Saturday, July 10, 2004

Literature Still Rules

There is a debate on Critical Mass about what it is that goes on in literature departments.

It's part of a long (endless, really) debate about the "decline" of literature in global culture. The latest log on the fire is the recent NEA study (covered by McLemee in the Chronicle) showing that Americans are reading fewer books, and considerably less literature.

I think the terms of the lament are sometimes a little confused. Some people see the problem as rampaging political correctness in English departments. Even when literature is taught, these critics allege, it is taught "in the wrong way."

Others (more realististically) see the overwhelming spread of the commercial mass media as to blame. Still, even this argument has some holes in it. TV, the movies, and popular music have been around for a long time. And while their spread has probably had some negative impact on the bottom line of booksellers since 1950 (the beginning of the TV era), the market for fiction continues to be relatively healthy, if not exactly robust.

The internet may actually facilitate the invention and popularization of new kinds of writing. "Hypertext" has turned out to be a bit of a bust, but things like fan-fiction have taken off, mainly through the internet. Moreover, there are a number of people out there who are using blogs to express themselves creatively. Clearly, there's more to come.

There's also the interesting (and I think, growing) synergy between the popular cinema and the world of fiction. In the comments on Critical Mass, I posted this:

[To say that literature is changing is not] the same as saying it's dying, or even that it's declining significantly. Literature is changing, as it must, but I think it's still very vital. I'm also optimistic that imaginative writing in some form (perhaps not always in books) will always be there. For example, note the number of commercially successful movies that are based on books -- that is synergy, and it reflects well on the continuing centrality of literature to our culture. Popular books like Harry Potter are not just glorified screenplays; they are more than that. That they become successful movies reflects well on their authors as well as a culture that recognizes a good story when it sees it.

This might seem like an unusual position for an English professor to take. But I stand by it. Admittedly, many Hollywood blockbusters come from imaginative sources that are not exactly literary. But science fiction and fantasy writers -- Phillip K. Dick and J.K. Rowling supreme among them -- are extremely competitive in the marketplace of stories and images that are considered new, provocative, and yes, commercially viable.

Expect the good ideas and good stories to continue to be mined by the Weinsteins and co. Also, expect people to keep trying to come up with good stories to sell. Ideally, people would write just to tell a good story, and sometimes books (like Cold Mountain and The English Patient) lose something as books once the movies come out. Moreover, capitalism is not always kind to writers that try to do something that isn't flashy enough to be commercial (though you never know -- look at Susan Orlean). But that's the system we have. Literature has a place in it, and I think that will continue to be the case. People should look less at the NEA's statistics and more at the dynamic nature of the market...

About how English departments might respond to these cultural changes (especially the internet), I offered this suggestion:

Interestingly, the creative writing classes in my department are always overflowing -- even if people are apparently reading fewer books on the whole, there sure are many young people want to try their hand at writing them! [Perhaps it represents a cultural shift to a Do-it-yourself mentality?] Thus, one proposal I have for reinvigorating excitement about literary study is to expand the teaching of writing, but NOT in order to produce more interpretive/theoretical papers. Rather, I think English depts. should expand their teaching of creative writing, imaginative non-fiction, and journalism.

In other words, if the overwhelming presence of the internet means people spend less time reading books, it nevertheless seems to mean that ordinary people spend more time than ever before writing. Some just write emails. Others only write goofy blogs. But throughout, what matters is that millions and millions of people are writing, writing, writing, every day and all the time. English departments, if they do their job right, can make that side of contemporary life more rewarding for the writers (not to mention easier to stomach -- for the readers!).


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