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.’)