Technology, Attention, and the Extremely Long Paragraph

Thalia Williamson analyzes how novels that limit or refuse paragraph breaks challenge our distracted modes of reading.

Technology, Attention, and the Extremely Long Paragraph

ALONG WITH THE usual summer roster of book club books and true crime reads, we should expect to see, as in 2022, a range of novels bearing the imprint of Thomas Bernhard, whose influence over contemporary fiction shows no sign of letting up.

In the three decades since his death, Bernhard’s influence over the contemporary novel has followed a parabolic trajectory. He has gone from being a writers’ writer, a well-kept secret, to a writer whose influence is felt, even if indirectly, over a broad array of novels that have seen both sales and critical acclaim. Bernhard acolytes include Geoff Dyer, Ben Marcus, Ben Lerner, Julie Otsuka, Tim Parks, Emily Hall, Jordan Castro, Mark Haber, László Krasznahorkai, Lucy Ellmann, Mauro Javier Cárdenas, Claudia Piñeiro, Jen Craig, and Adam Ehrlich Sachs—all of whom have spoken about him in interviews and essays, even if to talk about escaping his influence—while traces of his style can be spotted further afield, in the work of Thuận, Roberto Bolaño, Danielle Dutton, Oli Hazzard, Rachel Cusk, and Mathias Énard.

These lists are, of course, not exhaustive. Geoff Dyer described Bernhard’s work as the culmination of a “European tradition of the literature of neurasthenia”; it now seems equally apt to place him as the progenitor of a younger, more global—if not still largely US-centric—tradition of neurasthenic literature. The key features that mark his style—the obsessive rants; the long, digressive sentences replete with repetitions and contradictions; plots that see their protagonist do little more than think and walk—are each distinctive enough that his influence can be easy to spot. Adam Ehrlich Sachs has said that “you know [Bernhard’s footprint] when you see it.” As he explains, there is “the daisy-chained dialogue-attribution footprint, the exaggeration-to-the-point-of-madness footprint, the solely-internal-landscape-no-nature footprint, the single-paragraph footprint, the relentless-conceptual-critique-turned-somehow-into-fiction footprint, and so on.”

This influence can be so unmistakable that even W. G. Sebald, hardly an author thought of today as unoriginal, once admitted:

I was always, as it were, tempted to declare openly from quite early on my great debt of gratitude to Thomas Bernhard. But I was also conscious of the fact that one oughtn’t to do that too openly, because then immediately one gets put in a drawer which says Thomas Bernhard, a follower of Thomas Bernhard, etc., and these labels never go away.

With all of this said, perhaps the most distinctive feature of Bernhard’s style to show its influence in the contemporary novel, and one often deployed by Sebald himself, is what I will call the Extremely Long Paragraph (ELP), about which relatively little has been said—aside from the fact that his paragraphs are, indeed, notably long. Before reading him for the first time, said Emily Hall, she thought of him as “the guy with no paragraph breaks.” It is likely the first thing you will notice when you pick up one of his books; for many, it provides reason enough to leave his book right on the shelf. Personally, I have had little success in getting anyone to read his work except for those whose own tastes and inclinations had already put him on their radar. Some of his books have only one paragraph, and for those that contain more, they are still so few that you could easily count their number after quickly flicking through. These paragraphs, as I will show in more detail later, have been popping up everywhere, particularly in the past two decades—and for reasons that do not seem incidental to the times we are living through.

Bernhard’s work stands apart. It is, of course, brilliant and influential for reasons that go far beyond the length of his paragraphs. He seems ready to break every convention, and his narrator’s untrammeled, often vitriolic ranting is permission-giving for those who feel hemmed in by ever-shifting fashions of what is proper to say. For my part, Bernhard kept me sane as I completed an MFA. Every time the idiosyncrasies in my work were critiqued in the name of craft (so-called), I would, as a matter of ritual, read a few pages of Bernhard—any would do—and would think how his work might be critiqued, perhaps even condescended to, in a workshop. The long sentences, the absence of plot, the rage, the propensity to tell (over and over again) rather than show—all stand opposed to the conventions of form and style that mark the MFA-to-industry literary pipeline.

That said, I am particularly interested in discussing Bernhard’s ELPs—in saying more about them than their length—because the early 21st century has been an age of rising distraction. Over the past two decades, authors and critics (including Bernhard fans) have decried the new technologies—smartphones and social media, most prominent among them—that have, by harming our capacity to sustain attention, put the novel under existential threat. With so much endless distraction, the argument roughly goes, one can no longer give novels the kind of special attention they demand of us. Unlike earlier critics of fast-evolving mass media, who had taken aim, for example, at how television consumption affected youngsters, these critics see 21st-century technologies as so damaging for cognition that they include themselves among the compromised.

And yet Bernhard’s ELP—which does, admittedly, daunt many readers enough that they leave his books on the shelf—is proliferating. Is this because they suit a distracted attention? Or do they, rather, through the demands they make on readers, provide a means for resisting endless distractions? If so, do they not demonstrate the resilience of exactly the kind of attentive capacities that the new technologies are allegedly destroying? To answer these questions, I’ll first look at the claims being made about technology and attention. Then I will look at how the ELP has come to express itself across a range of novels in the 21st century. Finally, I’ll examine what kind of attention the ELP demands. I want to show how the ELP, among other things, has served as a response, of sorts, to our distracted age—and to highlight not so much the inevitable death of the novel as the novel’s capacity to take root in even the harshest terrain and find a way, not despite but because of this harshness, to flourish.


In an interview with Reuters in 2010, Philip Roth expressed despair at emerging technology’s effect on reading: “The concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence, all the things that are required for serious reading are not within people’s reach anymore,” he said. “Now it is the multiple screens and there is no competing against it.”

Will Self, writing in 2014, echoed this sentiment: “If you accept that [within 20 years] the vast majority of text will be read in digital form on devices linked to the web,” he writes, “do you also believe that those readers will voluntarily choose to disable that connectivity? If your answer to this is no, then the death of the novel is sealed out of your own mouth.” For Self, the answer to this question is clearly no: the death of the novel is sealed.

In 2016, Jonathan Safran Foer added to the chorus, arguing that “[n]ovels demand many things of readers, but the most obvious is attention.” “The more distracted we become, and the more emphasis we place on speed at the expense of depth,” he writes, “the less likely and able we are to care.”

And Tim Parks declared that now “every moment of serious reading has to be fought for, planned for.” He decried the “state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction.”

The consensus here is that the novel is under threat, primarily because 21st-century technology makes it hard for us to read. Ever-present distraction is impacting our capacity for “[t]he concentration, the focus, the solitude, the silence” (Roth), and the “attention” (Foer) required for “serious reading” (Roth), “serious fiction” (Parks), “deep” reading (Self), or “devot[ing] oneself to the book” (Foer). I can’t say for sure what any of these authors mean by “serious” or “deep” reading. Parks singles out Karl Ove Knausgård to compare his work unfavorably to “the serious fiction of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.” The relationship between reading and cognitive capacities has been in both flux and contention at least since the time of Plato (see Phaedrus), so the idea of a singular, static notion of what counts as “serious” reading is, of course, highly questionable. Matthew Rubery, in his 2022 book Reader’s Block: A History of Reading Differences, does a great job of exposing the sheer diversity of ways of reading (making mention, most memorably, of the savant Kim Peek, who could read two pages at once—one with each eye). While I do not know how my ADHD would be different in another technological age, I am certain that I would read in ways that might seem strange to anyone neurotypical. So, one could uncharitably dismiss these authors by way of the vagueness and apparent subjectivity by which they define what’s under threat. But—giving these authors the benefit of the doubt—we can still say that new technologies affect, in one way or another, such a large portion of the populace that they likely do have a widespread effect on how people read, even if this might manifest differently for different kinds of readers. What all these authors agree on is that this effect is a bad one for good reading.

It is worth mentioning, as Alice Bennett does in her 2018 book Contemporary Fictions of Attention: Reading and Distraction in the Twenty-First Century, that these complaints aren’t limited to famous authors. The critics Alan Jacobs, David L. Ulin, and Maggie Jackson have all produced in-depth work that, like the views of Roth, Self, and Foer, “conceives of attention in crisis, with difficulty reading its primary symptom” (as Bennett puts it). While these works contain sophisticated arguments, my purpose in bringing up Roth et al. is to highlight a general malaise in literary land, a catastrophic sense that our current conditions have broken our brains, putting fiction in its death throes.

Thomas Bernhard did not invent the ELP. Prototypes exist in the last section of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and the beginning of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy (1951). Both books offer an example of an unusually long paragraph, but the fact that these books also include plenty of paragraphs of conventional size—i.e., the fact that their total number of paragraphs cannot easily be counted—means that they don’t quite count as examples of the ELP as here understood. The earliest well-known example of the ELP is in The Gates of Paradise (1960) by Polish author Jerzy Andrzejewski, which at 162 pages includes only two paragraphs (each only a sentence long), the latter of which is only five words. The next is in Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (1964) by Czech author Bohumil Hrabal, which at 117 pages includes no chapter or paragraph breaks and consists of only one sentence.

Between these novels and the arrival of Bernhard’s work in the 1970s, there are few if any other examples of the ELP, certainly not enough to cite a trend. Bernhard, however, was obsessed with the technique. His novels Yes (1978), The Cheap-Eaters (1980), Wittgenstein’s Nephew (1982), Concrete (1982), The Loser (1983), Woodcutters (1984), Old Masters: A Comedy (1985), and Extinction (1986) each consist of only one paragraph; Correction (1975) consists of two; and the memoir Gathering Evidence (1985) consists of only five. Among his long-form prose works, then, it is only the early works On the Mountain (composed in 1959, published in 1989), Frost (1963), Gargoyles (1967), and The Lime Works (1970) that don’t use the technique (although the earliest of the four, On the Mountain, while broken into verse, still consists of only one sentence).

So, it would be a tall claim to divorce the 21st-century novels that use the ELP from Bernhard’s influence. I have already quoted what W. G. Sebald, whose masterpiece Austerlitz (2001) consists of only one paragraph, has said about Bernhard’s influence. In an online interview, Lucy Ellmann, whose Goldsmiths Prize–winning Ducks, Newburyport (2019) serves as an edge case for the ELP (it consists ostensibly of one single-sentence paragraph interrupted by multiple short interludes), placed Bernhard second in a list of her top six authors, saying that he “changed the direction of the novel.” Mark Haber, author of the one-paragraph-long Reinhardt’s Garden (2019), told an interviewer that if a reader compares Haber’s work to Bernhard’s, it is “the biggest compliment in the world.” Bernhard’s influence on him, he says, “is unmistakable, I wear it proudly.” David Albahari, author of the one-paragraph-long Leeches (2011) is also explicit about Bernhard’s influence on him, particularly with respect to his use of the ELP: “Thomas Bernhard had a huge influence on me in terms of the form of the novel,” he told an interviewer at The Arts Fuse. “Almost all my novels are written in one uninterrupted paragraph.” László Krasznahorkai, meanwhile, whose novels tend to use very few paragraphs and whose novella The Last Wolf (released in English translation in 2016) consists of only one, has admitted that Bernhard’s work “made a very deep impression” on him. Finally, Horacio Castellanos Moya’s single-paragraph novel Revulsion (1997) shows Bernhard’s influence even in its subtitle: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador.

Other novels that use the technique include By Night in Chile (2000) by Roberto Bolaño, Zone (2008) by Mathias Énard, SPRAWL (2018) by Danielle Dutton, Dead Souls (2021) by Sam Riviere, Lorem Ipsum (2021) by Oli Hazzard, The Hole by José Revueltas (1969, published in English translation in 2018), and Chinatown (2005) by Thuận. Each of these novels exhibits examples of the ELP. That’s 12 novels so far, and I haven’t found them all. In the 1980s, Bernhard was responsible for pretty much every novel that uses the ELP. For the decade after Bernhard’s death in 1989, I only know of the ELP’s appearance in the works of W. G. Sebald, whose most dramatic use, in Austerlitz, arrived in 2001. The ELP, then, appears to be taking off in the 21st century.

I want to point out, however, that, while they share the ELP, these authors are all doing their own thing. Their nationalities range across the United States, Serbia, Hungary, El Salvador, Chile, Vietnam, the United Kingdom, and France. Their books’ subject matters range from historical fiction (Reinhardt’s Garden) to political satire (By Night in Chile) to a sendup of the UK poetry scene (Dead Souls) to a story about a woman making pies while despairing over the future of the United States (Ducks, Newburyport). While diehard fans of Bernhardian writing surely follow many of them, these authors do not otherwise share a unitary audience: Bolaño and Ellman have written bestsellers and won major prizes, while Riviere and Hazzard are publishing with smaller presses and reaching relatively niche audiences.

So what, exactly, apart from intimidating the poor reader who casually picks up one of these books in a store, is the ELP doing? And what do long paragraphs have to do with technology and attention?


The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a paragraph as “a short part of a text, consisting of at least one sentence and beginning on a new line. It usually deals with a single event, description, idea, etc.”

To simplify and minimize repetition, I’ll use the word idea to include events, descriptions, and whatever else a paragraph might present as a unified whole. I will also assume that, while multiple paragraphs may contain multiple ideas, these ideas can themselves form a unity, a single idea made of smaller ideas. The ELP as used by Bernhard and his followers is unusual for more than just its length. Bernhard’s texts often span a wide array of events across two or more narrative timelines, and while he may repeat and undermine the same idea within an individual sentence, his books are packed with a multitude of ideas. This is true of all books that deploy the ELP: it is simply not possible (I think this is obvious) to write something of a novel’s length that does not contain multitudes.

Paragraphs aid readers. Paragraphs help readers navigate texts. A common skim-reading method involves reading just the first and last sentence of each paragraph; from this alone, the reader can touch upon most of the text’s core ideas and acquire a general understanding of its content.

Paragraphs also offer readers places to start, pause, and stop. A paragraph break signals to the reader that there will likely be a shift in idea between one paragraph and the next, even if the paragraphs combined do, together, present a larger idea. If a reader breaks off reading in the middle of a paragraph, before its idea has been fully expressed, it is more likely that they will have to start at the beginning of the paragraph upon returning to the text—not at the exact point at which they last left off. It is easier to start at the beginning of a discrete section than to pick something up midway. Someone could point out here that the same could be said about stopping anywhere on a page or in a chapter, which themselves may consist of a single (larger) idea. The difference is that one can return midway through something if it is already broken into smaller discrete parts.

Once the reader reaches the end of a paragraph, it is likewise a convenient place to pause and consider the paragraph as a whole or to take a break. It makes sense for a reader to use the signposts that an author offers them. Thus, the reader will have an incentive to read the end of whatever paragraph they are reading before ending a reading session. The flip side of this is that the reader has available to them many suitable places to stop, should they wish to focus their attention elsewhere (and it is easy to see how this can make sustained reading difficult in a context of constant distraction).

This may all seem a bit obvious, but it can help us understand what happens when an author uses the ELP.

Firstly, a reader will likely find the text harder to read: not only does it exclude a convention designed to make it easier to navigate but the reader must also adjust to a manner of reading they are unaccustomed to. Despite the proliferation of novels that use the ELP, there are still relatively few, so the demand to adapt to a different form of writing will mostly apply even to readers who enjoy reading work that uses the technique.

Secondly, a reader no longer has access to any suggestions from the author as to where breaks may exist between ideas. They will thus have to discern these breaks for themselves. But how? How will they know if the author wants to signal the end of one thing and the beginning of another? The answer is—unless the author makes an explicit statement to signal a break, which is not something I have seen much in the books under discussion—that they won’t. A reader can’t know if the next sentence will bring something to completion until they read the next sentence. “[I]n order to draw a limit to thinking, we should have to think both sides of this limit,” Ludwig Wittgenstein writes in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921). A paragraph break, which allows us to glance beyond it without having to read beyond it, serves as a tool for seeing the other side of a limit. With no paragraph breaks, there is no way to see the other side of the limit until one reaches the blank space that marks the book’s end.

The author has therefore robbed the reader of a means of deciding upon suitable moments in the text to take a break. If an idea is incomplete, a reader who stops reading may have to go back to an earlier part of the text to pick it up again. But choosing a suitable place to start, in this context, will be just as difficult as choosing a suitable place to stop. The clearest solution, then, is for a reader to read in chunks large enough that they feel confident they can, when picking the book up again, be able to carry on with relative ease. The smaller the section the reader reads, the more likely it is that they will leave mid-idea and will have to find the idea’s beginning again when they return.

If a reader, therefore, wants to succeed—and hopefully enjoy—a book that has no or very few paragraph breaks, they’re incentivized to read it in sizable chunks. Regular breaks present an obstacle to reading, since they could trap a reader in a cycle of backtracking and rereading in order to get up to speed. Moreover, if the reader wants to engage with complete ideas, they have a strong incentive to keep on reading, since it is hard to be sure—unless the author, again, makes it explicit in the content—when an idea, event, or description is complete. I won’t go so far as to say that this is the only way to read the ELP; for some readers, it may be necessary to find alternative strategies. Still, the assumption that this method represents a common approach to reading the ELP is far stronger than the assumption that the modes of attention required for this approach are, owing to technology, no longer possible. The ELP, at a minimum, demands that we put technology aside, at least enough to avoid getting lost. At best, it offers an opportunity for a reader to do exactly what the critics of 21st-century reading capacities say we can no longer do: leave distractions aside and commit to the text. This is one—although certainly not all—of the reasons I keep coming back to the text: first, because I know I have to turn my devices off if I’m to have any hope of enjoyment, and second, because the nature of the paragraph, through the mechanisms described above, locks me in.

In his New York Review essay, Tim Parks argues that one of the most insidious effects of 21st-century technology on attention “is not simply that one is interrupted; it is that one is actually inclined to interruption.” Perhaps this technology does in general affect people’s inclination towards interruption—and to read with such an inclination, I must add, is not, in my opinion, a less valid or “serious” form of reading. The ELP, however, as shown above, asks the interested reader to suspend this inclination. Since the ELP allows no explicit division between ideas on the page, it asks that the reader take an active role in making their own decisions about where one idea ends and another begins. It allows, and this can be seen when just reading a few pages of Bernhard, ideas to blur into one another. Excluding paragraph breaks can even give an author unique ways of blurring speakers into one another.

So where does this leave claims that new technologies will bring about the end of the novel? Are Roth, Self, Parks, and the rest merely throwing a collective millenarian fit? Not quite. I think they are right to point at some of the challenges these technologies pose to deeply attentive reading. With so much media competing for our attention, it is also fair to say that the overall amount of time a person might devote to reading novels is under threat. What these arguments overshadow, however, is the novel’s versatility, its capacity to bend in form and adapt to the particular problems of its day. Recent proliferation of the ELP shows the novel responding to its threats by offering, within itself, a tool through which readers can resist the habits that modern technologies otherwise force upon them.


Thalia Williamson’s nonfiction has appeared in The Audacity, Joyland, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Bard Review, and Longreads. She has an MFA from UC Riverside and is a PhD candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Southern California.


Featured image: Morton Livingston Schamberg. Painting (formerly Machine), 1916. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Collection Société Anonyme. Photo: Yale University Art Gallery., CC0. Accessed February 13, 2023.

LARB Contributor

Thalia Williamson’s nonfiction has appeared in The Audacity, Joyland, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Bard Review, and Longreads. Her writing has received support from Tin House, the Marius DeBrabant Fund, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. She was a finalist for the 2023 Brink Literary Journal Award for Hybrid Writing and a semifinalist for the 2022 Sewanee Review Fiction Contest. She has an MFA from UC Riverside and is a PhD candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Southern California.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!