I came across this article recently, from 2007 in the New Yorker, and it got me thinking about the argument Drischord and I started having a couple of months back in the comments sections about the decline of intellectualism, (an argument which Drischord waged too well for me to put in the necessary time to try to refute him, in the middle of what was a very busy month for me.) I don't want to try to resurrect that whole discussion--at least not right now--but this article raised a lot of questions in my mind, and I wanted to throw some of those questions out there.
The New Yorker references an NEA study that Drischord referred to, discussing the decline in reading among American adults. It goes into a lot of questions about the relative merits of reading vs. television viewing, and the different effects each activity has on your brain, and though I won't summarize it here it's pretty interesting reading. I don't necessarily disagree with anything in the article, and as an almost pathologically voracious reader, I probably wouldn't even want to. I agree that reading is a unique and powerful activity that allows you to process knowledge and weigh opposing viewpoints to form a personal opinion in a way that television doesn't allow.
But I also think that fighting this trend in the decline of reading--at least the decline of the reading of traditional novels and books--is in some ways swimming against the tide of history. For me, the most powerful expression of this fact is the quality of the contemporary literary scene in America. This may simply reveal my status as a very particular type of snob, but while I'm an incredibly voracious reader, I rarely have any interest in novels written after about 1960. There are exceptions, but on the whole I feel that the quality of contemporary fiction has gone down measurably, at the same time that contemporary television has, by many measures, skyrocketed up. We are at this point a deeply visual and digital culture, and by far the most vital, interesting, complicated, and culturally significant art of the past 20 years has been in movies and television. Maybe being inundated with television since childhood has simply made our brains function in a different way, and made us incapable of producing the kind of literature that we used to. Or maybe I'm just completely wrong, but I present for your consideration:
1. What serious novel of the last 20 years is as well wrought, resonant, and culturally relevant as either The Sopranos or The Wire?
2. What satiric novel of the last 20 years has been as scathing, genuinely hilarious, and culturally relevant as The Simpsons, South Park, or much of the work of Ricky Gervais?
3. What English language novel of the last 20 years approaches the brilliance of the English language writing going on earlier in the 20th century, by such authors as Hemingway, Faulkner, Ellison, and Fitzgerald, to say nothing of James Joyce.
I'm seriously asking those questions, because if there is a recent satiric novel nearly as good as The Simpsons, I would desperately like to read it. Point me towards it!
And for question number 3, I'll just add that I know the usual response. From a slightly older crowd the answer tends to be: Roth, Delillo, Updike, Morrison. (Maybe this is just personal taste, but I would argue that with the possible exception of Toni Morrison, none of those writers are in a class with the previous generation.) Sometimes they'll also bring up Cormac McCarthy, whom in many ways I like, but who is just simply no William Faulkner. And perhaps more tellingly, all those above writers are in their 70s or dead, and in the search for younger talent the answer tends to be: David Foster Wallace, David Foster Wallace, David Foster Wallace...and if somebody really wants to go out on a limb, David Foster Wallace. Maybe one of these days I'll work up the gumption to read Infinite Jest, and then I can really comment on him in detail. But since nothing in his shorter work has ever led me to think I'd enjoy it...that may be one of those things that goes unread.
Anyway, that's my rant for the day. Please let me know where I've gone wrong!