The death of literary culture

At The Complete Review, Michael Orthofer writes of John Updike that “Dead authors do tend to fade fast these days — sometimes to be resurrected after a decent interval has passed, sometimes not –, which would seem to me to explain a lot. As to ‘the American literary mainstream’, I have far too little familiarity with it; indeed, I’d be hard pressed to guess what/who qualifies as that.” He’s responding to a critical essay that says: “Much of American literature is now written in the spurious confessional style of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Readers value authenticity over coherence; they don’t value conventional beauty at all.” I’m never really sure what “authenticity” and its cousin “relatability” mean; regarding the former, I find The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves persuasive.

Literary culture itself is mostly dead, and I lived through its final throes—perhaps like someone who, living through the 1950s, saw the end of religious Christianity as a dominant culture, since it was essentially gone by the 1970s—though many claimed its legacy for years after the real thing had passed. What killed literary culture? The Internet is the most obvious, salient answer, and in particular the dominance of social media, which is in effect its own genre—and, frequently, its own genre of fiction. Almost everyone will admit that their own social media profiles mostly showcase a version of their best or ideal selves, and, thinking of just about everyone I know well, or even slightly well, the gap between who they really are and what they are really doing, and what appears on their social media, is so wide as to qualify as fiction. Determining the “real” self is probably impossible, but determining the fake selves is easier, and the fake is everywhere.

Everyone knows this, but admitting it is rarer. Think of all the social media photos of a person ostensibly alone—admiring the beach, reading, sunbathing, whatever—but the photographer is somewhere. A simple example, maybe, but also one without the political baggage of many other possible examples.

Much of what passes for social media discourse makes little or no sense, until one considers that most assertions are assertions of identity, not of factual or true statements, and many social media users are constructing a quasi-fictional universe not unlike the ones novels used to create. “QAnon” might be one easy modern example, albeit one that will probably go stale soon, if it’s not already stale; others will take its place. Many of these fictions are the work of group authors. Numerous assertions around gender and identity might be a left-wing-valenced version of the phenomenon, for readers who want balance, however spurious balance might be. Today, we’ve in some ways moved back to a world like that of the early novel and the early novelists, when “fact” and “fiction” were much more disputed, interwoven territories, and many novels claimed to be “true stories” on their cover pages. Today, the average person has poor epistemic hygiene for most topics not directly tied to income and employment, but the average person has a very keen sense of tribe, belonging, and identity—so views that may be epistemically dubious nonetheless succeed if they promote belonging (consider also The Elephant in the Brain by Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler for a more thorough elaboration on these ideas). Before social media, did most people really belong, or did they silently suffer through the feeling of not belonging? Or was something else at play? I don’t know.

In literary culture terms, the academic and journalistic establishment that once formed the skeletal structure upholding literary culture has collapsed, and today journalists and academics have become modern clerics. The number of jobs in journalism has approximately halved since the year 2000; academic jobs in the humanities cratered in 2009, from an already low starting point, and never recovered; even jobs teaching in high school humanities subjects have a much more ideological, rather than humanistic, cast than they did ten years ago. What’s taken its place, if anything? Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and, above all, Twitter. Twitter, in particular, seems to promote negative feedback and fear loops, in ways that media and other institutions haven’t yet figured out how to resist. The jobs that supported the thinkers, critics, starting-out novelists, and others, aren’t there. Whatever might have replaced them, like Twitter, isn’t equivalent. The Internet doesn’t just push most “content” (songs, books, and so forth) towards zero—it also changes what people do, including the people who used to make up what I’m calling literary culture or book culture.

Today, the most power and vibrancy of and in book culture has shifted towards nonfiction—either narrative nonfiction, like Michael Lewis, or data-driven nonfiction, with too many examples to cite. It still sells (sales aren’t a perfect representation of artistic merit or cultural vibrancy, but they’re not nothing, either). Dead authors go fast today not solely or primarily because of their work, but because the literary culture is going away fast, if it’s not already gone away. When John Updike was in his prime, millions of people read him (or they at last bought Couples and could spit out some light book chat about it on command). The number of writers working today who the educated public, broadly conceived of, might know about is small: maybe Elena Ferrante, Michel Houllebecq, Sally Rooney, and perhaps a few others (none of those three are American, I note). I can’t even think of a figure like Elmore Leonard: someone writing linguistically interesting, highly plotted material. Bulk genre writers are still out there, but none who I’m aware of who have any literary ambition.

I caught the tail end of a humane and human-focused literary culture that’s largely been succeeded by a political and moral-focused culture that I hesitate to call literary, even though it’s taken over what remains of those literary-type institutions. It’s not surprising to me that this change has also coincided with a lessening of interest in those institutions: very few people want to be clerics and scolds—many fewer than wonder about the human condition. Shifting from the one to the other seems like a net loss to me, but also a net loss that I’m mostly unable to arrest or alter. If I had to pick a date range for this death, it’d probably be 2009 – 2015: the Great Recession eliminates many of the institutional jobs and professions that once existed, along with any plausible path into them for all but the luckiest, and by 2015 social media and scold culture had taken over. Culture is define but easy to feel as you exist within and around it. By 2010, Facebook had become truly mainstream, and everyone’s uncle and grandma weren’t just on the Internet for email and search engines, but for other people and their opinions.

Maybe mainstream literary culture has been replaced by some number of smaller micro-cultures, but those microcultures don’t add up to what used to be a macroculture.

Reading back over this I realize it has the tone and quality of a complaint, but it’s meant mostly as a description: I’m trying to look at what’s happening, not whine about it. One could argue this change is for the better. Whining about aggregate behavior and choices has rarely, if ever, changed it. I don’t think literary culture will ever return, any more Latin, epic poetry, classical music, opera, or any number of other once-vital cultural products and systems will. In some ways, we’re moving backwards, towards a cultural fictional universe with less clearly demarcated lines between “fact” and “fiction” (I remember being surprised, when I started teaching, by undergrads who didn’t know a novel or short stories are fiction, or who called nonfiction works “novels”). Every day, each of us is helping whatever comes next, become. The intertwined forces of technology and culture move primarily in a single direction. The desire for story will remain but the manifestation of that desire won’t.

NBCC Good Reads in Seattle

The National Book Critics Circle’s Good Reads discussion hit Third Place Books in Seattle on Feb. 18, bringing together four panelists who showed through the quality of their thought just how much they really, really love books, as well as the importance of the ecosystem around books. The ecosystem problem echoes debates I’ve written about before—see, for example, here, here and here—and all four speakers offered eloquent, brilliant defenses of book criticism that will be, I suspect, ignored, as previous efforts have been. When I opened my browser last night, a New York Times headline said, “For Publisher in Los Angeles, Cuts and Worse,” and book reviewing will probably be part of the cuts. But critics, thinkers and scholars beat on, boats against the current, and that events like Good Reads happen shows the continuing vitality of the book.

As the blurb on Critical Mass states, the panelists were “Charles Johnson, Jonathan Raban, Seattle Weekly editor Brian Miller, and Seattle Times Book editor & NBCC Board Member Mary Ann Gwinn.” All four shone. Gwinn moderated and first passed the mic to Raban, who talked about the quality of book criticism when he was a younger man and now, saying we aren’t in a “great age” of book reviews. Although this might sound like an example of The Wonderful Past, I think it’s not, given how relatively little press coverage books generate—as demonstrated by the links in the first paragraph. Raban directed particular ire at the habit of “grading” novels, citing Michiko Kakutani as a prominent offender. Although I agreed with him concerning the importance of engaging books, I also think it important to consider how one should decide which books only deserve notices or grades versus which ones are worth engagement. I asked that question later, and Johnson gave my favorite answer when he said that he uses many criteria, including the quality of their writing, and above all whether a book succeeds in “showing us something we haven’t seen before.” You can hear an echo of the modernists’ credo, “Make it new.” Johnson didn’t define what that “something” is, and I can’t blame him: you don’t know what’s not there until someone shows you what should be. Furthermore, as Johnson said, you have to evaluate each book individually, which makes it difficult to generalize about what books are worth study.

None of that should detract from Raban’s main point about the importance of quality reviews. Johnson followed up by saying that a “fine review puts a book into context,” which I also try to do (see more here), and that there are fewer places to read good reviews. This practice harms both readers and writers, with the latter hurt because, as Johnson said, the “best way to learn about something is to write about it.”

They went on to give wonderful anecdotes and examples of problems in book reviewing and recommendations, which I would repeat if I didn’t think the power and humor of their stories would be lost in my reconstruction. Their delivery was that of adepts. Still, I think it important to note two things: Johnson said that reviewing is like pointing a finger at the moon, and not the moon itself–which is the book. In addition, Gwinn said 500 books hit her desk in a week. Five hundred. The number boggles me, and she said that the publishing industry seems to use the “shotgun” method for book sales, and fire a lot of pellets just to see what hits. Some books do, and she cited The Kite Runner as an example. She also said that not all is or should be doom and gloom, as last year book sales were up seven percent. That might just be a Harry Potter bounce, but I liked hearing it regardless.

Johnson also put the book reviewer, reader, and others, as being in part of a “matrix” or “web of education,” with books alluding to each other and readers building a kind of map or network. He echoed The Name of the Rose (a quote: “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means […]” and one more: “Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then a place of long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”) Yes, and we’re constantly trying to keep up with the worthy books of the past while trying to find good ones from the present and connect those with the past. Those older ones are easier to identify: you have publishers’ special imprints as well as the benefit of teachers, professors, and others, and they have by definition withstood time. Judging those from the present is harder, and much of the conversation revolved around that difficulty. In the end, finding good criteria is impossible and, as Gwinn said, part of a lifelong education. Or, to put it in Johnson’s phrasing, we’re trying to discover what it means to be educated and civilized. I wish there were better answers to these impossible questions, but regardless of those answers, it’s great fun hearing strong minds bandy the issues.

No one talked much about recommended reads, but the alternate discussion about art, reviewing, and life more than made up for the lack of recommendations. Some came up anyway: The Geography of Thought by Richard Nisbett, which Johnson liked, Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, which Raban said every boat should have onboard, and several from Miller that he spoke too fast for me to catch. None were on bestseller lists but all sounded worthy, and that’s the point of the NBCC’s effort: to find books that are likely to matter but that aren’t at the grocery store and deserve more attention than they get.

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