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« Growing Pains | Main | Web Surfing »

April 03, 2003

Another Posting I'll Never Get Around to Writing

Friedrich --

A posting I've been planning to write for so long that I've finally become certain I never will get around to it...

It concerns how I think the web is remaking reading and writing, and how that's likely to affect the place of literature in the larger culture. Short version: as the traditional prof-and-critic-and-editor class loses its exclusive grip on how the arts are discussed and how tastes and standards are defined, the general public (and the lit world itself) will find it impossible to avoid confronting how little most people like what passes for lit these days. How little time they have for it, how little interest they have in it, etc. Lit types up till now have fought these facts. With the web all around them, they'll come to accept that, in the larger scheme of things, lit just doesn't matter that much, that it's just a specialist taste and activity. And -- a Blowhard prediction here -- eventually literary reading and writing will take a new place in the culture -- no longer as something special and above, but as a niche market instead.

I'm betting that's going to happen with all the fine arts, come to think of it. But there's yet another posting I'll probably never get around to writing. Damn.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at April 3, 2003




Comments

I personally think it has to do with TV and the paucity of anything requiring half a brain cell on that medium. Or anything requiring more than a 30 second attention span. Or anything that requires that difficult thing--sustained thought.

Deb

Posted by: Deb on April 4, 2003 10:07 AM



Michael,

I think it already IS a niche market or genre. I think as a genre it ranks in popularity and influence somewhere below the "gender feminist science fiction androgyny dsytopia" genre and above "piercing social novel translated from the original French" genre. (Note: that's not a gratuitous swipe du jour at the French, btw. I still get my French Fries from McDonald's just like everyone else.) And a new, better high lit will takes its place. Especially once we're past post-modernism.


Deb,

That complaint has been made for decades now, and I don't think it's proven itself to be true. If it were, Walmart or grocery stores wouldn't carry books. My local grocery store has an entire end-display (those that are plugged onto the end of an aisle) of popular "serious" fiction, and this is at the end of an entire aisle of pop novels.

Also, if what you say were true, the most attention-span-challenged of us all - the video game crowd - wouldn't be able to write a sentence. Some of the most eloquent folks on the web are writing with calloused thumbs caused by thousands of man-hours spent pawing Nintendo control pads. See James Lileks and the Bleat, for one. (Disclaimer: I myself have never enjoyed video games, so I don't count myself in that group.)

No, the real problem is the writer who insults the sustained effort it requires to read a book by boring us - or worse, condescending to us. The snotty, loftier-than-thou tone of "high literature" has begun to seep into movies, like "About Schmidt" and "The Hours" where it will be sanitized in the bleach of public dismissal. I know the Academy liked those films, but nearly no one else did.

What currently passes for "lit-trah-chure" will whither in the harsh light that exists outside the dank classrooms of many (but not all thank God) English profs. as Michael predicts.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on April 4, 2003 11:23 AM



The Academy's functions regarding the literary world include (1) developing notions of approved taste, (2) indoctrinating college students with approved taste, (3) identifying new literary production that meets with that approved taste, (4) advertising or helping publishers to advertise such new literary productions and (5) providing financial subsidies, like creative writing teaching gigs to approved producers. While I can see the Internet community mounting a challenge to this model in areas (1), (3) and (4), the Academy continues to control (2) and (5) exclusively, and has significant organizational and financial advantages in area (1). I would guess that the Academy will continue to exert a strong (and regrettably dominant) influence in high literary tastemaking unless a credible challenge to its prestige can be mounted by the Internet community in area (1). If that center of gravity (as von Clauswitz would describe it) would fall, it would hasten the erosion of the rest.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 4, 2003 11:55 AM



Michael,

You should consider tackling the subject incrementally. Looks as though the size of your imagined post has snow balled to an unwieldy size ... becoming too daunting a task. Seems you're using this post as more a means to bury the topic from sight than to explore it.

Well, you've only managed to agitate my salivary glands ... and it's a sad thing to walk around like a drooling, big mouth bass that caught oral blue balls off the web.

What a shame that a topic that has clung to your skull's innards this long shouldn't find a more dignified end. I like where your thinking is going, and I would love to here it fleshed out further.

I suspect you may be fishing for reader interest on the subject before committing. If so, I'll confirm: it's well worth the effort.

Posted by: -pinky- on April 4, 2003 12:22 PM



Hey Deb, I may have been misleading or unclear in my posting: I actually think this is, generally speaking, a good thing, and I look forward to more of it making its way to the surface. You're raising a couple of interesting and provocative topics, though -- why does the toppling of high-lit off its pedestal seem to be accompanied by a general fragmenting of concentration and attention? Is there a direct connection between the two phenom, do you think?

Hey Yahmdallah -- Couldn't agree with you more. In a de facto way, new-high-lit writing has been a genre for some time now. What it seems to me still hasn't happened is this: that most people (you, me and a few other excepted) haven't realized it yet. I still run into lots of people who think that literary fiction writing is a higher, more important thing than other kinds of fiction writing. But maybe I move among stuffy reactionaries. How do you find that your friends and acquaintances see it? What's heartening to me about the web is how many people read, love reading, read a lot, are smart and canny about what they read, and how much more open they are to pleasure and talent than the stuffy lit-world establishment people. Eventually, I hope, the old hierarchies will be totally washed away. I actually like some lit-world writing, for what little that's worth. I just can't stand the snobbery and claims to exclusivity. Are there lit-world writers you do get a kick out of?

Friedrich -- Nice analysis! Care to lead the charge? Or at least advise the troops occasionally?

Hi Pinky -- You're too kind, thanks. I sometimes (often, really) find it much easier to collect a thought or two about topics I only semi-care about than about topics that super-interest me. So most of the time I just wimp out of dealing with the pressing issues. What current fiction authors are you reading with most pleasure these days?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 4, 2003 12:39 PM



Chuck Palahniuk's "Choke" and "Lullaby" were fun rides.

Dennis Cooper's "Period" ... although I wouldn't call that pleasure inducing (at all) as much as providing sheer impact.

Stephen King's "Everything's Eventual" short stories were surprisingly good (never a big fan).

... and bedtime reading to my son:

Neil Gaiman's "Coraline" with wonderful illustrations by Dave McKean

"Abarat" by Clive Barker. Saturated with lush paintings by the author.

Kids are a good excuse to read some wonderful things.

Posted by: -pinky- on April 4, 2003 01:45 PM



My hands are a mess. I defy anyone to identy which bumps and lumps are from PS2, which are from big damn hardback books, and which are from gardening tools.

By the way, is there a name for the little-finger cramp caused by holding a book open with one hand?

Posted by: j.c. on April 4, 2003 01:52 PM



Yahmdallah,
I know the complaint about TV has been around for decades. I still think it is true. I think this because 1) I've looked at the books in Walmart, Target and the grocery stores--Walmart carries particularly awful stock. The grocery store's are dusty with lack of interest. 2) I have had regular folks tell me on a regular basis that books are "too wordy" or "too hard" or "require too much of my attention." These are the same folks who talk about what the latest talk show host said and what is going to happen on the latest episode of Survivor. Granted, I dont get much contact with "intellectal" types living in rural Wisconsin, which only really makes my point more valid. Outside of the highly educated circles, books and reading in general are in decline...which I maintain is partially due to the crap on T.V. I think as a nation we have become intellectually lazy.

I would also suggest that those writers on the web who express themselves well and have those calloused thumbs from playing video games also learned their basic skills prior to the advent of video games. Talk to a high school kid who does nothing but play games on a computer versus one who reads for pleasure.

I may be wrong. Tell me why...

Michael,

Sorry I misunderstood--that was my lack of careful reading. I mistook "High Literature" for "Thoughtful, Well Written Books." The two are very distinct in my mind, though they may overlap. I spent way too much time in college, back in the stone ages, listening to professors tell me why stuff that bored me to tears was literature with a big L to really take any of it seriously. The good books will last and the dreck will fade into delightful obscurity which not even niche marketing will be able to sustain.

How High Lit losing ground and fragmenting of concentration are related, you ask? I think it is much,much more complex than simply saying it's the influence of the web on writing and reading in the general public.

I am watching public school educate my kids and what they are getting in core subjects is scary. Ex. Shakespeare is taught in an abridged Americanized version because these kids cant understand the language otherwise. Yikes! Ex. I took an art class from a college grad student who couldnt accurately place the decade the Civil War was fought in--1880's is not the correct answer. She WAS pretty sure Lincoln was president at the time but then she was also pretty sure Lee was the North's major general during the war. That's just one example. I can keep going.... And that's just education!

Deb

Posted by: Deb on April 4, 2003 05:36 PM



I couldn't find the story on the website, but there was a fascinating story a few days ago in the Times about how publishers have only recently begun to understand how popular classic literature is. Since books in the public domain are published in so many editions, no one publisher has had figures on total sales. But with the latest book seller's databases, you can finally aggreagate all the data. It turns out that "Pride and Predjudice", for example, sells over 100,000 copies a year! And that's just in general bookstores, since the databases don't include college bookstores.

Think about that: over 100,000 new copies of Jane Austen bought, year in and year out, by people who aren't being forced to read it. I think the market for "Literary Novels" is vaster than anyone dreams - but the new stuff just isn't getting a piece of it...

Posted by: jimbo on April 4, 2003 07:43 PM



On the subject of fine arts, my opinion:

Does anyone really believe that the contemporary fine art market is anything more than collectibles for the well-healed, little more socially redeeming than Elvisania and about as relevant as Precious Moments figurines? Critical validation snipped from art magazines and laundry lists of previous shows in tony galleries impart provenance amounting to certificates of authenticity from the Franklin Mint. Read a review some time, they're sheer jargon-laden gibberish justifying the unjustifiable, the auction price. Picasso had the number of the art glossers, "People who try to explain pictures are barking up the wrong tree." The bottom line is the only thing that really stirs the public imagination, "Someone paid THAT for THIS?"

Today's art isn't earmarked to grace grand cathedral spaces instructing and uplifting the great unwashed. It is price marked to festoon the awesome spaces of corporate lobbies impressing the grey-suited, over-groomed, corporate everyman. It's decor to bedeck the vast wall spaces over overstuffed chairs in the great rooms of bigfoot houses. Often as not the most important content is the signature at the bottom right of the canvas, rather like a check. The only statements made by art nowadays are financial.

Artists aren't seers so much as market analysts, the avante garde of the bread and circus parade, more navel grazing black sheep among the flock than bellweather. Nobody much cares beyond the immediate family elite. Face it, film and television provide the canvas for the Rembrants and Picassos of the age. Industrial Light and Magic and Ron Popiel define the zeitgeist, not painters and sculptors.

Am I a Philistine? Probably. Do I envy the income of the art elite? Definitely. Do I think modern art is a fraud? Not at all, but like every art form, most of it is mediocre to bad. My point is we should stop kidding ourselves, it's just pictures, some of it pleasing, some of it interesting, at times food for thought, but it ain't ambrosia.

Posted by: t m colon on April 5, 2003 01:38 PM



T M,

Thankyou for giving me the oppotunity to bring up my favourite artist: Jeff Koons. He was a commodity broker for 6 years, and therefore must be the best qualified of all Modern Artists.

I presonally find Picasso's art does nothing for me, and would rather look at a Koons anyday.

Art has always been a commodity. Just ask Gainborough (with special reference to Mr and Mrs Andrews). Vincent Van Gogh famously only sold one a painting in his lifetime, presumably because no one wanted them on their walls. Thomas Kinkade must sell thousands. Does that make him a a better artist than Van Gogh? Well, yes, it probably does. Although I think they're both rubbish.

Deb, shame on you for attacking Television like that. What did it ever do to you? Irresponsible parents are the ones to attack here surely? If there's crap on, turn it off and rent Fight Club on DVD. You're basing your findings on an exploratory tour of Wal-Mart? Is that a joke, or don't you have bookshops in the States?

I am currently reading 'The Pleasures and Pains of Opium' by Thomas de Quincey. Later, I may watch Quincy. While writing this 'A Day at the Races' is on TV and I'm reading the Observer.

Why does any creative media need a brow, high or low? What's wrong with just taking everything at face value and with an open mind?

By the way, my favourite authors are Will Self, Irvine Welsh, Bill Drummond (also another Art favourite) and Iain M Banks.

The point? Oh, yes. I think that if people are raising their kids to be broadminded and to question everytinhg, then the internet will prove to be fantastic resource and archive for all artforms, from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (current favourite video game) to Cervantes (I'm taking Don Quixote on holiday to France. Yes, that France).

Posted by: Jon Pardoe on April 6, 2003 09:10 AM



Jon, yes, it's really cool new thing we just discovered from trips abroad. Stores that just sell books ! What a marketing innovation ! Those Brits are just so clever. Now I dont have to go to Walmart to buy my books. And the selection is amazing!

The point was made in an earlier post that Walmart carrying books is evidence that reading is not in decline,in the States. I was responding.

And TV, at least in the States, deserves to be attacked. It's pure junk. Parents are irresponsible for not turning it off. So are the TV execs who use a medium that could be a forum for incredible things to feed the minds of Americans with mind numbing crap. Kids are the ones caught in the middle.

Deb

Posted by: Deb on April 6, 2003 10:49 AM



Deb

Apologies for not reading your post in context. I think I was just incensed by the TV comments. But are dusty books a sign that reading is in decline, or that people are using the specialist bookstores and buying online?

What about Frasier, Family Guy, The Simpsons, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Sopranos and 24? Admittedly not many of these are suitable for children, but then what is? Certainly not the news. And no amount of TV numbs my mind, much as I might like it to sometimes. It's not the TV execs that are the problem, it's Neilsen I'm afraid.

Posted by: Jon Pardoe on April 6, 2003 12:54 PM



Hey Pinky -- Great reading list, thanks. I loved "Coraline" -- good story, amazing art. (Visual books aren't given enough attention or recognition in the lit-and-publishing press, IMHO.) If I can pounce on your list for a sec, I think it's a good example of exactly what the lit elites and opinion-maker wannabes don't get -- which is how freely most readers read. A bit of this, a bit of that. We're often very open-minded and generous, while they keep trying to establish some kind of hierarchy of importance and worth. Which is a harmless and maybe even helpful activity -- until they start warring with each other, angling for positions, and trying to impose their hierarchies on the rest of us.

Much work yet to be done on how the careerism and ambitions of editors/critics/profs affect what gets reviewed and how it gets reviewed. For instance: I hung out in writing and publishing circles for 15 years, and seldom ran into people who really loved the writing of my pet peeves, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. Yet it's hard to think of two contempo writers who the industry pushes as hard as it pushes those two.

How to explain this? The industry strongly promotes the idea that these two are major, important, wonderful writers. Yet people in the industry, when speaking privately and freely, often confess that they don't like their work. So why Morrison? Why Rushdie?

I have some probably inadequate theories, which I'll try to articulate sometime. For now, I'll just say that my years hanging around publishing left me wanting to shout at people, Don't take them too seriously! They don't even believe in it themselves!

Hey Jimbo, thanks for the fascinating Jane Austen info. I hadn't run into those figures. I do remember an interesting similar figure, though, one that reinforces your point. When we think of books superstores, we think of new books, the stuff that's on display at the front of the store, conglomerates, big contracts, discounted bestsellers, etc, right? In fact, something like 80% of the books a superstore sells are "backlist" books -- ie., books that aren't new this season. In other words, there's a smattering of readers who're swayed by fashion or keen on keeping up, but most people come to to pursue their own interests.

Why all the emphasis on the flashy new books then? It's because those are the only book sales that can be affected by publicity. Jane Austen's going to sell 100,000 copies whether or not you put her in the front of the store or not, whether or not you put ads in the subway. But some new writer or some star writer? Their fortunes can really be affected by flash and p.r. So that's where the p.r. energy goes.

Hi TM, I'll go with you about 80% of the way. Or maybe more, actually. I rather like seeing art as (generally speaking) high-end luxury goods. It makes me feel more sane, seems to help quiet the usual pretentious din, and (for me, anyway) doesn't destroy the spell that good art can sometimes cast. For some people, seeing art that way would destroy its aura. Does it for you?

I'll let Deb and Jon beat each other up over TV. My p-o-v on it is that American TV is awful if you see it as something you unthinkingly turn on and watch, but quite wonderful if you see it as something you consciously use. In other words, there's a lot that's awfully good buried deep in the TV schedule, but it does take some time an energy to unearth it.

As for books, a few infuriatingly contradictory observations: Americans don't read much, and don't on average buy many books. Superstores can be awfully homogeneous, but in most cases are a lot better than what was there before. (My hometown, for instance, used to make do with a couple of pretty lousy indie bookstores. These days, there are at least 8 superstores in the general area, and bookstore lovers there tell me they're in pig heaven.) Given the superstores, and given Amazon, it's can be said that more books are more easily available to more people at better prices than ever before in all human history. Which is a very pleasant thought. Yet at the same time, people seem to be reading less, people who hire for companies tell me that kids with college degrees seem barely able to cobble together a couple of sentences, let alone a paragraph or two, and creative-writing-teacher friends have told me that their students not only haven't heard of Faulkner, they don't read novels generally. Why then do they want to write? Because they read in the newspaper about this author or that one who got a big contract.

Bizarre world. I wonder which direction things will go from here.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 7, 2003 02:51 AM



I, too, think that the academic stranglehold on high literary taste is on its way out, but it should be remembered that this is a fairly recent development. Even in my own antediluvian college dauy--in the mid 60s--my English professors didn't think they were whowing us what to value and why. They understood their task--properly, I think--to be to show us how to read more energetically and thoughtfully and critically then we came to them knowing how to do. And they recognized that the syllabus they chose for us to read was not created by professors but by generations of readers and (crucially) by generations of writers who had kept alive the traditions that ran back to Shakespeare or Milton or Dante--or even only as far back as Dickens--that kept those writers alive and in some degree contemporary for us. The mythical canon--in literature, music, art, whatever--is merely conserved by the academy; history creates it.

The academy didnt start to get uppity until the 70s, when it decided to reform the curriculum, to decide for itself--aan with the guidance of its benighted "theory"--which writers SHOULD be alive and contemporary. A fool's errand, but they are still at it--and wonder why no one wants to study literature anymore--or do so only because its study is now a game with easy rules to master and get a good rade for. Thus the web provides an alternative precisely at the time that many young people are looking for one.

Remember, too, that as recently as the interwar years, the great tastemaking critics--Edmund Wilson et al--were not academics. And even these folks didnt make taste on any enduring basis--they just got certain writers the initial attention that gave readers a chance to take them to heart. Malcolm Cowley almost single-handedly saved Faulkner from oblivion in the U.S. Without him, Faulkner would have likely suffered the same fate as Melville, who was virtually unread in the U.S. until the 20s & 30s.

And, finally, the writers who belong in the academic curriculum do appeal to ordinary folks. I have friends--cooks, surveyors, shopkeepers--who read Twain, Melville, Faulkner, and even Homer for pleasure.

I find myself often agreeing with your disdain for the sort of cultural guidance offered by the intellectual classes and your championship of popular taste, but you are responding to a cultural situation that is both anomalous and unnecessary--and should be resisted. Sure, there have always been pompous professors with their head in the clouds (and/or up their ass), but the word "professor" was not always synonymous with this malignancy. And--as importantly--popular culture did not always cede the ground of serious critical discussion to the academy.

And that's the main reason I started visiting your blog regularly. You may or may not know much about art & architecture--I'm in no position to know--but you sure know more than I do, and you make me see it and think about it in more illuminating and engaging ways than I did--and to the extent that you do that, you are rescuing me from doing something foolish like registering to take an academic course from a professor with an agenda (most commonly the agenda of saving me from falling under the spell of the art I want to study by deconstructing it for me.)

Posted by: John Hinchey on April 7, 2003 09:16 PM



Hey John, Thanks for the thoughtful and helpful comments. And gorgeously concise way of characterizing the "canon" and its evolved-over-history quality.

I think you've hit on something really important, too, which is the swerve that academia took in the post-'60s years. The more the profs tried to take over what and how the rest of us ought to be reading, and the more their agenda boiled to the surface, the more people fled from those subjects and activities. Unfortunately, a lot of the people who did stick it out through the post-'60s English departments wound up in publishing and the media, where they continue to try to tell us what's what. You'd think that by now it wouldn't be the case, but there's still (at least in my experience) an amazing amount of child-dictator egocentricity to be found among the professional/academic/media culture classes.

A friend who teaches lit and writing at college tells me that English there is virtually dead these days. So where do the kids who are really interested in reading and writing go? Into the creative-writing department. Unfortunately, another friend who's a creative-writing teacher at a different college, tells me that her students haven't even heard of Faulkner. I'm in no position to attempt a serious evaluation of this, but I sometimes get the impression that the tradition you and I enjoyed taking part in has been broken.

At least in the colleges, anyway -- and unfortunately at all too many media and publishing places too. They're like continuations of college in many ways, with occasional commercial annoyances to contend with.

But, like you, I think that people more generally are interested, do respond, and want to swap thoughts, tips, and reactions. What's great about the web is that it enables such people to bypass the usual bottlenecks. Who cares what Harvard or the NYTimes thinks when you can find real people who seem solid and friendly and are willing to help? It'll be great to see what kinds of culture emerge from that kind of free-ranging meta-conversation, and I'd bet (as I guess you would) that the classic lit books, many of which I love and wish well, will flourish. A lot of what's been praised in the book review sections from the last 20 years? I'm not so sure.

In fact, one of the last stories I looked into before I ditched professional arts coverage was the (very positive) impact the web has had on "the classics" -- ie., Greek and Roman stuff. And the most striking thing about history -book publishing these days is how very many people there are who are hungry for solid, accessibly-told, non-academic history. Many people like art, they like history, god knows they like reading about science, and they like learning. I just don't think their interests are being well-served by academia or by the media. Do you?

Friedrich and I gas on and yak a lot, god knows. But one thing we've both been struck by in our time as bloggers is how much we learn. We'd thought we'd be spending all our time laying our thoughts on passersby, dazzling the world with our fresh take on things. Instead we both feel certain we've gotten a lot more learning out of the experience than any of our visitors have. There's a lot of interactivity and flow. And an amazing number of people are interesting, interested, generous, fresh, informed, and more free-thinking than you'd expect. It's wonderful, and it's humbling. And the humblingness of it is wonderful too.

I've been having a good time thinking about your comment, and hope I haven't wandered too far off track. Many thanks for passing along your observations and thoughts.

How have you found the web as a cultural tool so far? Useful? Promising?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 7, 2003 11:35 PM






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