Posted by: Nathan | April 8, 2007

Challenges Facing Literature

Literature is in crisis. Perhaps not many of my profs would agree with me on this premise, but they are immersed in a literary world where Virginia Woolf conferences are a big deal and debates over the existence of spondees are heated. People don’t read anymore. There are a few hangers-on, but even we read less than others used to.

I freely and gladly acknowledge that change in inevitable; the question is, what changes are good, and which are to be fought? Literature is worth fighting for, but the literati are contributing to their own demise in many significant ways. Here are some factors and causes of the literary crisis I’ve noticed:

1. Postmodernism. “Whoah, whoah!” the English prof will argue, “if anything, pmism caused a proliferation of texts. There are thousands and millions of works produced in the pm era, many of which have literary merit.” Indeed, but that isn’t the problem. I assert that pm literature and theory have assisted in its decline mainly because postmoderns argue that text and meaning are inherently separate—can’t get there from here. It’s all subjective. It doesn’t mean. “All writing is lying.” Upon hearing these statements made by the very people who study and produce literature, the common reader will say, “All right, I believe you. Think I’ll watch some TV.” Segue…

2. Mass media. There is a lot more to do in our free time than read, most of which is easier than reading. Reading is a task that requires time and effort (usually); you can’t pitch convenience or speed to someone when discussing literature. Movies are more action-packed (though usually watered-down); TV entertains; video games excite; the internet always has a myriad of things to do. Why read? Sure, people in the 1800s and early 20th Century read far more than we do, but they had fewer diversions.

3. Lots of books are bad. They just are. Sadly, it’s usually the brain candy that sells because it’s so sweet (and that’s fine), but it won’t satisfy. Bad works of literature negatively affect the works that have lasting merit; people who have had a bad experience reading rarely try again to enjoy it.

4. Rise of other academic subjects. English is a major in decline in most places (I don’t have the stats to back this up, but I think I’m right), partly for reason #1, and partly because there are a lot more options for a scholar these days. International Relations, Biology, Art, Poli-Sci, Philosophy, Languages, Women’s Studies, et al. I’m quite pleased that there are so many other courses for people to pursue, but it is taking its toll on lit.

5. No automatic connection to a job after college. This one really troubles me. College, at its core, is NOT JOB-TRAINING!! Go to college to learn, young student, and become a better person. Money is only money. If you graduate and don’t have a job right away, that’s fine. You will find one if you apply yourself during school. The disciplines that have an automatic field ready-made for the graduate are few. Sadly, I would posit that parents play a major role in this category with the obligatory “What are you going to do with that major?” question. If college is not the time in one’s life when one can feel free to explore, learn and grow by trying out a variety of things and find our who one is without worrying about benefits or salary, when is?

6. Inaccessibility. This debate is one I’ve touched on before: if a work of literature is dazzlingly brilliant but no one can understand it, is it good? This is the question raised by books like Ulysses (not to mention Finnigans Wake), The Sound and the Fury, Gravity’s Rainbow and lesser works like The Black Envelope. I don’t have a good answer–a balance is too much to ask perhaps. However, when the artist writes above the common reader’s ability to comprehend, readers will be alienated.

7. Overly-academic language. This is the sister of problem #6. Academics have invented complicated terminology for everything. This is not necessarily something bad–terminology often aids specificity and education; however, when academic vocabulary gets out of hand (and it can), then a piece loses its utility. I find this all the time in literary criticism. Yes, one must write intelligently and engage the concepts, but what I too frequently find is pedanticism run wild. Critics like to condescend to their readers. The arrogance of this is outrageous and wrong-headed. Critics, your very job is to educate those few who bother to read the meager words you put down; make it worth their while. Make your points, enlighten where you can, and shut up.

8. Death of aesthetics. This problem became glaringly obvious thanks to Kyle’s post on the Washington Post story about Joshua Bell playing in a Metro station. People–or should I say Americans?–do not appreciate art. We are business people. Straight-forward, earn a buck, get it done, work on the weekends, open 24 hours, overtime, few holidays, work till you die people. Why does art of any kind matter? Well, what else aside from art slows us down? What else shows us beauty, beauty so amazing and alarming that we have to appreciate it? From where do we gain insight into existence? Art does all these things, and its decline will mean the decline of America in one way or many.

Is there a solution to all these problems? Yes, and it’s quite simple, as most good answers are: literature itself. The very best thing a literary scholar or professor can do is get out of the way of the works. So many books I’ve read have changed my life. There are multitudes of brilliant novels, short stories, and poems out there to be read, and not all of them are long or complex. The purpose of the literati is to make literature clearer, more profound, and more able to be grasped.

And for heaven’s sake, we ought to make literature fun because…(gasp!)…the reason we like to read is IT’S FUN! It’s enjoyable! If it’s not these things, one can just as easily find something else that is fun. Perhaps this too is what is happening to literature, but the cure is only one book, story, poem (or even painting, sculpture, musical piece, or song) away.


  1. Great post! Though I fear one could make a similar argument about Political Science/IR in some cases (cf. #2,5,6,7). Fortunately or unfortunately, most people aren’t interested in substance over convenience. Indeed, I choose the convenience of mass media (eg, TV instead of reading, blogs instead of journal articles) more often than I should. This is not to say that all that is convenient is bad (I think Lost is more substantive than crappy airport paperbacks).

    Your last point is a good one to be reminded of. There are few times more enjoyable than sitting on the couch reading a good novel–something I don’t take enough time to do.

  2. I lost the link for your blog for a time but I rediscovered this weekend after talking to my dad.

    Interesting post here.

    I am working my way up from the bottom of your page and have enjoyed the posts on Lost, etc. However, I must disagree with Shannon being an interesting character. The actress played her part well, but really, how hard is it to play someone who is selfish and manipulative and has to have everything go her way? The Sayid love interest was obnoxious, I contend over the top, and I was quite pleased when she met her demise. Pleased in the sense that I didn’t have to see or hear her anymore, not that I love death. Boone was tolerable.

    I actually have a favor to ask and it relates to the post you just offered. In fact, I am trying to fight against the death of literature, with your assistance. Could you offer a book suggestion based on the immense amount of reading you have done over the last 20ish years?

    I am planning RA training for next year and would like to integrate a novel into our training. Students would read the novel over the summer and when they returned we would discuss the material. I would like a novel that is reasonably short, 150-300 pages. I don’t have a specific topic in mind which I would like the book to cover, but some issues which might be good include: leadership, personal development, dealing with tragedy or setbacks, becoming a person whose words and actions align. I don’t need the book to deal explicitly with any of the aforementioned issues, but since I am not a literature maven I would ask that they not be hidden under too many layers.

    If you don’t have time or a good suggestion I won’t hold it against you too long, only until the Cubs make the playoffs again (we all know a series victory will never happen).


  3. Hey, Tim! Well, asking me for a book recommendation is akin to throwing live bait to a shark, but I’ll do my best to keep ’em short.

    1. A Prayer for Owen Meany by Irving. Beautifully wrought novel with excellent character development; the title character goes through everything you asked for, especially hardship. Language is very accessible, great read, and reads quickly. Only drawback: 500 pages.

    2. The Chosen by Potok. Fantastic character novel about Hasidic Judaism and coming of age. Again, the writing is accessible to all and the novel is powerful. This one’s only 300ish pages. Explores the development of self.

    3. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. J’s recommendation. She says it deals with developing sense of self via hardship and aligning words with actions. Almost 500 pages, but the wording is easy to read. She really likes this one.

    4. The Old Man and the Sea by Hemingway. I had to throw my boy Hemingway into the mix; this is his shortest novel (120 pages). It’s a simple tale that is none-the-less quite powerful: man against fate. It explores what is truly important and what matters in life all through a short fish story. Check it out.

  4. I’d throw in my vote for The Chosen (although I’ve never read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn–I’ll have to check it out)!

  5. Hey guys,

    Good to hear from both of you. I was looking for that shark type of response, thanks for offering some suggestions so quickly. An added bonus to this is that now I have some good fiction suggestions for my personal enjoyment.

    I will let you know what we select. Are you all planning on being in MN during the graduation season? Jean and I are trying to work out getting up there, but the stars have not aligned themselves properly, yet.

    Take care,

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