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Evolution or Devolution: Where is literature taking us?

I guess it makes sense for a robot to read an e-book [401]

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The following guest post is by Josie Keenan, an FWR intern and second-year student at the University of Michigan.

More and more these days, I find myself bemoaning the fate of books. As Lee discussed in her recent blog “Let’s get digital”, downloadable books have been available for some time now. Digitization is one aspect of the way literature is changing, but what we are reading is also changing. Where novels were once belabored, deeply considered works in which every word of every sentence was deliberately placed, today it seems a more manufacturable task. One can write a novel just by purchasing the right MacBook software.

Similarly, Natalie’s gathering up of the various positions in the literary world on the “revision” of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in her January post “The Difference between the Lightning bug and the Lightning” made me realize that even past literature is becoming an increasingly manufactured entity; one that can be appropriately adapted and suited for digestion by any consumer (though seemingly more for those who prefer delicate, mild tastes over meat and spice).

Teen Paranormal Romance. This is how far we have come.

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There is probably no need to mention Twilight here, but I do think it interesting if not important to note the new “Teen Paranormal Romance” section in my local Barnes & Noble. We live in a world where when something sells, everyone sells it and sells everything related to it – action figures, bedding, toiletries – a world where authors like Stephen King can write fifty hit books and still have more to say. Where just ten days after the engagement between Prince William and Kate Middleton was announced, a book detailing their love story was released (followed by more books and even a comic book to be released in April.) To me, this seems less like literature and comedic artistic renderings and more like glorified gossip rags.

It pains me to call a book a rag, but I can’t in good conscience equate literature with dolls and clothing as mere consumer goods, nor can I justify equating sensational, market-driven literature with the that of George Eliot and James Joyce.

I do not want literature to lose any value, though as I personally hold literature in such high regard perhaps this is a selfish motive. But I also do not want books to become an elitist, exclusionary enjoyment. Ultimately, I believe the purpose of literature to be a unifying one: that the power of a story lies in its ability to communicate an idea or perspective and connect people. I think the soul of literature emerges only when the reader’s soul is similarly engaged. To me, the connective powers of literature are what make it so beautiful.

Perhaps it is not a question of moving forward or backward, but the fact of us going there together. So whether we’re reading stories laced and bound by string and soft leather or clicking through screens at an Oxygen bar, if we’re going there together I suppose I must go. But I might have to step out for some air.

Harry Potter

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Join the Discussion

  • Natalie

    Lovely, thoughtful post! I laughed out loud about the “action figures, bedding, and toiletries.” And I loved this: “Perhaps it is not a question of moving forward or backward, but the fact of us going there together.”

  • Lee Thomas

    I think you raise some interesting points, Josie. Where does good writing end and marketing begin? Are those two things mutually exclusive? The older I get, and the more I read, the more I realize that the notion of “pure writing” simply does not exist. The way Dickens wrote could be considered pure hackery. He was paid on a serial contract (not exactly by the word, but by piece), he had to keep the attention of the masses who bought the serials that became his novels, and the masses could afford them because each installment was cheap. (Translation: accessible) Marketing genius! The major corollary today is another wonderful form: comic books.

    Maybe your 8-year-old lusts after Harry Potter Legos, but isn’t that because the story – the book – has been so magical to him? My own childhood was a mix of “pretend this stick is a wand” and shamelessly marketed toys. I say “shameless,” but really – is there any need for it? Whatever we could, we repurposed into games of our own devising, often based around bedtime reading, or stories our parents told us, or TV shows – kids invent, it’s their strong suit.

    I often think of Michael Pollan’s book title, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, as a metaphor for reading. We have a feast laid before us: Graphic novels; genre; weird, quirky flash fiction; sprawling fantasy epics – give me your huddled masses. One example of a writer who’s wowed me, Stephen King. He’s a wonderful storyteller: nothing says connectivity like two 15-year-olds poring over The Shining and scaring the living daylights out of each other. Better yet, he’s generously helped so many other writers just starting out. Sometimes volume is nothing more than an indication of an incredibly active and inventive mind. See: Chekhov.

    If my child is so moved by a book as to want the action figure of its heroine so she can gallop around the house pretending to be lovesick for a vampire? I’m headed to the store, and give me volume two, while you’re at it. Talk to me, Josie – what’s some lowbrow lit that you just happen to love?

  • An interesting post Josie. I think sometimes when people bemoan the loss of something, often its the loss of significance of that something, rather than it’s more literal ‘loss’.

    Ultimately literature is supposed to reflect culture, and I think to a degree, its change should be taken more of a reflection of the direction our culture(s) is/are taking than of the format itself. And in that way, reflections also change – so what feels irrelevant today, might again seem relevant in the future.

    At least, that’s what I am hoping…

  • Josie

    Lee – I think, especially now, good writing and marketing are far from mutually exclusive. With the decrease in print publishing, writers are making their debuts online and I think will have to embrace marketing and self-promotion more than ever. Writers can no longer rest in solitude and mystery while an agent sells their books. Technology is dramatically changing the relationship between writers and readers (as this community itself is proof of). So I agree, in a market-based world, literature must be marketed to survive. What scares me is the way the market seems to have grabbed literature.

    I am a firm believer in storytelling, in whatever form. My personal favorite “lowbrow” lit would probably be Chelsea Handler’s books. They’re full of her humour, attitude and perspective, and I think it’s this quality of perspective that makes stories so magical, and so important. Because literature allows readers to try on new perspectives, readers are transported to new vantage points from which to view the world. Great books transcend cultural and physical borders, uniting people in ways that no mission trip or peacekeeping force can. They show us beyond words, thoughts. Beyond stories, life. Ideas can connect people across the globe on a deeper, more substantial and sustainable level than anything material can.

    Stories are a pure, unassuming form of communication that can be criticized or complimented as the reader sees fit. They can be provocative and controversial or simply interesting and entertaining, but they force the reader to think, to agree or disagree or at least to comprehend. We are forced to use our faculties as humans. So long as literature retains a sense of perspective and inspiration (discounting want of profit as inspiration) and does not treat us as unthinking drones easily swayed by marketing and adverts, I am in full support.

    I believe we all are, on some level, connected and I see stories as that bridge – whether they come in plastic or written form. I do not discredit the power and benefit of imagination in whatever way it is inspired. So long as we remain inspired with new and exciting thoughts.

    And yes, Mark, this change in literature is absolutely a reflection of our culture, and that’s not a bad thing. It may even be a great thing – I cannot see how greater accessibility of literature can be anything but helpful. Greater and more widespread understanding is just what the world needs right now. So long as we keep understanding and keep thinking, so long as we keep the inspiration alive and don’t simply follow market trends, I am all in favor.

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