This post is a response to a comment made by Andrew Goldstone in a comments thread on Joshua Landy’s fascinating Arcade blog post, "Human Minds, Literary Texts, and CD Players." I was originally going to post this as a comment, but the response grew too long and unwieldy, so here it is as a stand-alone blog post. Suffice it to say, you should read Josh’s provocative posting, and the comments thread before proceeding.
In his original post, Josh proposes that "[i]f we abandon our efforts to train minds" in the project of reading and appreciating poetry "certain kinds of human pleasure [i.e., poetry reading –LK] will eventually fall forever out of reach," and poetry will come to resemble CDs in a world without CD players. In my original comment, I agreed with this sentiment, and suggested that the source of poetry’s public decline can be traced to changes in our educational institutions and reading priorities, which have also eroded the public position of literary fiction. Andrew asks, in response to my comment, about Mark McGurl’s claim, in The Program Era, that university creative writing programs have radically enlarged the sphere of "good" writing.
I largely agree with Mark’s claim that more good fiction is being produced now than has ever been produced before, though The Program Era reads texts (and careers) in relation to the institutional context of their production, and (understandably) doesn’t do the empirical legwork of quantifying this big, provocative claim — if such quantification is even possible. Still, I am enough of a vulgar materialist to believe that when the R&D-oriented university pours cash into the project of developing good fiction writers, it will yield fruit. It indisputably has.
The question Josh’s post got me thinking about is the demand side of the equation, whether this flood of good fiction is connecting with readers, and — if so — how. Readers read, as they always have, even in an increasingly complex media environment, but what do they read? How do they read? In what direction is our reading culture heading?
I began thinking about these questions at last year’s ACLA, where I was part of a panel called "Master of the Universe: Literature, Culture, and Finance Culture"; the panel organizer, Patrick Gallagher, gave a fascinating paper on the rise of conglomerate-owned publishers and the effect of media conglomeration on literary production. The short version is that midlist authors got killed. In the era of what we could call "neoliberal publishing," every book was now supposed to turn a profit; bestsellers no longer subsidized what editors deemed to be high-quality products. Editors became warier of taking risks "developing" young writers. The results are obvious for all to see. We now live in the era of gigantic-advance-getting celebrity authors. Even literary authors operate on the model of celebrity. These developments occurred alongside other developments, including the rise of creative writing, but I think they had a serious effect.
Literary scholars need to investigate this transformation in literary culture. My unsubstantiated hunch is that the reading public has begun a long-term process of parting ways with literary writers. I think, beyond the rise of the university creative writing program and the conglomeration of publishing, transformations in the broader US economy have had a serious effect on our public literary culture. My very sketchy thesis would go like so: When the American economy experienced its postwar boom — across-the-board manufacturing-led growth — readers sought to "sophisticate" themselves. Suburbs expanded, cars were purchased; the population was upwardly mobile on a number of fronts, including in the domain of literary consumption. Sometime around the early seventies, things began to change. Stagflation hit the economy; manufacturing fractured, and the service economy absorbed formerly high-wage upwardly mobile unionized workers; inequality began to increase, leading to social and educational stratification; an increasingly competitive media environment put downward pressure on the low-profit literary marketplace. For the "ambitious" literary writer, the University became appealing because it provided a shelter from the broader economy.
Thus: Time once put Updike on its covers; today, it features Dan Brown. Readers of the New Yorker needn’t worry, though; they still enjoy interesting reviews of high literature (whether or not you like James Wood). Mysteriously, though, the copies of the New Yorker sitting open beside me as I type this post have advertisements for BMW, Louis Vuitton, and iPhones.
Whether the parting ways of reader and writer is good or bad remains unclear. If literature has a public mission — if reading a well-crafted novel (or poetry) affords unique, serious, and vital pleasures for all people — then we are moving in a bad direction, despite the profusion of good writing in creative writing programs. If long-form prose fiction gives us nothing that an engaging television show doesn’t already give us — and I in no way mean to disparage television; I’ve watched more than my fair share — then there’s no reason to worry; we can just renew our subscriptions to Netflix.
The truth may live somewhere between those two poles, but I must admit, I am a partisan to the idea that every person ought to have the capacity — and the desire — to occasionally sit down and read a long, difficult, rewarding novel. Many, many people still do. But we should not assume that they always will, even if great fiction continues to be produced in great quantities.