WHEW. Back to the reading rages after what seems like about a million years, give or take a million. How are you guys? Did you miss me? I MISSED YOU.
Today’s topic is one I had planned for last week, but then the thing happened, and I don’t know, and now it’s this week so I’m writing it now. What’s kind of fun is that, if I had written it last week like I planned, it would have coincided with this post by Amanda over at Book Riot (go read it after you read this post, it’s a hoot and a half), which touches on a similar topic–a topic, in fact, that concerns us all very deeply.
The death of literature.
Yes, my friends, those who are in the know say that literature is dying. Quality writing gasps its last tortured breaths while obviously inferior works like Twilight and The DaVinci Code and most anything by Stephen King rush in to take its place. Why, it’s really only a matter of time before bookstores will be half Harlequin romance, a third paranormal horror, and Tom Clancy filling the rest, with nary a Faulkner or an Austen to be found. In a few decades, James Patterson and Danielle Steele will be taught in schools, and the next generation of writers will be little more than drooling, furiously-masturbating penmonkeys who couldn’t define symbolism if their lives depended on it and are only good for writing sex scenes and violence.
(has a fit of uncontrollable coughing)
Sorry, I always choke on bullshit.
According to Amanda over at Book Riot, there’s a man who thinks that the death of good literature is my fault. And your fault. Basically, every book blogger’s fault, and hell, while we’re at it, let’s just blame all readers, too–after all, if “readable” books are displacing “literature,” I guess everyone who has ever bought a “readable” book has some measure of culpability. The man in question is Sir Peter Stothard, an editor for The Times Literary Supplement. While he thinks it’s “wonderful” that we all have our little sites, talking about our reading and so forth, we’re not on the level of real critics; if we are allowed to run wild, suggesting books for people to read and talking about said books, why, we’re going to ensure that no actually good books are ever read and literature as we know it will die off. Because, you know. We should only be getting book recommendations from professionals who actually know what good books are.
Can you hear that? It’s the sound of the world’s saddest violin playing for Sir Peter Stothard. I believe it’s being played by Itzhak Perlman.
Book bloggers are, of course, just the latest in a long chain of scapegoats being blamed for the death of literature. And let’s get real, literature isn’t even dying–changing, yes, but not dying. Hand-wringers like Sir Peter talk about the death of literature in the same way that our parents fretted over that rock-and-roll (or rap or industrial or whatever) “noise” that we’re listening to, or we fret over those morons on reality television; but, to be fair, there has been quite a change in the past century or so in publishing. Books went from being revered and a bit rare to being cheap and common. What happened? What gives?
If anything is “killing” literature, it’s fairly simple to pinpoint exactly what has happened: more people started reading books.
That’s it. I mean, that’s the whole thing. More people started reading books.
Combine a rise in literacy with the 1930′s innovation of mass-market paperbacks pioneered by Penguin and others, plus the publication of pulp fiction magazines preceding even that, and you’ve got yourself a winning formula for people reading solely for entertainment. And why not? Books are inexpensive, they give you hours of enjoyment, they’re quiet, they’re portable, and you can keep them forever if you want. It’s no secret to us, of all people, that books really do make the perfect entertainment.
Like all entertainment, there are . . . grades, you might say, of books. Some people like to read books that challenge their minds; some like to read books that provide thrilling and/or racy stories; some like to read books that take them to distant lands, or even distant planets; some people like a mix of “thinking” books and “junk” books. What’s more, we now have cheap publishing options to help put as many of all of these kinds of books into the hands of consumers as they can read; hell, you can even publish books digitally now. Publishers, rather than being the “gatekeepers” and preservers of literary culture that they claim to be, are really quite the opposite: they’re out there grabbing up as much content as they can, and they don’t care if it’s 15-year-olds writing steamy romance novels or epic fantasies about dragons, or middle-aged women living out their raunchiest fantasies in 75,000 words or less. Book about a girl in a love triangle with a werewolf and a vampire? You said it did well in the focus groups? Let’s put that baby to bed, motherfuckers! Large publishers are all about the benjamins, and there are MANY BENJAMINS in selling crappy books. (Hey, despite an overall increase in literacy, there’s still no accounting for taste.)
What Sir Peter doesn’t seem to realize is that he’s a book nerd, and nerds occupy a very special area of the continuum of enjoyment. It’s a very small area, and if you look closely, you can see that it has a wedgie but still manages to look superior and self-satisfied. (He claims that he’s only ever seen six films in his entire life because he loves reading so much. That’s a special brand of nerdism.) The hand-wringing starts when people like Sir Peter see “other” books start polluting the literary pool. We’re all quite well-meaning, they’re sure, but we really shouldn’t be allowing such trash to be published or encouraging it by buying the books or talking about them on the internet. We’re just not qualified.
I have sad news for the supernerds bemoaning the “downfall” of literature: you’re never going to be able to put this bus in reverse. Even the people who make books aren’t on your side; they’ll give you a pat on the head and pretend to commiserate, then go back to making fat cash selling the newest Stephen King or Nora Roberts, or putting up insane advances to get the next book by Snooki secured at their press. I have happy news, though, too: as long as people are putting pen (or keyboard) to paper, there will always be literature. Great literature, even. It won’t look like your grandpa’s literature, but it will be there. And as long as it is there, there will be discourse by learnéd people about literature. And I’ll tell you a secret: not all of the bloggers out there are telling people to read “bad books.” To think that is absurd. Sorry, Sir Peter. But it is.
What do you think, book fans? Is literature, in fact, dying? Are book bloggers preserving literary culture or ruining it? Did you know that you were playing a part in the downfall of ALL OF LITERATURE? Drop those comments like they’re a steamy Harlequin romance heroine.