We’ve stopped reading… Apparently.

Have you ever run across one of those opinion pieces where you understand exactly where the author is coming from but realise they are shaking the wrong end of the stick?

Well, I found one of those pieces on how people have stopped reading novels. Apparently.

The article starts strongly, outlining the evidence for the argument. We get to hear about the “many” conversations that the author has had that confirm their belief.

I’ve gone from writing a regular column on scifi books for The Guardian, to a year without reading novels. What happened?

I keep having the same conversation about novels. I tell people that I don’t think anybody is reading novels any more. Usually, the response is outraged. I have a lot of writer friends. Clearly, none of us like the idea that the readers are drying up. Then I dig a bit and it becomes clear – they haven’t actually read a novel themselves in years.

I’m obviously overwhelmed with this high-quality anecdata. The $122 billion publishing industry, which is expected to grow by 6% by 2023, is bound to just give up now and stop releasing books.

But don’t worry, the author has more evidence…

My primary evidence for the death of the reader is the death of my own reading. It’s been a year since I’ve read a novel. “Well you must just be one of those dumbasses who doesn’t read!” I hear some folks thinking. That would be less worrying, wouldn’t it? But the truth is that, until quite recently, I was a professional reader.

While I was writing my regular column on sci-fi books for The Guardian I was getting through five or six full books a month, and looking at maybe two dozen in part. Plus reading for reviews with SFX magazine and elsewhere. I would trawl through the new releases looking for anything promising. And while doing that, something happened.

I was finding less and less I wanted to read.

234436-stephen-colbert-quote-global-warming-isn-t-real-because-i-was-cold

So obviously, the author of this piece is clearly and utterly wrong. They do, however, touch on something important I’d like to discuss. But before I do… I need to say something.

These kinds of unresearched posts written by influential opinion havers annoy me. How hard is it to fact check your uninformed pubinion (get it, pub + opinion) before letting it out into the world? Couldn’t you just keep this sort of uninformed blathering confined to a drunken evening with your mates who won’t remember it in the morning? I mean, check any data on reading, any data on books sales, any data from readers, and you’ll see there are plenty of people reading novels.

But sure, one writer for The Guardian (and elsewhere) and a few their mates haven’t read a book lately, so its all over. Sound The Last Post and bring in the flags, we’re done here.

Really makes you want to start hunting people for sport… I kid, I kid.*

I think a big part of the problem with this argument is that the author doesn’t recognise the actual issue. They burnt out on reading a very specific type of sci-fi/fantasy novel. Yes, they might complain about the bad self-published novels ruining the industry – did I mention they used to write for The Guardian? – but it is clear they don’t read very widely. If I was reading half-a-dozen literary sci-fi/fantasy novels a month, I’d probably be removing any sharp objects from my house to alleviate any spur of the moment desires.

Would it have hurt them to branch out and read some non-literary sci-fi/fantasy? Maybe mix in some romance, crime, western, graphic novels, something, anything, just to have a change of pace. For myself, as much as I love sci-fi, I read just as many fantasies, crime, thriller, horror, philosophy, and non-fiction titles.

This is part of why I dislike the book warden and worthy approach to reading. Those “great books” cause burnout. People stop enjoying reading and engage in other forms of entertainment. The article author mentions several of these, such as the competition from digital and social media, and the rise of prestige television. And to some extent this is happening already, people aren’t reading books because the novels they are told are the important or best ones to read aren’t as interesting as gaming, or TV, or movies.

By not identifying the actual problem it becomes very easy to lay the blame in exactly the wrong place. Let’s blame Dan Brown. How dare he entertain people with his terrible books. Let’s blame self-publishing. How dare authors release the equivalent of pulp novels onto the market. Let’s blame all those books I refuse to read as the reason I’m not reading. But the problem is the “great books” mentality and sticking to only one type of “worthy” novel.

The author wants a revolution in the industry to bring about the novel equivalent that “Mad Men or Breaking Bad” were to TV. But I’d suggest they would miss the revolution. They’ve walled themselves off in one specific sub-genre, complaining about how there aren’t enough shows like Twin Peaks and The X-Files, that they missed Deadwood, The Wire, and literally every other show.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to acknowledge that there is more to novels than the ones marked “Literary Snob Approved”.**

* Although, you might want to start running, and don’t forget your haversack and hunting knife.

** Also known as Award Winning.

School Literature

A recent article in The Conversation caused a bit of a stir. Titled Old white men dominate school English booklists. It’s time more Australian schools taught Australian books it was bound to ruffle some easily offended feathers.

The article itself was a fairly standard call for greater diversity in school texts. It’s an old discussion that is apparently taking a fair bit of time to leak through to the sorts of people who follow The Conversation to post opinionated comments but don’t read their articles. I’ve covered it here with the worthiness, important books, snobbery, guilty pleasures arguments and the PBS It’s Lit series (particularly this episode).

The basic gist of the article is that it would be really nice if some of the additions to the school book list were actually being taught to kids. We’re still seeing the same old “favourites” being taught, mainly because they’ve always been taught so there are plenty of SparkNotes on them.

file-20191119-12514-1i70zxr

The audacious dream is to expose kids to more authors, diversity of texts, and some of the other great books that weren’t written by a dude wearing a ruff. I’d hope that this more diverse array of texts will inspire a lifelong love of reading by showing kids that there is more to reading than a couple of 400-year-old plays and some poetry that even poets regard as pretentious.

What was interesting was the response on social media and in the comments.

There aren’t any great female and people of colour authors!! I’d have learned about them in school if there were!! Stop being racist and sexist against white men!!

Arguments like this are, of course, said without a hint of irony.*

These arguments are always frustrating. The traditionalism argument about how great these authors are ignores how those texts make it onto the syllabus in the first place and that literally no one wants to take them off anyway. It also feeds into the larger problem of Book Wardens, who suck all the fun out of reading. I want to make a joke about crusty old vampires ruining reading, but they sparkle now, so they’d make it fabulous.

There is also the reactionary culture warrior aspect to this argument. Quick, someone who knows more about this subject suggested we make a change for the better: Man the keyboards, all caps the objections, haul out the canards!

These brave warriors are the last defenders against those evil thinkers and knowers. Only they can protect society from people who would dare to acknowledge there are other decent books worth reading.

In some respects, they remind me of the Literati who bravely defend Fort Literature from the invading hordes of the Lesser Works. As I’ve pointed out previously, the origins of what we call literature versus genre have their origins in the class divide during the Industrial Revolution. Workers got to read one type of magazine, whilst richer managers (but not the capitalists) got a fancier magazine. The stories that were published in the fancier magazines became literary, whilst the rest was genre. So it is quite literally the snobbery of class divides deciding what is literary.

These reactionary culture warriors aren’t necessarily siding with the Literarti so much as reinforcing the status quo. They like the nice ye-old definition of literary and artistic merit we often operate under in society. But it isn’t a good definition as it is more about what a certain group of people like. And that certain group holds the power, which the reactionary culture warriors need to defend at all costs!**

Maybe if these warriors (and literati) were to actually read some of the other great books they might learn something.

* Said on the internet, the greatest information resource in history, no less. But worse, the article and people like myself were pointing out the problems with their arguments. It’s like trying to lead a horse to a glue factory and they are refusing to acknowledge they were too slow for racing.

** The reason why is interesting. For some, it is just about “change bad”. For some, it is about pwning the libs, which as far as I can tell appears to be anyone who has read a book since high school. For others, it is about sucking up to those with power or influence in the hopes they will be rewarded in some way. This seems like an odd position to take given the topic at hand, but it has to be about the only time I’ve seen an Arts Professor lauded for their support of (insert classic literary text here). We live in strange times.

What even is literature?

43168-1

Back a few years ago, the Nobel committee created a minor furore for awarding Bob Dylan – known for his performances in Hearts of Fire* and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid – a Nobel Prize in Literature. At the time, PBS Ideas Channel had an interesting take on this contentious topic. And as is always the case, it isn’t really that simple.

I’m near the front of the queue to criticise literature for being a dry and dreary form of art that sucks the life out of its audience. But of course, as Mike discusses in the video, literature isn’t as easily defined as my dismissive rhetoric would imply. What defines literature isn’t arbitrary, but it is often about who is defining or classifying a work as such.

My criticisms of literature stem from who performs this classifying, as they will often be people like Jonathan Jones – who said Terry Pratchett sucked – who will criticise the literary merits of works they haven’t read. These arbiters of artistic merit (i.e. snobs) like certain things, thus those certain things are worthy. They create lists of these worthy things and tell us we need to read them at school, study them at university, and expound on how much better these works are… until they actually read one of the unworthy ones and have to eat humble pie.

As I pointed out recently, the origins of what we call literature versus genre have their origins in the class divide during the Industrial Revolution. Workers got to read one type of magazine, whilst richer managers (but not the capitalists) got a fancier magazine. The stories that were published in the fancier magazines became literary, whilst the rest was genre. So when I say that literature is based on snobbery, it is quite literally the snobbery of class divides in “Western culture”.

So the literary and artistic merit we often operate under in society is more about what a certain group of people like. But as Mike points out, that isn’t a good definition and literature, and “good” art in general, are harder to define. Essentially anything can be literature. And even then the status of a work being literary may be revoked or instated, as tastes change.

Thus, having the Nobel committee awarding Dylan’s lyrics a literary prize might actually be about them trying to bridge the divide. They could possibly be about making us all think of lyrics as an art-form, something that has social defamiliarization. Lyrics are, after all, a form of poetry that are no less artful. Maybe this award will help us acknowledge that art/literature is all around us.

I look forward to future Nobel Prizes for Literature being handed to Dan Brown and James Patterson. Because they are certainly pushing literature in an interesting direction.

* This is a great reference. Seriously. Check for yourself.

Respect for genre

I’ve previously written about how some literary authors don’t really understand nor respect genre fiction. Of course, that doesn’t appear to give them pause before sitting down with their quill and parchment – literary authors exclusively use olde timey equipment: true fact – to knock out a genre novel. Their attempts at writing genre tend to reflect this disdain and ignorance of the form, and they end up doing a poor job of writing it.

Enter the nineteenth most powerful person in British culture, Mr Ian McEwan, an author so influential that Simon Cowell ranked higher on that list. He – Ian not Simon – recently made headlines for his comments about science fiction.

genre respect
Source

Well, at least we know he’s treading on well-worn paths and reinventing all the tropes he’s painfully unaware of with his latest novel. But good on him for flying the ignorance flag so high so we don’t waste our time as readers.

It gets better. I received the monthly recommended review books from Penguin and saw McEwan’s new novel, Machines Like Me, on the list. This was the publisher’s blurb:

Our foremost storyteller returns with an audacious new novel, Machines Like Me.

Britain has lost the Falklands war, Margaret Thatcher battles Tony Benn for power and Alan Turing achieves a breakthrough in artificial intelligence. In a world not quite like this one, two lovers will be tested beyond their understanding.

Machines Like Me occurs in an alternative 1980s London. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a terrible secret. When Charlie comes into money, he buys Adam, one of the first batch of synthetic humans. With Miranda’s assistance, he co-designs Adam’s personality. This near-perfect human is beautiful, strong and clever – a love triangle soon forms. These three beings will confront a profound moral dilemma. Ian McEwan’s subversive and entertaining new novel poses fundamental questions: what makes us human? Our outward deeds or our inner lives? Could a machine understand the human heart? This provocative and thrilling tale warns of the power to invent things beyond our control. Source.

Yes, it even has a love triangle. This is certainly not a bog-standard sci-fi novel at all. No sir. This explores big ideas… This is the cover art…

https3a2f2fimages-na.ssl-images-amazon.com2fimages2fi2f41t7td1jgbl._sy346_
Looks very professional. Not a first attempt at self-publishing nor creepy at all. 

There are several potential explanations here:

  1. McEwan is one of the arrogant literati who would never stoop to reading such crass material as genre fiction. Of course, when they write it, it is very important literature that you should absolutely buy and praise them for writing it.
  2. McEwan is painfully ignorant to the point that someone really should have taken him aside during the (above quoted) interview and shown him the Wikipedia page for Science Fiction on the magical communication box they carry in their pocket.
  3. McEwan is hoping that his comments will stir controversy that will help sell more copies of his books.

Now I am a bit late to the internet pile-on that inevitably results from modern faux pas as it is reactionary and lowers the quality of discourse. Definitely not because I got distracted on other things. Anyway, the reason why I have come back to this incident is that it ties into a thread I have been commenting on for several years now: Literary snobbery, or the Worthiness argument.

People like to think of the difference between genre and literature as akin to the difference between entertainment and art. Because no art is entertaining. Some have suggested the difference is in the plot-driven versus character-driven narratives. This doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny, as some call literature just another genre, and others have suggested it is more about genre being built on structure. A lot of people will also exclaim, “I know it when I see it.” But this ignores the reality that literary merit is a spectrum.

But the most interesting argument I have seen defining the difference between literature and genre fiction was around the class divide. The snobbery was literally built into the divide because genre stories were published in cheaper books for the workers and the more literary stories were published in fancier books for the new middle class.*

So it is quite possible that the reason why we have comments like McEwan’s is because they are tapping into 150 years of class snobbery that disallows them from reading or appreciating genre fiction. If they do read some, it will be classed as a guilty pleasure, because they can’t be seen actually acknowledging genre as having substance.

Or it could just be about attention seeking to sell some books.

The argument doesn’t really discuss what rich people read. I assume that the rich people were too busy counting money to be bothered reading either genre or literature. 

The Beauty and Anguish of Les Misérables!

maxresdefault

It’s Lit! returns to discuss Les Miserables.

Yeah, I haven’t read it, nor seen the musical nor the musical movie. A title that literally means the miserable and a narrative to match isn’t really my cup of tea. The issues discussed in Les Mis were very real, if romanticised somewhat, and still bear some relevance to the modern day. I discussed one such issue in a previous It’s Lit post.

Maybe I’ll read it one day. Meanwhile, quick overviews will have to suffice.

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is one of history’s most famous novels and one of the longest-running musicals in Broadway history. On this special episode of It’s Lit! we explore how Les Miserable became both a national and revolutionary anthem, and so publicly adored that all 1,900 pages never went out of print.

How Greek Mythology Inspires Us

maxresdefault

Did you know that James Joyce’s Ulysses is a (relatively) modern tale inspired by Ancient Greek Mythology? Well, even if you did know that, this video has something for you.

Given this video series has focussed on literature and books made into movies more than popular fiction, I knew that one of my favourite genres wouldn’t get a mention. The vigilante hero/anti-hero traces its origins back to the Ancient Greek Myths as well. The most obvious versions are The Wanderer or Knight Errant which draw upon themes and ideas from heroes like Perseus. This early creation underpins later takes on the hero. And thus, Jack Reacher could be slaying gorgons and saving royals.

Interestingly, the Knight Errant is also prevalent in literature not influenced by Ancient Greek Mythology. So it is possible that convergent ideas are at work.

Ancient Greek Mythology has worked its way into modern pop culture so deeply that it would be an almost Sisyphean task to compile every way it’s manifested!

It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, a eight-part* series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis

*Eleven part series now.

Food & Fiction: Memorable Meals in Literature

http3A2F2Faz616578.vo_.msecnd.net2Ffiles2F20162F022F182F6359142862882820262142940750___FictionalFood-18x24s

This month’s It’s Lit! covers everyone’s favourite topic: food.

If it isn’t your favourite topic, just give yourself 48 hours without it and see if that changes your mind.

I’ve always found food scenes in books to fall into two categories: needless exposition, or important showing (Oliver Twist is a great example of this). While the video discusses the latter, it is all too common that the former is what we read most.

While I was watching the video I was reminded of something I read last year. The discussion of bread in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, particularly around the hard bread that needed to be soaked, was something that Karl Marx wrote about in Das Kapital. The hard bread was actually due to deliberate contamination to make cheap bread that workers could afford, knowing full well that it was bad for them to eat, and the employers knowing full well that the workers couldn’t afford to eat properly (keeping them hungry so they would work).

A great way to remind us future people of how society used to run.*

Food varies wildly from place to place and from culture to culture; since humans are such sensory creatures, using words to evoke the experience of eating is an excellent way to bring a text to life.

It’s Lit! is part of THE GREAT AMERICAN READ, an eight-part series that explores and celebrates the power of reading. Hosted by Lindsay Ellis.

*Let’s be honest, society would quite happily go back to those conditions, and in some areas of the world, it still is operating in that way.