In College You Learn That There Are Vampires (or Why Johnny Can't Read Ulysses)
It turns out that people in college do not read anymore, or at least they do not read interesting and challenging work anymore. Based on my experience, this is true. As a rule I didn't see anyone else in the fiction section of the University of Texas's Perry-Castaneda Library ever, despite the fact that it was in theory shaped like the state of Texas, and the only books I ever found missing from the shelves were usually stored in various professors' offices. And I only remember three literary events during my three years at the University: a talk by Frank Kermode about Samuel Beckett esoterica, a "lunchtime discussion" about textual errors in Ulysses, and a writing group meeting that ended with all of us going back to someone's apartment to watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer followed by Angel.

So I have no problem with Ron Charles's subject: that college kids don't read serious books. No, they don't, unless they are made to. (They do read Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Richard Brautigan and Daniel Quinn, but those don't count as serious books so we'll sidestep them for now.)

What I have a problem (because I must have a problem, according to the Fiction Circus editorial policy) with are the explanation Ron Charles collects to explain, through accretion, why the youth of today are so unwilling to read serious books. These are as follows:

  • The Reagan Revolution has deadened everyone's political consciousness to the point where people are not discontented enough to read serious books.
  • People mistrust books that do not succeed in the marketplace.
  • Political correctness in the universities has numbed students' native sense of curiosity.
  • Students follow serious politics through "blogs" and "YouTubes", not through novels

Here is the problem with all of these points: none of them actually address the question of what the narrative in "serious books" is like. A novel is not a grab bag of political opinions unless the author is a grab bag of political opinions. If you deduce a political message from a novel, it's because the author has been effective at showing you the consequences of a political position that he or she doesn't like very much. Charles's article is more about radical literature than about serious literature, but I suspect that's because he conflates the two.

The question shouldn't be: "Are American college students reading more escapist vampire porn because they are more conservative politically?" (Read that question out loud to yourself. Do it in a mirror.) The question should be: "Why do American college students prefer escapist vampire porn to Steppenwolf or to The Magic Mountain?"

Novels are long stories; the technique used to draw people from the first page of a novel to the last is called "storytelling." But we forget that "novel" was originally one mode of storytelling; it was the unpopular mode. We forget that the whole project of serious fiction was designed to poison the techniques of popular storytelling, to make them not function, to promote general mistrust of them.

The great novels of the past from Don Quixote on out are all based on great novelists finding new ways to fuck up storytelling. You want a quest full of dramatic incidents, noble struggles, true loves? Fine! Here's a crazy person murdering shepherds and feeding vomit potions to his squire. You want an uplifting biography of a nobleman, full of anecdotes and morals? Fine! Here's a story in which the main character tries and fails to be born.

On and on it went; new tricks became old canards. An ideal love was once expected; now you expect an ideal tragedy from a novel; now hey presto we're all about ideal love again. As soon as the novel's techniques were incorporated into mainstream storytelling, the novel found new ways to ruin them. The novel is Ike Turner to storytelling's Tina. According to Phil Spector, the novel made storytelling the jewel it was. The novel's relationship to storytelling was in no way sustainable; eventually someone was going to have to take a bullet to the face; eventually the novel would end up covered in blood with the mastertapes of the 2003 Starsailor album in its shaking hands, muttering to the LAPD that I think I killed someone tonight.

In short: the question should not really be "why is serious literature no longer popular with the students?" The question should be "why was serious literature ever popular with anyone?"

The cultural prominence of the serious, razor-sharp novel was an accident, brought about from the conjunction of the bourgoisie's political ascendancy, encroaching industrial development giving people too much time on their hands, weird Enlightenment ideas about novelty, and the lack of any better entertainment that did not require you to venture into society, where you might be seen.

Charles talks about iPods and computers; yes. It's now possible to avoid society and entertain yourself much more immersively than ever before, and this is all the mainstream ever really wanted from the novel. What's more, unserious literature--Twilight, Harry Potter, etc.--does storytelling way better than the capital-N Novel ever did.

Behold, I teach you a mystery: modern storytelling has incorporated every trick that once made the novel king of the sand heaps. Look at the collected works of Joss Whedon: continuity is lovingly maintained; wry character relationships are established and undermined with plenty of twists and turns; the fourth wall is broken; a mixture of serious emotional directness and all-embracing "comedy" is strived for. If you actually read the Harry Potter books as opposed to hating on principle those who actually read the Harry Potter books, you'll see that what's addictive about them usually isn't the escapist allure of being a boy-wizard, but the fact that J.K. Rowling is abnormally good at not telegraphing her plot points and at maintaining a strong sense of suspense. She is abnormally good at maintaining at once a sense of freshness and of familiarity, which is exactly what a book like The Sun Also Rises is not supposed to do. A book like The Sun Also Rises is supposed to make you think "I have never read anything like this this disgusting book before, but damned if that isn't an indictment of my generation right there."

If you are a college student--and if you are therefore already being told by your professors that you should be enjoying and valuing Serious Fiction because you are young and the young must be political--and if you already basically don't enjoy reading because it's easier to watch a movie or play a video game--then why would you even bother with disgusting books that indict your generation? I don't mean to say that you shouldn't bother, obviously. I'm asking: given these conditions, why would someone bother? If you want entertainment, you wallow in storytelling continuity. If you feel that you must "read more"--which every college student actually does, thanks to the moralizing of Mr. Charles and his sanctimonious ilk--you read "novels" that rely on those storytelling tricks. If you like serious literature anyway you'll read serious literature.

Do not get me wrong; I like serious literature and I want to trick more people into liking it so that I can have more people to talk to about William Gaddis. If you hold the same ambitions, here is the secret: people who do not trust novels do trust storytelling. And here is the solution: get them to read novels with a strong sense of storytelling. If they want continuity porn, give them continuity porn that at least sort of resembles what you are trying to trick them into liking.

Some useful books for this purpose include:

  • Middlemarch - George Eliot
  • Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
  • Redburn - Herman Melville (it's just a sea story, a simple sea story!)
  • Barchester Towers - Anthony Trollope (a series!)
  • The Master and Margarita - Bulgakov (it has witches in it, plus a love story)
  • Dracula - Bram Stoker (if you are seen reading this in front of a Twilight fan it gives you instant "cred")

You can probably find cheap paperback copies of these books and leave them on a park bench, at a bus stop, or any number of places where they will be picked up and read. Anyone can do that, and if they do, soon the whole world can be bathed in the light of serious fiction once and for all. Good luck!

Posted by future on Tue, 10 Mar 2009 23:49:32 -0400 -- permanent link

The Gallery at LPR
158 Bleecker St., New York, NY
Tuesday, August 5th, 2014

All content c. 2008-2009 by the respective authors.

Site design c. 2009 by sweet sweet design