“Serious” readers, and maybe why they’re so rare

ImageDid you know there’s a Wikipedia entry for “Death of the novel“? Well, now you do, and it seems that Will Self is trying to will himself (see what I did there?) into its bibliography, with an article in the Guardian titled “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real).” According to Twitter, he’s wrong, and possibly a bad person. Here’s the thing, though: you can’t go by what Twitter says—it’s just, like, a bunch of people’s opinions, man. American opinions, even, unlike Will Self’s opinion, which is British. Imagine hearing the essay in a British accent (it is actually the text of a speech to be given today, so someone is hearing it in a British accent)—are you still so sure he’s wrong, Twitter? But listen, now that we’ve got our ears tuned to his words anyway, let’s hear what he has to say.

For one thing, he says, “I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.” So, the novel is as dead as easel painting is, which is to say: not dead, just caricatured as such. Well, since Self or his editor is the one doing that caricaturing, there’s not much there. There are more contemporary and relevant analogues he could have chosen instead of easel painting, of course; literature is, with very few exceptions, already exactly what he claims it will become (“confined to a defined”—come on, Self! no wonder no one reads this shit—”social and demographic group,” check; “requiring a degree of subsidy,” check; not “a subject [of] public discourse,” check). But to make such an argument would be to preclude a headline like “The novel is dead (this time it’s for real),” since its parenthetical would then be a foregone conclusion, like printing “Napoleon Bonaparte is dead (this time it’s for real).” No one’s going to read that. So perhaps Self isn’t really saying much after all, or nothing much worth getting worked up over, since it’s where we already find ourselves. But perhaps you take issue with my caricature of the current state of literature.

Let’s take a short detour. I can’t promise to lead you all the way back to the path we started on, but hey! there are videos on this detour, so, if we get lost, maybe it won’t be so bad. Here we go. [You can just watch the second and third videos, "Are Gamers Killing Video Games?" and "Flappy Bird, PewDiePie, and Pasta Sauce," if you're pressed for time, but you should come back and check out the first one, too, when you have a chance.]

MatPat (the guy talking in these videos) doesn’t extend his argument to literature, and I don’t know if I should either (take everything below with a grain of salt), but I do think it possible that the ideas he presents regarding the video game industry may apply to all commodities generally regarded as “art,” which, until I’m told otherwise by the Big Five, is a category of things that would include literature.

Whether writers write for “the market” or the market chooses those works it regards as safe bets, doesn’t it at least seem possible that while “serious” readers (those still reading Self’s “serious novels”—critics included—though perhaps reading fewer such novels than they used to (I mean, do you know how long it takes to read those goddamn Song of Ice and Fire books?)) might say they want to read literature as we currently define it, what they really want to read isn’t quite up to its standards? I’m not speaking of “innovation,” because I don’t see many readers clamoring for it, honestly, I’m just speaking of work generally agreed upon—for some time after its publication—as worthy of the attention of discerning readers. Remember Laura Miller’s critique of the finalists for the 2011 National Book Award? No? “The nominated books exhibit qualities — a poetic prose style, elliptical or fragmented storytelling — that either don’t matter much to nonprofessional readers, or even put them off.” (She said it, not me.) Depending on your view of things, her remarks—and many others like them—led to some behind-the-scenes shuffling to make sure that NBA finalists would be a little less obscure post-2012, which in turn led to Eric Obenauf’s characterization of the finalists for the 2013 National Book Award as “an extremely narrow and homogenized sampling of the best works.”

Now, obviously, we’ll never get everyone to agree on what literature is or what it should be. In large measure, that work will be done—must be done—when we’re all dead and gone. But for all that I disagree with the end results of Miller’s argument, I can see its virtues as an argument: if an entity takes as its mission the bringing of wider audiences to works of merit, such an entity would do well to choose works that already have an audience (see video #3, above, for some ideas on why that may be). If it doesn’t, it’s going to have trouble fulfilling its mission. At the same time, MatPat points out (again, in video #3) that for anything to reach any audience at all, there must first be an “Innovator,” someone who can bring some initial attention to the work. It begins to seem as if I’m just questioning whether the judges for the NBA ought to be “Innovators” or if it’s OK for them to be just “Early Adopters,” but that’s not what I’m wondering—in the end, the judges can be whatever they want to be (this is America, Land of the Free). Most awards reward work that is already popular or recognized (viz. the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Grammys, etc.), at least partly because the point isn’t to bring attention to the best work, but to bring more attention to work that has already received some, maybe slightly narrower, attention. Plenty of people have seen Thor: The Dark World, but maybe, if it gets the “Best Shirtless Performance” award at the MTV Movie Awards, a few more people will see it. That’s not the worst goal to have. If the NBA wants to be literature’s Grammy (just to be clear, I don’t think it is, and I’m pretty sure it’s not aiming to become so), would that really be so bad? Imagine how hard it would be to pick the actual best book published in 2014; it’s not like a Tee-Ball trophy, you know.

ImageInstead, I really just want to ask whether one might also extend these ideas back into the works themselves, into their aesthetic decisions. Do we choose to obey certain conventions because they will result in a wider audience? Of course we do! You can print your book on cuts of meat, but you probably won’t. You can make up your own language to tell your story about Martians, but you probably won’t. You can choose to make the pages of your novel into Word Finder puzzles, but you probably won’t. Instead, you’ll print the sucker on good old paper, in English or French or Japanese, with words arranged left to right or right to left. In adopting certain conventions, we are, I hope we can agree, making it easier for our readers to “get over the hump” you see rising in the middle of Rogers’s “Diffusion of Innovation” graph, above. This is the natural extension of MatPat’s ideas on the popularity of video game sequels.

Let’s take an extreme example: If I tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood, I will be adopting many conventions. In doing so, I will also be, at least according to MatPat’s explanation in video #3, starting my story off near the top of the rise, thus expending very little energy in reaching my audience, thus making it easier to reach a bigger audience. Another way of thinking about this is to imagine me telling that story, you and a bunch of your friends in my audience. At the end of the telling, you say: “That was pretty good. What did you guys think?” In thinking about whether what you’ve just heard is good or not, you will have a kind of head start, in that you’ll be able to ignore many of the elements of storytelling, because the story I’ve chosen to tell is already familiar to you and to the rest of my audience. That is to say, you won’t gripe about the grandmother’s end or the woodcutter’s appearance because you know there’s nothing I, the storyteller, could have done about them. The job I give myself is to retell a story you already know, to be faithful to my source, but to do so in an interesting way. What you’re focused on in determining my success is simple and confined to a few items:

  • was I faithful to the conventions (in this case, the story)?
  • did I bring the images (images I was given by tradition) to life?
  • did I maintain a certain amount of suspense (and remember that suspense, unlike surprise, involves knowing what’s coming)?
  • were the words I used appropriate to their speakers (i.e., does Red sound like Red, does the Wolf sound like the Wolf, etc.)?

and so on. That checklist sounds a little like the one used by many novelists, or at least the one most often described by critics in reviews and by writers themselves in interviews, but whatever: Everyone likes my retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, and you and your friends buy me beers or pat me on the back.

Let’s say, then, that next I tell you a completely “new” story, about new characters in a new place that you’ve never heard of before. Whatever else you think about my crackpot theories above, you will have to acknowledge that deciding whether this “new” story is good or not is going to be a more complicated affair than deciding whether my retelling of Little Red Riding Hood was good or not. Even if I observe a number of the conventions I observed in the retelling of Little Red Riding Hood (like, you know, having characters, a setting, and a plot), you’ll still now have to consider many more things than you did before: you’ll have to question the characters I create, their motivations, my setting, my plot—all of the things that you could put aside in considering my retelling of LRRH. When you ask your friends about this second story, maybe one or two of them say, “Man, I don’t know. What did you think?”

Now imagine that I tell you a third story, a story so “new” that you even have to question what the point of the storytelling was, what your role as listener is; there are no characters, there’s like some really involved word-play or something going on, there’s an interpretive dance in the middle of the thing—I don’t know. At least right after I finish and before they’ve given it a lot of thought, most of your friends are going to go with the “What did you think?” response. That is, if they like me as a person and are willing to consider what they’ve just experienced. The ones who don’t like me might say, “I don’t get it” or “Cool story, bro” because doing so is easier than trying to think through what I’ve just presented them with: why waste time on someone you don’t like? In any case, such a story is unlikely to win wide acceptance in that moment simply because it will take time, even for those who are interested in it, to think about what it means and how it means.

Now, this definitely is innovation I’m describing in the third example, but I’m only giving that example to illustrate what happens when we talk about Self’s so-called “serious novels,” novels which need not be “innovative” in any sense of the word and which may in fact be much closer to MatPat’s Madden sequels than anything else. This is because a book that carries the mantle of “seriousness” also carries a certain critical weight that will always find difficulty in cresting the hill of the graph above. The reason ought to be pretty obvious: if something is “serious,” it is so because it invites reflection, like my second and third examples above. Not everyone wants to spend their time thinking about a work of literature, and not everyone has the leisure of that time, and so there will be a smaller audience for it, a “scholarly” audience, pace Mr. Self, a “professional” audience, pace Ms. Miller.

Does this mean that a “serious” work can never also have a wide audience? No. Clearly, this is not the case. But it might mean that the size of a work’s audience is an indicator of the amount of thought required to process and appraise the decisions that work has made. The fewer such decisions, the easier it is to appraise that work, the more often it will be appraised. (And please note that this changes over time, as conventions change.) However, it might instead suggest that “serious” works that are also popular have made the process of appraising the decisions the author has made interesting, that those works make the process of learning how to approach the work itself appealing. I think here of House of Leaves—innovative in certain ways, conventional in many others—popular possibly because considering its innovations is a pleasurable activity (and not itself overly complicated or requiring much attention).

Maybe, as usual, what I’m saying here goes without saying. Maybe all I need to say is that the more things a book calls into question, the more demands it makes on its audience, the smaller that audience is likely to be. Not because the general public isn’t intelligent or discerning, but because the general public is made up of individuals, because individuals necessarily bring different interests and different levels of interest to each book. Those with the inclination and the leisure to approach each experience as it demands to be approached are rare, not only in literature but in all disciplines. The rest of us are dilettantes. We don’t have time to be experts on everything.

Take me, for example: I don’t have time to be an expert on this subject, so I’ll just quit while I’m ahead, having said whatever it is you think I’ve said.

 

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3 thoughts on ““Serious” readers, and maybe why they’re so rare

  1. Hi, Gabriel.

    I think you’ve made a Iot of great points here, especially regarding what constitutes surprise and what an innovative artwork requires of the viewer, reader, and/or whatever, and it seems to me that you’re in conversation with Victor Shklovsky, especially his idea of how art slows down perception: ”The technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.”

  2. Maybe Shklovsky’s insight about slowing down perception explains why every movie now has a long slow-motion sequence, so that the audience can appreciate just how awesome everyone looks.

  3. From my end of the spectrum Self hasn’t uncovered anything worth worrying about. As a working class guy who began writing in middle age, I don’t think I ever knew anyone who read beyond best sellers and self-help crap–except me. Of course it’s been a steep learning curve for a would-be writer, but gradually I’ve met so many people around Ann Arbor who are familiar with large portions of the American and European canon, and want more. My perception of the number of serious readers has actually gone up! I think these readers wax and wane with each generation. Kids may seem more interested in photos than text right now, but never fear, their children will come back to serious texts to confound their parents. There remains the question of how writers of serious works are to survive until that epiphany rolls around. Afraid I haven’t much to offer on that. While working class folks are good at survival, we really don’t know how we manage it.

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