19 December 2005

The Reading Crisis

Does literature need saving?

The reading crisis, like the social security crisis, has become a con-game based on facts. The NEA announces there are fewer literary readers than two decades ago. Books continue to have more competition from non-book technologies. Will people still read in 2060? As with Social Security, there are variables one just doesn’t know how to project forward: fewer people read books but more want to write them, and more and more books are published.

A real debate could be had about all these things. Instead we get the “reading crisis.” Under conditions of the reading crisis, everything a writer does, no matter how self-serving and reprehensible, becomes a blow in the service of literature. An arbiter of a “revolution” in reading features games, accordionists, and contests at his public events. A best-selling author sends out emails asking acquaintances to buy his new book before it slips off the Times top-seller list—because without these sales-markers, classic works can disappear. A blogger-author roams bookstores putting advertisements in books reminiscent of her own: “If you liked this, you’ll love The Tattle-Tale.” And these figures are held up as models of the hopeful signs for a renaissance in reading.

When reading, flat on its back, encounters these clown-suit paramedics with nitrous in their tanks instead of oxygen, it ought to get to its feet, wheezing and weak as it is, and run.

In the past decade and a half, as publishing reorganized itself on the Hollywood model, writers began increasingly to speak in public about book sales, and publicity, and readership—formerly the province of bookstore owners, publicists, and sociologists, respectively. Earlier this year a group of novelists came together to circulate a petition asking Oprah Winfrey to turn her television book club back from classics to contemporary fiction. “Dear Oprah,” ran the petition:

[Y]ou did something very bold, something that no one else has done. You declared that every person—anyone who could turn on a TV set—could be part of the literary world and enjoy it. You declared that anyone could like good books.

Had no one said that before? Or was the central notion that television could make viewers “part of the literary world,” like the red-carpet interviews that make viewers “part of the entertainment world” or the stock-news that makes them “part of the business world”? The petition insisted on a strange reasoning: soft sales figures for novels mean a declining readership for books; declining readership for books means a loss of national literacy; and the true cause of all this decline was—Oprah halting her book club! Plus, Oprah was discouraging young people: “First novelists and literary authors felt emboldened to write because of the outside chance that an editor would see their work as potential Book Club material.”

It is true that the economics of publishing depends now on a quest for mega-hits: but this is about corporatization, not Oprah, and in either case it has nothing to do with writing. Praise of her as an encourager of reading is unimpeachable; so is praise of high schools, neighborhood reading groups, and the Bookmobile. But if the alternative you resent is William Faulkner—whose three best books Oprah assigned for summer reading in 2005—it becomes clearer that this genial-sounding hokum isn’t innocent at all.

Suppose the petition had been honest:

Dear Oprah,
None of us can prove our books are of genuine worth yet—that would require time, and belief in the reading process, therefore respect for an ordinary readership, and even maybe respect for critics. Instead, we’re impatient. Isn’t everything publicity today? Since we don’t believe literature is worth a lifetime of obscure toil, we’d prefer at least some hope for the kind of fame that the most unworthy TV and diet-book people get. Oh, Oprah, we don’t ask it for ourselves. Think of the children writers!

This corrosive realignment of values, of why one writes, had formerly been the ambition of one group only—those who write for money, not art. But if you look at the list of signers, and compare it to the obsequious words printed above the names, you see how a distinction is being lost or hidden, even among serious writers, beneath increasingly confusing pleas for reading.

Take another example: a new book on “writing in unreaderly times.” “For starters,” its editor writes, “it’s no help that being well read has an enormous image problem in this country.” That image starts to change when the writer steps away from the book and into the spotlight, and the reader moves out of his life (to which books come as emissaries from nowhere) into pseudo-literary participation. Book “events” are “putting writers on the same stage with jugglers, fire dancers, radio producers, and punk bands.” Visibility and personal availability make a horrible arrival: authors must explain their “life and process” to us “without our having to ask.” And all this in service of the revolution: “Taken to their logical extent [sic], the ideas here point to a world of possibility for the future of books.” So they do. In that future, the place of reading becomes the bookstore, not the library or den. And the bookstore becomes a permanent tradeshow, with banners, musical distractions, and bestseller lists, and the exhausted author propped up like a Spider Man cutout at the “new releases” table.

The final, insidious manifestation of the reading crisis is the way it gives cover to the hostility to criticism. One’s critics “piss in the fragile ecosystem that is the literary world” (Eggers); or they are merely “resentniks” (Foer). The real trouble of course is that if “books” are “good,” as the mantra goes, you don’t have to face how good or bad your book actually is. The criterion is only to “make readers.” I make readers, the writer deludes himself, waving his sales reports—surely these millions came into existence only for him? It no longer matters what he wrote. In this way the novelist becomes as protected as the poet is today, a member merely of an endangered species (in the “fragile ecosystem”), or say of an identity group, who cannot be disagreed with, to whom certain months of the year will be dedicated, who is not only tolerated but encouraged and petted by the powers that be, not because of the content of what he writes (there is no content), but because, well, what sort of powers would they be, to discourage the flowering of such an art?

Subscribe!

It’s the right thing to do.

Sign up now to start receiving the magazine that believes history isn't over just yet.

Subscribe now »