Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Death of Serious Books

The poem is dead, and author Gary Shteyngart (Absurdistan and Super Sad True Love Story) worries that weighty novels may soon follow it to the grave. Consider his interview in the July 22, 2010, edition of The Wall Street Journal where he argues that one effect of information overload will be the death of serious fiction. Excerpts:
While conceding "change is inevitable," [Shteyngart] notes that "things happen way too fast. I always bring up the example of Tolstoy writing about the War of 1812 in the 1860s. The horse was a horse and a carriage was a carriage. Tolstoy didn't have to worry about the next killer app. The novel is a disaster at this point. It's not a disaster that there are no good novels being written. There are wonderful novels written. It's that our brains are being disassembled right now and being put back together in a whole different shape, and that is not going to be conducive to reading a 300-page thing that doesn't have any links."

Mr. Shteyngart made an amusing Internet trailer for the book starring writers Edmund White and Jay McInerney and the actor James Franco, a former student in his writing class at Columbia. "You have to use extraordinary ways to attract an audience," he says. The danger is that serious fiction will "become poetry, which now exists almost entirely inside the walls of academia."
Read the whole thing. While Shteyngart is doubtlessly correct about the disappearance of poetry (when's the last time you heard anything about a contemporary poet in pop culture?), I think he's only partly right about the perils facing novels. Yes, scatterbrained habits reinforced by twitch-happy Internet surfing certainly don't help us read 700-page tomes. But poesy didn't perish because of YouTube videos and Facebook; it went away because it ceased to entertain.

Poetry fans might feel their blood pressure rising at that last sentence, but take a moment to consider what happened to verse in the twentieth century: Meter and rhyme went away while subject matter became increasingly obtuse. Even if they didn't grasp every nuance, everyday audiences could appreciate poems wherein
a scheming Duke describes how he murdered his wife or world-weary Magi trudge toward Bethlehem. But when poets dumped any semblance of beauty and began penning opaque lines about blackbirds and rain-glazed wheelbarrows, well, was it any wonder folks lost interest?

Boring the audience is the true danger facing fiction, not Blackberries and iPods. If genre fiction needs to apprehend the depth of literary works (and it does), then so-called Serious Books need to understand that being soporific isn't a virtue. In An Experiment in Criticism, C.S. Lewis wisely concluded, "Every good book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment … is like a qualifying examination."

(Picture: CC 2009 by
centralasian)

47 comments:

Aerin said...

People might laugh, but evidence against the death of the novel is the Harry Potter series. Yes, it's YA. Yes, it's entertaining. But it's also really well written and full of allusions to classic mythology and history, not to mention sparking conversations on morality, the nature of good and evil, and international politics (though did we ever REALLY like Viktor Krum?)

Natasha had a great post somewhat related to this recently.

Jim Murdoch said...

Much the same thing happened in the world of classical music at the same time poetry lost its way. It became inaccessible. Reading about the methods used by Cage or Stockhausen is fascinating but then you listen to the music and you wonder what went wrong. Poetry likewise lost its way. But music has survived its avant garde phase and I suspect that poetry is doing much the same too. Sure there are still classical composers working on the fringes mainly in Europe but they’re in a minority. Younger composers have again discovered melody and harmony. Poets, like the new British poet laureate, are now producing material that is accessible and there are many poets online who are doing the same; they’ve lost many of the techniques that were used by older generations, yes, but poetry is not technique any more than music is. All you have to do is compare a technically proficient violinist like Sarah Chang and a natural violinist like St├ęphane Grappelli to see the difference. I suppose the poetic equivalent would be comparing Ezra Pound to Les Murray.

Deka Black said...

Poetry? Sorry, i feel bored to unthinkable levels when i heard of it.

And i agree with C.S. Lewis: First step is entertaining with your work. I read to be entertained.
Then, is the readers who decide if a book is good or not. Or the sales, or whatever form of measurement of goodnes of a given book.

The problem, in my opinion is this: There is a certain numer of writers who consider themselves above entertaining and things like that. Who think the books must be academic, teach stuff, and nothing more. IMHO, they are deadly wrong.

Scattercat said...

I *like* William Carlos Williams...

B. Nagel said...

The thing about poets, the thing about poets is . . .

As creators, we all strive for originality. And that focus can take us down the garden path. Sometimes, that striving leads to a swath of glittering prose, others, a poo-splattered Virgin Mary.

Originality cannot, can not be the ultimate goal of our creative life. We must build sound structures. We must make them engaging. We must give them substance. By ignoring any of these, we short our readers, we short our work, we short ourselves.

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

I think novels can still be serious, and they can still be poetic, and poetry will never die in my opinion. Poetry encompasses everything, especially music. Look at popular song lyrics. Poetry everywhere. I refuse to believe poetry is dead or will EVER die. That's bull in my opinion.

I do agree that novels must entertain. Poetry must entertain - If it's all out there to sell, anyway. Sometimes I just write things for the sake of creating something serious and boring, but beautiful to me.

Like the death of the "paper" book, I don't think these things are going to die. They'll simply evolve, just as they already have and will continue to evolve.

Loren Eaton said...

Aerin,

I like the fact that Rowling tried to inject some highbrow allusions into her work. What I really wish, though, is that she'd had an editor with a spine of steel to keep her from falling into wordiness in the later books. Half-Blood Prince annoyed me so much (it really should've been half its length) that I've never finished the series.

Loren Eaton said...

Jim,

I truly hope you're right. I'd love to see new poets apprehending some of the old forms and turning again to rhyme and rhythm. That doesn't mean the subject matter has to be mushy; Baudelaire straddled the divide quite nicely, I think.

Loren Eaton said...

Deka,

There's nothing wrong with books that teach. The problem is when they only teach instead of teach and delight. Then they become lectures rather than narratives, and that isn't any fun, is it?

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

I like it when Chthulhu alludes to "This Is Just To Say" ...

Loren Eaton said...

B.,

Originality cannot, can not be the ultimate goal of our creative life.

I should tack this above my desk. Originality is good as long as it serves your work and the themes you want to communicate. Beyond that, it's easy for it to become self indulgent.

Loren Eaton said...

Michelle,

You're right: A form of poetry has survived through popular song lyrics. But verse on a page read without a synchopated beat or snarling guitar solo is basically on life support. Most people only read it at college. Now it could rally and pull through and go out for a night on the town. I hope that it does.

Aerin said...

YOU DIDN'T FINISH THE SERIES????

Loren, we can't be friends anymore.

Aerin said...

Fine. I'll be friends with you. Grudgingly.

Loren Eaton said...

I've never shied away from saying I'm a bad person ...

I'll probably finish it at some point. I mean, I have to for cultural literacy's sake, right?

Aerin said...

You owe it to your son, not to be the only uncool dad who hasn't finished the series. Just skip to #7, it's good.

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

Loren, you inspired a small rant on Literary Lab! I had to post about this today. :)

Loren Eaton said...

Aerin,

I finished no. 6, so the final one shouldn't be hard to jump into. Of course, I've got a ton of titles before it in line.

Loren Eaton said...

Michelle,

Honestly, I really didn't plan for this to be a controversial post, but I'm glad it served as grist for someone.

May I humbly point to a piece of flash fiction extolling poetic truth and beauty as an attempt to regain my lyrical cred?

FP said...

Hello. I think that...the human brain has been dying, and it's been taking all the artforms with it. "Art" in "artforms" is the operative word there; that's largely been lost, the creativity part. Human art overall had its heyday, but that day's been long gone....

While I think the internet has put some nails in the novel's coffin, the internet didn't fill the coffin first. It was being filled years before the web's birth.

I've often written that novels have been going extinct; I think poetry has too. Neither seem there yet to me, but they're on life-support as you said. I've also always said music has kept poetry alive the way Michelle has described, but I also think you're right about the musical-instrument part being that type of poetry's oxygen. It's depressing.

"Poetry fans might feel their blood pressure rising at that last sentence, but take a moment to consider what happened to verse in the twentieth century: Meter and rhyme went away while subject matter became increasingly obtuse."

--I'm a poetry fan and I agree with that. For me, rhyme and meter are very important in poetry. I normally read poems for the language sounds more than anything else. Though A. E. Housman's poetry is an exception because he made some sharp observations about existence.

One time while complaining about obtuse and/or obscure art, I incorrectly-but-Happy-Accidently blurted out the word "artuse." I think this has become a whole genre, a genre I don't much care for.

C. N. Nevets said...

Creative forms most commonly die because when you're present during a transition or a transformation you either don't recognize or outright reject new forms.

Looking ahead a hundred years at people looking back a hundred years at our culture, I wonder how song lyrics, rap lyrics, roleplaying games, multi-hour video games, comic books, blog serials, and all these other things in which we are immersed will appear.

To many of us serious artists, they seem like pop culture drivel. I'm not necessarily suggesting they're not. But the perspective of time often changes the evaluation of what is considered weighty or important.

Aerin said...

I think that...the human brain has been dying, and it's been taking all the artforms with it.

Such a bleak view of humanity! I couldn't disagree more. Expressions of the human soul abound, and the human brain is developing in complicated and evolutionary ways.

Postmodernism invites us to redefine tightly held definitions. It's a great time to be alive, looking forward.

Davin Malasarn said...

I'm glad this discussion is still going on today. It's very interesting. I partially agree with B. Nagel that the cause of much loss of the literary novels' and poems' entertainment quality is the desire to be original. The more I read, the more I realize how many great literary achievements have already been accomplished--the harder it is to be original. But, I still believe originality is a very important goal. If boredom has lead to the downfall of these art forms, then lack of originality (which leads to boredom, in my opinion) will also contribute to this downfall. Originality is important, but the originality should come in an entertaining way.

I often think of the idea of an acquired taste. When we're young, first starting to explore foods, we tend to be drawn to simple tastes: sweets and things like that. As we get older, we might be more interesting in exotic cheeses or wines. I think that these later tastes come after we get "bored" of the simpler tastes. If readers don't read much, they will still be craving the simple works. If they read more (like writers usually do), they'll start to desire different forms of writing. William Carlos Williams might be more interesting to people who have read a ton of poetry before it. His work builds on the previous body of work. That's not to say that it is better or worse, but to a reader who has read a lot, it can be a breath of fresh air.

B. Nagel said...

Sidebar: Nevets!
End sidebar.

Tara Maya said...

Aerin said: "Such a bleak view of humanity! I couldn't disagree more. Expressions of the human soul abound, and the human brain is developing in complicated and evolutionary ways.

Postmodernism invites us to redefine tightly held definitions. It's a great time to be alive, looking forward."

@Aerin. You had me and then you lost me. I agree the human brain is developing not degenerating.

Postmodernism, however, is a plot by Cthulhu to induce mind-numbing despair into humanity so he can snack on them. (Wow, I love that Cthulhu poem.)

Tara Maya said...

@ Davin.

I think you're on to something with the boredom factor.

Also, is it just me, or has anyone read really old literature and noticed that it does a lot of dumb things -- stuff that would get your work rejected by a modern agent or publisher in an instant? Beowulf is cool, but today's children's cartoons have a more nuanced plot than that.

Tara Maya said...

I agree with you about meter and rhyme. But I have to defend the wheelbarrow. I love that poem. However, I did practice Buddhism for a long time, and always understood it as zen. Maybe that counts as obscure.

Jessica (The Bluestocking Society) said...

I don't think poetry is dead. I occasionally hear things about Billy Collins or the latest poet laureate in pop culture. But I think readers of poetry are harder and harder to come by. Poetry is not introduced in school as something fun. We're simply forced to deconstruct. I hope to read poems to my children in a fun way that will leave them wanting to engage with more poetry.

As for the novel, I agree with you; it's far from dead. Even the weighty ones. 2666 or INFINITE JEST, anyone?

Thanks for the insightful and controversial post. It's a joy to engage on here.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

@Tara:

The thing with old literature is that it's difficult to honestly evaluate unless you really study its conventions. Beowulf, for instance, isn't about plot in the modern sense (though Tolkien put it on the map with an analysis of its overarching plot.) It does a lot of amazing things with words and with cultural expectations (spiraling outward from the central paradox of a Christian poem celebrating a pagan past) that make it fascinating, but that are lost if you try to evaluate in the terms of contemporary novels.

That said, it's a bit of a catch-22, because once you've taught yourself Old English you pretty well want to make sure you enjoy Beowulf, whether that involves carefully reading its subtexts or making up some of your own. :-/

Tara Maya said...

@ Chestertonian Rambler

Don't get me wrong. I love old literature.

At the time old literature was new, I'm sure it was mind-blowing. Wow, you made those two sentences RHYME. And then you did it again 500 times in a row! (That is extremely difficult. I have tried.)

But let's face it, old literature is also full of techniques that aren't the greatest. I will give just one example (there are many).

In a lot of old literature, the hero is seldom called by his name. Instead, any reference to him is used as an opportunity for what today we would call character building or info-dumping.

So we hear his is "the Lion-Crusher" "the son of the Mighty Wind" "the bane of demons" "that fiery eyed one" or what-have you.

You might say this is a convention that has gone out of fashion. But in fact beginning writers try this technique all the time. So they'll write something like, "The gray eyed man turned around. The captain was angry. The son of Mike and Leah told us to go at once. The nautical genius returned to his ship."

The newbie author thinks, "How cool is that? I just conveyed that the hero has gray eyes, is a captain, is the son of Mike and Leah and is a nautical genius!" The reader thinks, "Huh? That was all the same guy?"

I suspect that the old-time author thought just like the newbie author of today. The difference was, Old Time Author had no competition. People were going to read/hear the same epic every night in a row for a year. Or whatever. Whereas if you publish today, your reader has 100,000 other books to chose from.

We just don't judge old literature by the same standards as contemporary literature. Not that we should. Hero-kills-monster story is trite today in part because it was already done in Beowulf.

Scattercat said...

All sweeping generalizations are wrong, including this one.

Loren Eaton said...

Gosh, where do I even begin?

Loren Eaton said...

FP,

One time while complaining about obtuse and/or obscure art, I incorrectly-but-Happy-Accidently blurted out the word "artuse."

I am stealing this posthaste. Pure awesome.

Loren Eaton said...

[Banner with numerous flashing lights]

NEVETS!!!

Loren Eaton said...

Aerin,

I like what pomo does with genre, which can be quite fun. However, I'm not at all a fan of the entire Death of the Author movement.

Loren Eaton said...

Davin,

Your comment reminds me of this Flannery O'Connor quote: "The high-school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he furnishes the student a guided opportunity, through the best writing of the past, to come, in time, to an understanding of the best writing of the present. He will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands. And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed."

C. N. Nevets said...

A lot of important books are not particularly good; they're just important.

There; I got that off my chest.

Loren Eaton said...

Tara,

Postmodernism, however, is a plot by Cthulhu to induce mind-numbing despair into humanity so he can snack on them.

Like a marinade in existential despair!

Loren Eaton said...

Jessica,

Honestly, I didn't mean for the post to be controversial. I didn't really even intend to address poetry as a topic. It was just a lead-in.

Loren Eaton said...

CR,

While in college, I wrote a paper arguing that Beowulf's Christian trappings were probably a later addition to the narrative. Don't know if I was correct, but it seemed so at the time.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

Does it help if I add "generally speaking"?

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

Sorry, Loren. I feel like I started a bonfire when one was needed...at least we can roast marshmallows, right?

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

I meant WASN'T needed. It's way too early.

Loren Eaton said...

Michelle,

I think the only person to blame is myself. Odd, I never thought I'd get this kind of reaction.

Tara Maya said...

"Like a marinade in existential despair!"

Best one-line description of postmodernism ever

Loren Eaton said...

Gracias, madam. The dread Cthulhu likes the bitter savor left behind by said marinade.

Jessica (The Bluestocking Society) said...

Loren, I didn't mean controversial in the bad sense, just that it got people's attention.

As for the poetry, it might have just been me fixating on a pet issue. :)