I teach College Freshman English, and I am shocked at how many students don't know what a Thesaurus is. I have all my students go to Dictionary.com, on their phones, laptops or the lab computers, type in a word in the Thesaurus, pick one of the synonyms, look it up in the dictionary, and let the rest of the class know the definition. It's a small step, but...

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    1. Jude,

      That's a great idea since students today are so digital oriented.

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  16. Jacqueline, I think pretty much all of society has been dumbed down. I used to write for a show and the producer called me and another writer into his office and chastised us for using big words. I didn't think they were "big" words but from then on we dumbed it down even dumber than it already was...

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  17. What a great discussion on a fascinating topic!
    I have mixed emotions on the subject. On one hand, I think that, as we read, we should be stretching our mental muscles. On the other hand, sadly, our society has changed a lot and, experts claim the average attention span has diminished over the years. Personally, I would like to see a compromise - clear, simple, direct language that occasionally throws in a word that might cause some people to grab a dictionary. :)

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    1. Patricia,

      I agree. I think language should be clear and yet writers and readers alike should value a more complex vocabulary.

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  18. Thank you for sharing information about this disheartening trend, J.S. As a fan of both fast-food fiction like Nora Roberts's J.D. Robb series and more philosophically substantial literature like what Frankie Y. Bailey and Jacqueline Woodson write, my hope is that the pendulum will soon swing back toward higher expectations for readers' ability and desire to stretch their vocabularies as they read outside of their comfort zones.

    Best wishes,
    Cardyn Brooks

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Cardyn. My hopes are the same as yours.

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  19. I'm all for simple, clear language, but it is frustrating that when we have the resources to look up a word with ease, readers express annoyance at "snooty" writers who use words beyond their limited vocabulary. It happens everywhere; I was once asked by a checker if I taught math when I corrected the change he gave me. I don't. I wish there were easy ways to help our children fall in love with words. Thought-provoking post. thanks!

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    1. I've been criticized for using a more complex vocabulary at times myself in my fiction and it did surprise me.

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  20. Great topic. I too thought immediately of Strunk and White's book about writing simple and concise. I love reading everything, but admit that I never finished Doctor Zhivago. It wasn't the language but the endless descriptions that went on and on... I think people are reading more today than ever before. The problem is "what" they are reading. More people are seen with their heads bent over their smart phones than ever before. Most of them are writing post or reading the content of others. I am guilty of it as well. I also read my news from my cell phone and skip watching it on TV. I find it more informational than sensational. I remember a grade school teacher telling me that most books were written on a sixth to eith grade level back in the eighties, so maybe things haven't really changed? Great food for thought.

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  21. Hi Zari,

    Your observations are keen. I see just what you do--people texting rather than reading newspapers, magazines and books.

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