I recently participated in a discussion on a Goodreads forum re: ‘the future of reading’, or where literature is headed, yadda yadda. It was prompted by an article that appeared, somewhere, where the writer very pompously derided the majority of the reading public and prophesied the downfall of literature as we know it, based on his observations of the types of fare that book clubs tend to choose for their discussions (eg. 50 Shades, and such).
But now again I can’t find the article – it’s buried somewhere in the Goodreads forums, but I can’t remember where, and a quick search proved unfruitful, so you’re basically just going to have to rely on me telling you that the gist of his article was: modern readers are stupid, the world is ending.
So here’s the thing … he’s half-right. The concept of ‘literature,’ or literary fiction, as we know it, is definitely changing, and many modern readers simply don’t read it; this does not mean the end of learning or the end of enlightened thought, however, because other mediums have taken up the job that literature used to serve. Although before I get into that argument, I guess I should back up and give the background. Back back.
While even what we would consider literary classics were often created very much with the market in mind, literary writers (and here I mean from the 19th c. on, since that’s what I’m most familiar with) are still always trying to say something relevant about something. I’ve always considered the hallmark of a literary work to be subtext – if a book isn’t saying many things at once, or using themes, symbolism or metaphor to make a grander point about something, it’s not literary fiction. Readers of literary fiction, geeks that we are, are always looking for this subtext while we churn through a book. That’s sort of the point. That’s what gave rise to deconstructionism. This is what’s basically expected from ‘literature,’ this is what writers have done for hundreds of years, this is what readers and critics have come to expect, and this is what has enthroned masterpieces and discarded the rest.
And this was good. Writers were the superstars of their age. They were often the most forward thinking, the trailblazers, the agents for social change. If you wanted to know what the intelligenstia were agitating for, you read the literature they were reading. If you want sociological treatises on the age, you read the literature of that age (think Austin, Zola, Hardy, or Orwell).
Let’s take Nineteen Eighty-Four as an example. Orwell took what was happening in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in the 1930s and extrapolated from that on what a dystopian future under those systems would look like. The book acts as a warning on what could befall society if personal freedoms and democratic processes are not protected at all costs. He accurately predicted the military/industrial complex and warned against it, and now whenever we see things like this we use his terminology (Big Brother, double-speak, etc). He also accurately predicted that the music of the ‘future’ would be constructed solely by machines and have no redeeming value whatsoever (eg. Auto-tune and the Beib – though that was just him being cynically clever). But, anyway, I hope you see my point about books like this as capital-L literature and how they helped to frame the cultural discussion of the time.
Do we have such books being written now? Sure. Does anyone know what they are? Well, if you look at recent lists of ‘The Top Books of the 21st Century (So Far)’, a lot of the lauded books tend to fall under the ‘examination of the current sociological malaise’ heading (I’m thinking The Corrections), or else magical realism, which is often purely entertainment (though intelligent entertainment), or else apocalyptic fiction, which is different from dystopian fiction and speculative, but often in a limited way. But it’s going to become much, much harder for any book to gain cultural prominence in a literary sense simply because the market is increasingly moving to a self-publish/self-distribute model, which means a very fragmented reading base; plus it’s going much more commercial (genre) than it ever was; and also, people just don’t look to literature for that ‘enlightening’ purpose anymore.
We’ve got so many other ways to educate ourselves now, in so many different areas, that literature doesn’t really have to serve that purpose anymore. There are movies, magazines, the internet, Ted talks, etc. etc., not to mention non-fiction, of which there wasn’t really much of a market for until the last few decades. People would rather get their ideas straight up now, I think, instead of having to deconstruct a text. Which makes sense, I suppose; it’s quicker and easier. So that’s why the writer that I mention at the beginning of this post was only half-right – he accurately predicts the downfall of lit. fic, but he’s wrong to assert that ‘thinking’ is going to go downhill with it. Most of the best thinkers simply work in different mediums now. But then what of literary fiction?
Well, I don’t know. I set out writing this post with the intention to defend lit. fic. and say it’s still hugely important etc, but now I’m realizing it’ll probably just fall into a sort of esoteric entertainment for bookish geeks who love deconstruction and searching for subtext.
Which is sort of what it was way, way back before it became socially important anyway. Full circle. Interesting.