Responding to Sterling's "18 Challenges" (Part 3/3)
Continued from part one, challenges 1-7, and part two, challenges 7-12...

What do you think of when you imagine "a writer"?

Literature tells the stories of our lives. What is it saying now?

Do you think of a sad dude (he is always male) putting together yet another "sensitive" account of men and women, relationships that don't go anywhere for vague reasons, unremarkable childhood reminiscences, vague confusion and awe of politics/global problems, bland lives about to be "redeemed" in some bland, "realistic" way (e.g. a new job/girlfriend/fleeting memory) but then the man loses courageâ€"stuff that was maybe edgy and "novel" to write about some time in 1920's?

Do you think of a woman who is probably also some kind of performance artist?

Do you think of some strange, possibly amphetamine-abusing individual such as Stephen King or Neal Stephenson, or an ordinary hardworking single mom like J.K. Rowling? Someone who just has "that gift" for writing "entertaining books that sell," which are also "low-brow"? People you cannot envy because they are not high-class and did not go to good schools? Plus some of them are bad writers, like Dan Brown, and maybe some of their success is due to "just luck" or "marketing"?!

Do you think of an up-to-date blogger and cultural critic, such as the guy who wrote "Stuff White People Like", Tristan Farnon, Alexandra Erin, or this dude who is an annoying apologist for "bros"? Or maybe a writer these days is a fucked up "social networking entity" that is not even one person?

Do you think of a historical figure, such as Herman Melville or Don DeLillo?

Do you think of a person from a society that was not as democratic as ours, a society of the past? A person who had a source of income other than writing, a high-to-moderate amount of time on his or her hands, and perhaps some kind of contact with the society's literature-loving elites?

Do you think of a person grimly working to destroy the very fabric of orderly Protestant society via online publishing, while also working at some other unpleasant job most of the time?

Is this a typical writer--powerless in the face of pressing real-life issues?

This article is the last of a three-part response to science fiction author Bruce Sterling's list of "18 Challenges in Contemporary Literature." These challenges are an attempt to explain why "literature" might be "a dying artform," without resorting to the knee-jerk, unhelpful assertion that "people are stupider today" and "nobody reads anymore."

At first I was alarmed and dismayed by Sterling's 18 points, with their brutally concise phrasing, so unlike the long novels I used to love reading. And they described harsh socioeconomic realities I was powerless to stop.

But, I felt a little better when I read Stephen Future's critique of challenges 7-12. Future mentions something really crucial about these 18 challenges: they're not really challenges to "writing itself." They are challenges to "literature as an institution," as it is still vaguely conceived and groped towards by many writers.

Many of today's would-be writers went to modern American universities. They were told they were good writers. They had important inner lives and a desire to justify themselves through writing. Logically, they hoped to make a living off this desire as adults, and also earn the admiration and respect of society.

Let's look at challenges 13-18 and see what is stopping them.

13. "Convergence culture" obliterating former distinctions between media; books becoming one minor aspect of huge tweet/ blog/ comics/ games / soundtrack/ television / cinema / ancillary-merchandise pro-fan franchises.

This book describes "convergence culture." It talks about how computers, cell phones, video game systems, and pretty much all personal electronics, are becoming people's all-in-one access points for all culture and all communication with the external world. This is due to computer hardware allowing for better media viewing, and also due to the fast spread of media over the Internet. Now people can watch TV and movies, listen to music, "blog," "tweet," learn new things, share jokes, and even read books from various "all-in-one" electronic devices.

Okay, but why is this necessarily bad for literature? Wouldn't it help sell books if they were "blogged" and "tweeted about" by important online publications? Or if they were cross-promoted with films, etc? For example, I personally know of at least 3 young females who have used the Internet to look up "sexy" photographs of T.S. Eliot after reading Prufrock or The Waste Land. And have looked up and purchased that terrible "period piece" movie about T.S. Eliot, Tom and Viv and watched it on their own computers.

People who already like to read books for fun are not going to say, "Why should I read a book when I can use my all-purpose media device to watch a movie instead." Rather, they are going to be excited by the opportunity to find other media related to the book (or possibly just not care about all this "convergence" stuff and read their books). Different media are not actually interchangeable, even though in this crazy age many of them can be accessed from the same electronic devices.

If books do indeed currently comprise only "a minor part" of "convergence culture," it is not because there is some kind of inherent "zero sum game" between books and other media.
It seems like the real culprit is Sterling's Challenge No. 7 , "Media conglomerates have poor business model; economically rationalized 'culture industry' is actively hostile to vital aspects of humane culture." Commercial media producers these days have to be competitive. Unlike in the heyday of books, they are not run by gentle, rich aristocrats or bourgeois trying to imitate aristocrats of the past. Commercial media producers today have to earn mad profits by "pandering to the lowest common denominator," explicitly so. These panderings are much more likely to be in the form of movies, TV series, or songs, rather than books, because books objectively require more time and mental processing to enjoy.

At the same time, many people feel that they can't afford to invest time into reading books these days. Young people are even explicitly confirming this, as some kind of "statement about their generation." People don't feel obliged to read up on popular books to "know what everyone is talking about," or to impress would-be romantic partners. Upwardly mobile young office workers "guiltily" commiserate over their love of popular TV shows.

Books are "one minor aspect of huge tweet/ blog/ comics/ games / soundtrack/ television / cinema / ancillary-merchandise pro-fan franchises" because 1) they're not being promoted by commercial media producers as much as other media, and 2) people don't read books as much, especially "literary" books, because they are no longer good routes to societal influence, power and respect; now the people who read books do so out of some kind of lame "duty to their souls," or, shockingly, because they still enjoy books, even though they are no longer good routes to societal influence, power, and/or respect.

Maybe Sterling has a point in that "convergence culture" has made the inadequacy of literature as a route to societal influence, power, and respect more obvious somehow? Like, by showing how literature is "just another media product" that any consumer can freely choose or reject? Or by seducing people who only read books out of duty, or desire for power, away from literature--leaving only to "the true nerds of literature" the joys of searching for Hemingway/Fitzgerald "friendship porn" late into the night?

14. Unstable computer and cellphone interfaces becoming world's primary means of cultural access. Compositor systems remake media in their own hybrid creole image.

Is this a serious problem? Isn't this more of a problem for movies and images rather than text, which is maybe the most adaptable form of data we have? I guess it has to be arranged in columns to be easily readable, and some people find that computer screens hurt their delicate eyes. I hear e-book readers are extremely popular in Russia.

Plus, in my experience people who like to read have prissy 19th century values. They are always saying things like, "maybe I am old-fashioned but I will always prefer paper books," as if that's their last chance to really stand up for themselves.

15. Scholars steeped within the disciplines becoming cross-linked jack-of-all-trades virtual intelligentsia.

A "scholar's" reply this challenge can be seen in the comments to the original article: "This list is so delicious... Luckily, I've read so much from so many centuries that I'm not worried. If I had the time (and you paid me) I could find historical arguments that would counter all of these points. Everyone (me too) wants to write; few want to read. Ehâ€"who cares?"

I guess that means that many literary scholars care more about frivolous (by their own admission) multidisciplinary literary/cultural/historical criticism rather than actually reading literary fiction. This is a challenge to literary fiction, which seems like it has to rely on the support of academics--the very words "literary fiction" imply this.

But, I just don't see how the cross-disciplinary scholarship of famous academics like Camille Paglia or even someone like Slavoj Zizek, who pretty obviously seem to like reading as well as writing, could fail to incite interest in literature. They discuss both old and contemporary books fairly frequently in their works. It is like if a witty uncle came to your house and scandalized your family with a long speech full of obscure references to books, but also familiar references to popular culture and sex. You want to know what the uncle is talking about.

The problem, maybe, is that academia is getting too crowded and competitive. Unlike in the real world, young people in colleges still have the vague expectation that literary learning will yield social and financial rewards in adulthood. Unfortunately, the only place in America where this is really invariably true is academia. Thus, a whole bunch of young literary individuals pursue graduate studies in hopes of "avoiding the real world"--perhaps indefinitely if they manage to become college professors! Meanwhile, colleges have to compete like crazy for grants and paying students to support all this, because humane culture is just not pulling its weight in the American economy.

As a result, academics are pressured to stay competitive. Just like movie producers always have to be making blockbusters, academics always have to try to be the next "academic superstar." They have to publish frequent, original multidisciplinary papers, each one "surprising" in some new way, each one relating literature to important social and political topics of the day. The problem is not with multidisciplinary "socially relevant" scholarship, which can sometimes be part of a valid and interesting literary debate. The problem is with the precarious situation of academia in America, which forces academics to constantly produce this kind of scholarship, regardless of whether it is appropriate or not.

How should writers respond to this challenge? They should try to make it into academia if they think they will like it, I guess, or if they think there's no better way for their work to get read. At the same time, they should beware of allowing themselves to completely depend on academia's financial and intellectual support. They should not overlook the awkward position of academia in American life, and in the modern world as a whole probably.

16. Academic education system suffering severe bubble-inflation.

Yes. But, it doesn't seem like people will stop going to college. You need a college degree to get a white-collar job. Most people will take on large financial debts to avoid downward social mobility (or to induce upward social mobility, if no one in your family has gone to college). In the long run, it is probably still better for most people financially if they go to college.

People who plan to have a normal white-collar job after college, not involving math or science, generally get some random combination of humanities degrees. A humanities education is not a route to aristocratic gentility or a lifetime of reading books. It is a route to a white-collar job that will mostly involve talking to people, using basic logic, and sending e-mail (or maybe "twittering"). This is one of the consequences of the severe bubble-inflation of the academic education system.

I think it would be good for literature if the severe bubble-inflation of the academic education system made fewer people get humanities degrees. Higher education in the humanities no longer has a meaningful relationship with the future for which it ostensibly prepares students (unless they decide to become academics). If America really cannot go back to the same socioeconomic circumstances that made most middle-class people care about literature way back in the early 20th century, when the rich were still trying to imitate aristocratsâ€"then academia should not force the ghost of that time onto people who just want to get good, middle-class jobs right now.

Most non-technical white collar jobs of today do not require four-plus years of vague "liberal education." Most of these jobs do not require much beyond a high school education and common sense.

Here is an idea, why don't we just start teaching people grammar, composition, and rhetoric skillz in school again? Instead of forcing 13-year-olds to engage in "relevant" analysis of important, socially meaningful booksâ€"again, a holdover from 19th century and early 20th century ideas about the function of literature, from desperate Modernist attempts to "save the canon" that have obviously failed?

What if standard English classes in high school started being normal classes, like math, where students learned simple mental skills? Instead of twisted arenas for emotional manipulation between students and teacher, where students only learn one skill, "how to lie to get ahead"?

Who knows, if modern people actually learned straightforward grammar and composition in school, instead of how to write fake bullshit essays that pretend to follow whatever tepid "modern" platitudes their particular teacher/school district/PTA has substituted for the defunct "Western canon" of the past--if modern people actually learned these simple skills early on, maybe they wouldn't find reading for pleasure as taxing as everyone seems to these days??

17. Polarizing civil cold war is harmful to intellectual honesty.

I am assuming this is a reference to "the culture wars" or something (what an embarrassing phrase, just to even see, the same way as phrases such as "the American intellectual scene" seem pretty gauche; it seems like no one who is actually "intelligent" or "cultured" can care about these things). So this means things like people judging books based on hot political issues, such as whether or not they feature Middle Eastern characters, do they come from "the canon of the Western white male," do they, alternatively, represent "a female voice."

On the one hand, this seems like this is not a big challenge. Lame "intellectual scenes" have existed for hundreds of years, and have seized on books for stupid reasons. If "polarizing civil cold war" causes the public to start caring enough about certain books to take moral issue with them, it seems like it is good for all of literature.

On the other hand, if institutions like academia or maybe the New York Times Book Review, which are still influential, start judging books on the basis of whether or not they feature Muslims or somethingâ€"if these institutions just stop reviewing books that are not deemed "politically significant," for exampleâ€"literature would suffer. Probably this is what Sterling meant.

How to stop this? It seems like "blogging" and the Internet are helping, making sure there is not just "one voice" determining what is important in literature for the people who read it.

18. The Gothic fate of poor slain Poetry is the specter at this dwindling feast.

Literary fiction is much more ambitious in its aims than lyric poetry. The aim of a lyric poem is to convey just one image or idea or emotion (I am not discussing epic poetry because I feel it has basically merged with novels). The aim of literary fiction is to tell a complex story that weaves in a bunch of different shit. Concomitantly, the form of literary fiction allows for much greater flexibility and open-endedness than the form of a lyric poem.

Lyric poetry used to thrive on formal restrictions. Then, formal restrictions became unfashionable (I'm not sure why; again, probably people stopped feeling like they had time for frivolous things like meter; the traditional forms of poetry began to seem irrelevant and they were not really replaced by anything lasting and new, unless you count the forms of popular music). That was when lyric poetry stopped being popular. Without formal restrictions, there was suddenly just not much "substance" to lyric poetry.

The aim of lyric poetry is to convey just one image or idea or emotion. Come on people: this is pretty easy to do with just like a reasonably well-written prose paragraph. Certainly much easier than writing an entire novel, or even a short story. We used to have rules saying that a paragraph of prose "was not a poem," but now we do not.

Modern poetry has been consigned to the same "anything goes" limbo as modern visual arts (by this I mean "the world of fine art," not the noble profession of illustration). I'm not saying there aren't good modern poems or works of fine art. I am saying that this state of affairs where (at least in theory) "anything goes" is uncomfortable and alienating for most audiences, and even, I would argue, most poets and artists. And, unlike individual works of visual art, individual poems are kind of hard to buy, trade, and speculate on financially. Thus, lyric poetry has suffered its "Gothic fate," although it is still practiced by many.

In contrast to lyric poetry, literary fiction has few formal restrictions, which are all to the effect of "ideas and sentences must be linked in some way, forming a 'story.'" These "formal restrictions" are the same as those on ordinary speech and thought, restrictions that the mind automatically imposes even on seemingly unconnected statements. I guess what I am saying is that people naturally tell elaborate stories. People do not naturally describe their feelings in verse. Or maybe feelings detached from special narratives are not considered important enough to express in poetic language any more, now they are relegated to the realm of popular music.


Posted by xerxes on Mon, 17 Aug 2009 00:38:10 -0400 -- permanent link

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