At least according to Jakob Wasserman, in My First Wife, Vienna at the dawn of the twentieth century was in a twilight of literature, too busy with the decadence of cultural posturing to notice the decline of standards. Wasserman, through the narrator of his novel, quips that this was a time and place in which those with an education “feigned an enthusiasm for art” in order to impress, and anything more than a “limited interest in literature” incurred ridicule. “It was,” Wasserman writes in the tone of a final judgement, “the age of paste diamonds and shallow minds.”
Four decades later, after more peaks of progress and lows of barbarism than contained in the full histories of some civilisations, we find Orwell in lamentation for his mother tongue. He opens his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ telling us that “most people who bother with the matter at all” know what a sorry and abused state the language is in. He decries political misuses of language “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind”. (And he thought this without having lived to hear the phrase “alternative facts” – any sense of creator’s vindication he might have felt at seeing his imaginings in 1984 turned to fulfilled prophecy would surely have been tempered by horror at the same.)
Leaping seven decades on, past the death of books in the shadow of cinema, past the death of books in the shadow of video games, past the death of books in the shadow of the internet, past the death of books in the shadow of e-readers, and we arrive at March, 2018: Will Self has just announced that “the novel is absolutely doomed”. This is not the first time Self has played harbinger of literary extinction; he made the same claim earlier in January this year, and in October of 2014, and in May of the same year. On double-checking these dates, I notice that books by Self were published in both of these years – make of that what you will.
It is a rite of passage for the literary culture of any given decade to announce its own imminent demise. These echoing plaints are similar not only in form but in content. Fear of degradation borne of decadence, a conviction that with literature dies decency or cultural sophistication, and accusations of inferiority levelled against the usurper: These are the common features of the Death Of The Novel. In this way, each generational wailing offers an alternative rendition of Horace’s “Mutato nomine et de te fabula narratur” so we are instead cautioned, “Change only the dates and this complaint is about our time.”
Many if not all such fears that literary culture – from language itself to the novel as a concept to the book as an object – is being depreciated out of existence are essentially predicated on anxiety about populism and a distrust of the general public's good sense about its own cultural wellbeing. The fear seems to be that the unlettered masses will unwittingly use their consumer sway to put books to death by market.
I know too little of economics and am an atheist regarding faith in the inevitability of progress and culture’s flourishing to be able to convince myself that Western societies will never abandon books. Nor am I, however, a defeatist on this front. I am prepared to fight on behalf of books, to raise the flag for literature, to be evangelical about the pleasures and benefits of reading. And perhaps this is really what we find beneath these gripes about waning interest in books: frustration or indignation that the work of promoting literature must be done at all, and that it must continue for each generation.
As for those who do meet this responsibility, there is an unfortunate faction who mistake the goal of our enterprise, believing that people must be convinced to pursue what is in their best interests. This is a condescending view that conflates formal education with self-understanding, that mistakenly assumes that most people who eat fast food over homemade meals or watch Netflix rather than read do so because they do not care for what is best for them. In many cases, it comes down to a sheer lack of resources, while in others it is simply because television and pop music have done the work of convincing the public that there is a payoff to spending time on those things. We are finite creatures with finite resources, so we allocate effort towards those things likely to reward.
We can trace this backwards from effect to cause and reach an appropriate door at which to lay blame: the failure of our society as a whole to teach and remind itself of the value in difficult pursuits. We all, the mentally or emotionally unwell aside, desire what is best for ourselves, just as we gravitate towards those things that bring us pleasure. Few of us are willing to sacrifice a full day, or two or three days, or two weeks’ worth of spare time on an endeavour with no certain payoff. That energy could be better allocated towards highly likely pleasure, even if that is only lying inertly on a sofa, half watching a repeat of a sometimes-funny sitcom. There are interesting theories about what is so appealing and rewarding in the “instant nostalgia” of watching repeats. There is equally interesting academic research explaining the clear link between adult literacy and having been read to in childhood by a parent, and even simply having books in one’s early environment. Perhaps literary culture should tell the world, in the manner of the Jesuit, “Give me the child for the first seven years and I will give you the reader.”
The responsibility, then, of those concerned for the future of literature is to communicate the benefits of books and the rewards of reading. To the extent that we do this, it too often appears dull or out of touch with modernity, listing the dry, sensible gains for the intellect wrought by “serious art”. This is the approach of dour (if well meaning) parents advocating a career in finance over sex-symbol status as a pop icon, and it works just as poorly for books. Too far in the other direction, promoting reading as a sensory pleasure equal to binge-watching television, leads to the diminishment of complex, difficult, nuanced forms of enjoyment. We are then left with sybaritic pleasure that requires the most minimal engagement. This false dichotomy between pleasure and growth encourages a flat artistic register, languishing in the false belief that to enjoy means to reinforce what is and remain comfortably static.
Interviewed on the subject of education, David Foster Wallace claimed that “there are kinds of art that offer us more confrontation with our own lives, and [...] it’s more difficult and less pleasant sometimes, and it takes skill and education to get good enough at reading or listening to be able to derive pleasure from it”. The question must be one of better and best methods for teaching the skills requisite for harvesting all forms of pleasure, difficult and easy, from literature. I don’t presume to have anything like a comprehensive answer to this question, but I have a few ideas and will likely get to them in a future post. This is a conversation that must include teachers, parents, politicians, journalists, celebrities, writers, artists, musicians, therapists, and anyone else invested in the future of a rich, layered, and relevant culture. For now, I hope it is enough to bring the issue to the fore and suggest that we continue to publicise the matter.
Our fight is on two fronts: in support of literature and against complacent defeatism of every kind. The appeal in blaming a “stupid populace” becomes suddenly apparent when the alternative is to blame society and, by extension, lay responsibility for correcting the problem on ourselves. I was not born reading or loving books, nobody is. We are led there by others who are already involved in a love affair with literature, those who know the secret joy of trysting with words and, paradoxically, cannot keep it to themselves. It is a form of selfish ingratitude to be passed this torch, live by its light, and then blame the rest of the world for its diminishing glow as you sit and watch it go out.
All things are engaged in a losing struggle, “for all things must die” as Tennyson wrote, but not all things must lose just yet. There will be not a utopia in which the struggle can cease, where difficult art, complex literature, and beauty discovered after the hard work of breaching the surface are no longer on the watch list for extinction. It might even be their endangered species status that reminds us to pay attention, to care about the state of our literary institutions and spend more time with books. To cry out at the impending loss of all of this might just be a sign of health – the cause has not yet been lost. Better dying than dead. The task of coaxing literature back to health and maintaining it is an endless one, and regular reminders of the mortality of books help prevent complacency. Besides which, today’s cultural concerns always become yesterday’s and we will always be greeted by those of tomorrow. The Death Of The Novel is dead – long live The Death Of The Novel.
• Jakob Wasserman, My First Wife (1934)
• George Orwell, ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) in Why I Write (2004)
• David Foster Wallace, interviewed by ZDF Mediathek (2003)
• Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 'All Things Will Die' (1893)