Weekly Musing: Is Prose Getting Dumber?

One thing I’ve noticed whenever I jump from reading a book written long ago to a novel written in modern times is how dramatically different the prose is. At times when I read something from the 1800s or early 1900s it can be torturous. The now archaic words. The complex sentence structure with multiple semi-colons. Words which have changed meaning. Pages upon pages of exposition. It’s hard to ignore the stark contrast with today’s novels with it’s sparser language, punchier dialogue, and simpler sentence structure.

Frequently I’ve asked myself “Have novels gotten ‘dumber’?” I know language is constantly changing. New words enter the lexicon; others fade away from disuse or even change meaning. This evolution of language is what makes it beautiful. With the proliferation of authors, literacy, and technology which makes access to writing and reading literature easier, of course the written word has been affected.

But has the change been too drastic? Have books become “dumber”? Are books today easier to read? If so, is this a negative? These questions tie into the readability of a story. Readability is the concept in which some piece of writing is judged on how easy it is for a reader to comprehend. Several tests exists which determine a piece’s readability based upon factors such as number of words in a sentence, number of syllables, number of sentences, and content.

The two most well-known are the Flesch Reading Ease and Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level tests. Each is based upon a formula which looks at total words, total sentences, and total syllables. Depending upon the test, the results yield either a corresponding grade level, or ease of readability for the average reader. Readability, be it an essay, fiction, non-fiction book, or anything else, is so important many word processing programs come with a function which will tell the author how readable the piece is.

With these formulas and others, we can now examine the readability of books through the centuries and begin to answer, “Are books getting dumber?” Though not attempting to answer this question, a fascinating article by Shane Snow nevertheless can possibly help. In the article, he charts the readability of various authors as well as famous novels regardless of time period. What’s most striking about Snow’s article is how many famous writes, regardless of genre, don’t write about a 9th grade level. This doesn’t mean the content is necessarily appropriate for a 9th grader rather it means if a person has at least a 9th grade education they should be able to comprehend the story.

Armed with this information I did a little digging into the readability of well-known books from the classics to more contemporary novels. Using the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level test (this measures complexity of language and not content or appropriateness), I discovered the following:

Frankenstein = 9.6

Fifty Shades of Grey = 3.2

Sherlock Holmes = 6.1 (average)

Harry Potter series = ranges from 5th grade to 8th grade

Keep in mind this is an incredibly small sample so to draw any kind of meaningful conclusion requires more data. But looking at this, along with Snow’s article, leads me to determine that maybe prose hasn’t gotten dumber over the years. Yes, novels and other types of writing have gotten easier to read, which is not the same thing as the story themselves being dumber. The content of books today are just as complex, perhaps even more so, than in years past. For example, Jane Austen books aren’t particularly difficult to understand content wise. What provides the challenge for modern readers is the writing style.

I was surprised to come to this conclusion. Before I did research for this post, my automatic answer would be “Yes, books have gotten dumber over the years.” Like Snow, I equated complexity of language with being more intellectual and therefore “better”. Yet when I really think about the modern books I read versus the “classics”, this is not true. A more simplified prose does not mean a story lacks symbolism, character development, or a complex plot structure. Conversely, a novel written in sophisticated prose doesn’t mean it can’t suffer from shallow characters or an overly simple plot.

For fun, I ran the readability statistics on my finished stories and the results were interesting. On the Flesch Reading Ease scale I average in the 80s. On the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level my work corresponds to a 4th grade reading level. Of course, this doesn’t mean any of these pieces should be read by a 4th grader, I don’t write children’s stories, just the reading comprehension level is at the 4th grade. I was surprised at these results. It is still stuck in my head in order for writing to be good, it needs to be written at a certain grade level, preferably college or above. But that is not the case. Just because my stories score in the 80s on the Flesch scale and 4th grade on the Flesch-Kincaid scale doesn’t mean the stories lack grown-up depth or appeal.

While today’s novels and non-fiction are written more for the everyday person, it’s wrong to equate it with being dumb. What makes a book smart or dumb isn’t what appears in black and white on the page. It’s the content, rather than style, and what we the reader take out of the story which determines if a book is smart or dumb. We must be willing to dig below the surface, or not, to find the meaning. Clearly many of today’s books, while more direct and simple, can stand beside books written centuries before and should not be discounted as lacking intelligence.