in memoriam literati

Ben has opened a discussion over at if:book about Gore Vidal’s recent BookForum interview, in which, among other things, he laments the death of American readership. I’ve taken this as an opportunity to rant a bit about the presuppositions of this kind of death-discourse, which I’ve gone on at length about in The Anxiety of Obsolescence. I feel strongly enough about this comment to republish it here:

Oh, boy. Don’t get me started. I’ve got an entire book’s worth of arguments about this. These sorts of declinist arguments (no one reads anymore, and reading used to be so important; there are no famous novelists anymore, and novelists used to be stars!) nearly always seem to me led by two incorrect premises: a nostalgic over-estimation of the past importance of reading/the novel/the novelist to mainstream US culture, and a pessimistic, overly narrow underestimation of what’s happening in contemporary culture. Yes, reading was very important, and the novel was a key cultural form, and novelists used to hit the talk-show circuit, but all of that was a far more limited phenomenon than it seems. Reading, particularly of fiction, has generally been the province of an educated segment of the population with an adequate supply of leisure time and the desire to fill that leisure time with an imaginative, edifying experience. It’s arguable that in the 1950s economic and social forces combined to make that segment of the population seem both extremely large and central, but it was far from universal. (In a similar vein, one might revisit who the audience for talk shows such as Jack Paar and Johnny Carson was, and how that audience — and thus the nature of the talk show — has shifted in the last fifty years.)

But, on the present: anyone who suggests that there are no famous authors today has a very narrow definition of fame. Making such a statement requires never having shown up at a David Foster Wallace reading, or a similar appearance by any number of other writers. And even writers who don’t appear are famous: Pynchon has been on The Simpsons! Can you imagine the mob scene if he ever decided to show up in public? It’s of course arguable, as I think Vidal is suggesting, that this kind of fame isn’t mainstream, that these audiences are somehow on the fringe of contemporary culture; I’d argue that such readerships have always been more removed from the mainstream than they might have seemed, and that, in fact, the construction of this audience as “marginal” within US culture has been part of a conscious attempt to protect the novel’s audience by creating a sort of cultural wildlife preserve, away from the depredations of more contemporary media forms.

And on those contemporary media forms: it’s my sense that people aren’t doing less reading than they used to, but rather that they’re doing far more; it’s just that the scene of reading no longer involves a retreat from the general flow of life into a quiet space with a discrete, printed object. Now the scene of reading is everywhere: public, communal, wired. And the form of reading looks quite different: sometimes it involves the interpretation of visual images and embodied performances rather than simply the processing of text. The book is not alone, and won’t ever be alone again; authors have got to start thinking about the ways that new forms of reading might be used to their advantage, rather than retreating into nostalgia.

After publishing which, I realized what I’d left out:

(I failed to mention the first time out that all of this has echoes of Norma Desmond reverberating in my head: ‘Reading is big. It’s print that got small.’)

3 thoughts on “in memoriam literati

  1. And not just Pynchon — a couple of weeks ago, the Simpsons had a whole panel of supah-stah authors (but not Dallas Fort Worth — he probably demurred).

    Vidal — like my mother — confuses nostalgia with memory. “-algia” means pain, and pain inevitably distorts. I think that’s in Plato somewhere.

  2. Kathleen,

    You prompted me to read the interview and to offer an alternative reception … it seems the whole question and answer exchange was conducted under the sign of irony.

    Isn’t there a smirking archness in the description of Salman Rushdie? Especially since that remark follows on the heels of acknowledging that he did write that he [Vidal] was once a “famous novelist” and state that “there’s no such thing as a famous novelist”. A discursive move of assertion and negation so very much the hallmark of Rushdie’s extrordinary fiction. Irony piled on irony 🙂 Theatre, lies, revelations and more theatre. Poses, actions and memory.

    I wonder if reading the words aloud circumvents the workings of what Vidal references as a “culture deaf to irony”.

    The one passage in the interview that is novel for me and the one I find most challenging is the alignment of classical education, multiculturalism and a nuanced world view (the latter being a precondition for the appreciation of irony). Note that the question references Vidal as a “writer” not as a “famous novelist”.

    BF: Is there one book that you believe best evokes who you are as a writer?

    GV: The one that I wish everybody would read is Creation. I spent years on that book, and anyone who reads it from beginning to end will learn about the Buddha, about Confucius, about Zoroaster, about Mahavira and the Jains. It’s very popular in countries which offer, more or less, classical educations. In the US, practically nobody knows about it because it’s not about family life, it’s not about marriage and divorce. Those seem to be the only subjects that American writers touch.

    Ouch! Is that a call to read differently what already exists and not just an observation on the topics chosen by American writers? Yup. Vidal leaves open the door for correction of his “seem to be” observation. And that passage about readers, likewise: “I don’t think the novel is dead. I think the readers are dead.”

    Readers are dead. But the reader lives.

    The greatly celebrated American individualism is alive and well in the repulbic of letters. The reader, the individual in open generous response in front of the writer’s offerings, be they novel, story, essay or interview, is the incarnated in the memory of the great figure that concludes the interview: Montaigne.

    “Names refuse to come when bidden.”

    Not naming is the essence of irony.

    Non?

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