Fiction Still Flourishing, Say Experts; BOOKS: Suggestions That Research Sounds Death Knell for Literacy Rates and Reading Are Rejected

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Byline: CATRIN WILLIAMS

YOU will spend longer reading this newspaper today than you will a work of fiction, assuming you are one of the 60pc of the population who bothers to pick up a book.

Yet experts refuse to accept this new study sounds a disturbing death knell for literacy rates or the pastime of reading.

The average reader spends 17 minutes a day reading a newspaper, 11 in a novel, a further seven online and five with a magazine, according to research carried out for the Orange Prize for Fiction. Women read more novels than men.

However, Professor Catherine Belsey rejects the claims that people were gradually turning their backs on reading books. The cultural criticism expert at Cardiff University feels the rise in newspaper, magazine and screen reading was an indication that people want to further satiate their need for stories and fascination with life.

She says the essential appeal emanating from War and Peace or reports about Pakistan and India teetering on the brink of nuclear war is generated by our curiosity and our search for answers to questions.

``The internet requires you to read, e-mail requires you to read - these are not conventional, semantic forms but it is encouraging,'' she said. ``More people are reading more rather than less and now new media is encouraging people to read.''

Dr Matt Hills of Cardiff's School of Journalism said, ``A lot of people seem to be up in arms about the inter-net, that it would be the death of books. You would hope the internet would be very good for literacy but also for more people reading.

``Books are a portable technology which computer screens get nowhere near. You will not see the internet threatening that.''

Iris Gower is one of Wales's most prolific novelists. The 63-year-old, who has sold 1.8m books since 1996, said, ``Generally the trend is down, but there's still a significant amount of books being bought and read.''

She says novels are the original form of mobile, undemanding escapism, particularly popular among women because they can be read relaxing in bed or bath. …