Is literature dead?

Is Literature Dead? The question can be seen as “more of the same,” and I’ll answer no: plenty of people, myself included, still find most video-based material boring. It’s not sufficiently information-dense and represents human interiority and thought poorly. A reasonable number of people in their teens or 20s who feel the same way, despite growing up in iGen. Fewer, maybe, than in previous generations, but still some and still enough to matter.

Literature has probably always been a minority pursuit, and it has been for as long as I’ve been alive and cognizant. It’ll continue being a minority pursuit—but I don’t think it will go away, in part for aesthetic reasons and in part for practical ones. Reading fiction is still a powerful tool for understanding other people, their drives, their uncertainties, their strengths—all vital components of organizations and organizational structures. TV and movies can replace some fraction of that but not all of it, and it’s notable how often video mediums launch from literary ones, like a parasite consuming its host.

That said, the marginal value of literature may have shrunk because there’s a lot of good written material in non-literature form—more articles, more essays, more easily available and read. All that nonfiction means that literature, while still valuable, has more competition. I’ve also wondered if the returns to reading fiction diminish at some point: after the thousandth novel, does each one after stop being as meaningful? Do you see “enough” of the human drama? If you’ve seen 92%, does getting to 92.5% mean anything? I phrase this as a question, not an answer, deliberately.

The biggest problem in my view is that a lot of literature is just not that good. Competition for time and attention is greater than it was even 20 or 30 years ago. Literature needs to recognize that and strive to be better: better written, better plotted, better thought-out, and too often it does not achieve those things. The fault is not all with Instagram-addled persons. I still find readers in the most unlikely of places. They—we—will likely keep showing up there.

One response

  1. About a decade ago I blogged about the fact that writing was a very efficient method of communicating information — both from the standpoint of production and consumption. That is why I tire of the claim that younger people can’t get into books or literature. If given a choice, would you prefer to watch a 5 hour interview with a rambling but interesting prof about the Civil War or read 50-100 pages of a history book by that same author — information which is organized and edited and full of precise sentences and footnotes.

    Even though one could argue that the production costs to write a history book are not trivial (you have to do research and sythesize information), but budgets for documentaries and TV shows are about 100x the size of that to produce a book.

    Eventually you learn that just because someone hasn’t made a movie or podcast about something that the subject is not worthy. Because we live in an age of information abundance and free showing of multimedia on youtube, we assume that anything that’s interesting is already on youtube or some podcast. But that is certainly not the case. A lot of worthy projects are never funded for one reason or another, and if you’re going to wait for somebody to make a video about a topic instead of reading a book about it, chances are that you’re going to wait a while.

    I recently recommended to a colleague to read the books from which movies were based because they tend to be fascinating. But there are countless number of books (fiction or nonfiction) which are not made into movies or tv shows.

    About the quality of writing, I attribute sloppy writing to two things: 1)many authors self-publish and can’t afford a good editor and 2)many write for niches where the plot and details of the story universe matter more than the book’s dramatic or literary qualities.

    You are making a distinction between online articles and books. But I don’t feel that distinction is all that important because if you’re going to read a magazine article about something, chances are you’re eventually going to want to read a book about it if it’s interesting or important enough.

    I think the book problem is more on the demand side; college educations focus less on general subjects and more on job training. Many people never try to read; it’s too much trouble or too expensive or too distracting. I would have thought that ebooks would solve all that — with free sample chapters, cheap prices and portable products. But a certain growing segment of the population don’t find that books help them in any way that is different from watching Game of Thrones or Youtube shows.

    Now that I think of it, I think the cost of books is also a factor. Many don’t know how to use the library and seek out book sales. When all you care about are bestsellers by well-known authors, you are going to pay a pretty penny.

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