Friday, July 24, 2009

The Decline of Western Literature

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!


texplush said...

I am unable to actually cite novels that answer your questions, Q, mostly because the reading I do is almost all non-fiction. But my initial response is that this argument you're making, the classic "they don't make 'em as good as they used to", is pretty easy to make and hard to disprove. Of course novels we read from the first half of the 20th century are on the whole "better" - we've have 50 or more years to sift through them. The cream rises to the top, but it takes time. Do you have any idea how many novels were on the market back then? Probably quite a few, and I'll wager that many that received the most mainstream attention were not necessarily the classics you mention. At any rate, I doubt you go looking for the poorly-aged books of yesteryear when you go to the library.
Over the years, the literary canon of a generation develops. It doesn't just spring forth, fully formed. There are books that very few are reading today that in 20 years will be considered classics on par with your heroes.
(As for a contemporary satiric novel on par with the Simpsons, what about Confederacy of Dunces?)
On the other hand, I don't really disagree that great television is the best thing since sliced bread. But back in the day, I bet there were people like you said something like "none of today's literature is a well wrought, resonant and culturally relevant as Waiting For Lefty."
Comparing literature to theater, television or movies is kind of apples to oranges.
There's no question that reading has been displaced by digital media in terms of "mass culture". But I think whether it is in its death throes is a question that no one can answer. After all, people are still listening to vinyl, 30 years after it was left for dead. And there are still some fools out there trying to do theater too.

Quinapalus said...

Well, let me just be sure to clarify, I really am hoping for someone to show me why I'm wrong. I would love to read a world class contemporary English language novel, I would love to believe that contemporary writing is not quite the wasteland it seems to be, and I would love to believe that in 20 years the classics of today will rise to the surface...but I generally don't agree with the praise heaped on most of the canonized "classics" of 20 years ago, so who knows...

Also, I love Confederacy of Dunces...but I'll point out that it was probably written (I say probably because John Kennedy Toole committed suicide and the novel wasn't published until over 10 years later) in the late 1960s.

Via Chicago said...

Ah literature talk. Let's see if we can put that NU English Major (in 20th Century Lit no less!) to the test...

First off, my primary point has already been made by Tex - that the established greats take some time to become "the established greats". Moby Dick was hated in its day, but is widely held up now as an all time great (and rightly so. Best Novel Ever. That's right). Meanwhile, for every novel Hemingway sold, more were sold by Daphne DuMaurier (who? exactly). She's not bad at all, but is not someone you would hold up as an all time great - yet she was the Stephen King of her time period. So yes, if you look to the best seller list you may struggle to find the best. And even if you read a lot of contemporary work (which I don't) there's SO MUCH out there that you will never be able to hit all the high points.

That said, some books/authors for your consideration:

Toni Morrison - you include her, but then kind of dismiss her, but she is undeniably an amazing and massively important writer.

Alex Garland - Specifically "The Beach", which is absolutely great. Of course, Garland has only written 3 actual books and now seems to be writing screenplays only, which does seem to help your argument a bit.

2666 - Haven't read it myself, but have heard it is amaing. Anyone?

Margaret Atwood - Very heady, interesting stuff. Has a more female bent, which might make it a tiny bit less accessable for men (not a criticism at all by the way - I have multiple friends who are women that can't get into Hemingway for that reason), but undeniably a brilliant woman.

The Watchmen - And more more Alan Moore too, such as From Hell and V for Vendetta.

Just some initial thoughts to get the ball rolling...

Quinapalus said...

I won't come right out and agree that Moby Dick is the best novel ever...but it's definitely in my top 5.

I didn't really mean to dismiss Toni Morrison, I was trying to say I thought she was probably the exception to my argument, but I phrased it inelegantly.

I've never read Garland or Atwood...I'll try to keep them in mind.

I'm interested in 2666...and I have another Bolano book on my shelf that I've been meaning to get to forever. But actually, (and this could probably be classified as cheating on my part) the main reason I specifically was bemoaning the decline of the "English language novel" is that I think there's undeniably still a lot of interesting writing going on in other parts of the world, especially Latin America.

Alan Moore...I don't know, man. I've tried. I read all of From Hell and most of The Watchmen, and I think it's fine, but I do not now, nor do I think I will ever, understand why it's so intensely loved.

And again, I guess my problem with the literary canon argument is that I don't like a great deal of what's been canonized over the last 25-30 years. Admittedly, Moby Dick didn't gain acceptance until probably 50 years after its publication, so maybe this is a moot point...but the idea that Phillip Roth and David Foster Wallace are the highest expression of American culture over the past 30 years either depresses or bores the hell out of me. But I'll say this: Charles Dickens was also in certain ways the Stephen King or JK Rowling of his day, and he's still nearly as popular as ever (see the 3-D animated Christmas Carol starring Jim Carrey coming out later this year). I wouldn't be surprised at all if people are still reading "The Stand" in 100 years, and actually, that's a literary Phoenix I could root for: the acceptance of Stephen King (for reasons I can't entirely fathom just at this moment) as the great writer of his age. That'd show those stodgy Updike canonizers a thing or two!

Via Chicago said...

Well, I have to say that I think your classification of "English language novel" (by which I assume you mean fiction novel, yes?) is somewhat arbitrary and limiting. The world is a more connected place then it was in Dickens' day, and more non-English speaking countries are getting access to the halls of literature. I see no reason to disregard them.

Also, since you specifically mention satire, I will say that I think satire is indeed largely being used by TV writers, but also by non-fiction writers. In fact, I would argue that the most noteworthy development in the forward progress of literature in recent years has been the rise of the non-fiction "novel". It's a relatively recent phenomenon that non-fiction became as story and character driven as fiction, and I think many of the really exciting writers of recent years (Wallace included) use non-fiction as their medium of choice. But again, isn't it kind of arbitrary to exclude that? It seems sort of like in the 20s bemoaning the ddecline of film because no good silent films are being made anymore. Literature has evolved, just as it evolved when the novel first came on the scene, and now encompases a wide range of international and non-fiction writers. Because these are the newer horizons, it also stands to reason that this is where the most exciting stuff is currently happening.

And in brief - I would have though you'd dig From Hell. Interesting. And if you read any Garland go with The Beach first, which falls into that category of "culturally relevant" quite nicely.

Quinapalus said...

Well, I think I actually agree with you VC, that it doesn't make sense to limit the definition of literature...which brings me back to the original impetus for this post: if I were to try to pick my favorite American novel of recent years, I'd argue that "The Wire" does many of the things that novels used to do, and does them better than maybe any contemporary book that I've read. So rather than bemoaning declining reading rates like in the New Yorker article, I think there's an argument in favor of embracing reality and celebrating some of the best TV as the greatest contemporary storytelling.

But at the same time, as a voracious, even compulsive, reader myself, there is part of me that wishes very much that I could read something evoking contemporary Chicago as well as Saul Bellow evoked the Chicago of the 30s, or that I could read something about the complexities and absurdities of race and class in America as effective as what Ralph Ellison did in the 50s (or even what the now septuagenarian Toni Morrison did in the 80s). And there's part of me that specifically wants to read a great contemporary novel that was originally written in English, because you always lose something in the translation, and I'm not likely to ever read Spanish well enough to fully appreciate Garcia Marquez, or Bolano, or any of the great Latin American writers.

Somehow this slipped my mind before, but I will say that I've greatly enjoyed what I've read by Zadie Smith, and I thought "White Teeth" brought a multicultural London to life in a really effective way. But then, in an interview I heard with her, she said her favorite contemporary writers were Phillip Roth and David Foster Wallace, so maybe I'm just an ignoramus totally oblivious to the greatness around me...

dr. kittybrains said...

"Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay". Great book. Actually, all Chabon is pretty great.

Also "Motherless Brooklyn".