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The Death of “the Death of”

By Jared Marcel Pollen.

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Literature in the mainstream might be dead, but so is the mainstream itself.

Postmodernism, as has been rightly pointed out, is not a movement, a genre, a style, or anything else that can be formalized; it has no manifesto, no coherent creeds or tenets; only a loose association of tropes that have been exploited ad nauseam (irony, self-consciousness, recursion, epistemic contradictions). Like it or not (despite claims about New Sincerity, or the Post-Postmodern) our age is still a thoroughly postmodern one, and it’s hard to conceive of a time when it won’t be. This is conditioned partly by the belief that things are coming to an end. Or, that things have already ended––the finish line has already been crossed and we’re simply running around the track because we have nowhere else to go. This entropic countdown is part of what it means to be living “after” the modern.

For decades now, essays spelling “the death of…” have become a cottage industry, almost a subgenre within the critical essay. Yes, it seems that things have been dying for quite a long time now. Most artists share the same pessimism about the present: that the form is in decline, the best days are behind it, audience’s standards have been tragically lowered, and the stuff that gets picked up by the mainstream now is all crap. Musicians, filmmakers, photographers, all talk this way. But fiction writers seem to be uniquely obsessed with this belief. Indeed, literature is the only medium that actively, neurotically insists on its own obsolescence. It’s become the cosmic background noise against which today’s writer works, one that structures their whole view of their place in the world.

Many of these obsequies have been penned by some of the best and most successful writers. Jonathan Franzen’s “Why Bother?” (Harper’s 1996); Tom McCarthy’s “The Death of Writing––if James Joyce were alive today he’d be working for Google” (guardian 2015); Will Self’s “The Novel is Dead (this time it’s for real)” (Guardian, 2014) are just a few. Others who haven’t committed these thoughts to the page have said as much in interviews. Zadie Smith has said she doesn’t believe that a coherent literary culture will survive her lifetime; Martin Amis has made similar rumblings, with a little more optimism. This is nothing new. Writers have been giving the novel funeral rites for years, and in reading these pieces, you’d think they were the ones digging its grave. So, I’m not keen to weigh in on the death of literature by adding another to the pile, especially with the added irony of claiming that “the end of things” also seems to be at its end.

The argument that the novel as a form is dead as a result of bi-directional media (Self) is distinct from the argument that the novel as a cultural force is dead (Smith, Franzen). The first presents a real challenge to the novel’s creative life, and the conversation about it will continue among writers. But for journalistic purposes, it’s the second that really deserves attention. The claim that no one reads serious, difficult books anymore is only half-true. Numerically, there are more readers now than ever. There are more students studying literature and graduating from writing programs, which means that books like Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow and The Magic Mountain are being read by more people, with more care and attention than they were at any time previous.

But the culture at large is not made up of writing students. Most people outside of the academy care little about literature’s place in a democratic society. There was a time though, not too long ago, when people did. Books of criticism like The Liberal Imagination (1950) and Against Interpretation (1966) were bestsellers when they were published––something that seems inconceivable today. The Canon (which is constantly under attack from within the literary world) was also regarded as central to one’s education. Most people had read the classics, and in most homes, you could count on seeing a bookshelf with the works of Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens, or Austen on it. This is also no longer the case.

Thus, it would seem that reading has become at once more populous and less popular––statistically strong, but much more cloistered, academic, and remote from everyday life. The students ordering Mann and Joyce for their master class in modernism do not represent the culture’s pulse––its living, breathing interest in narrative art. They are caretakers. Some of them will go on to become professors, or creative writing teachers, hired hands that will work on semesterly contracts for the rest of their lives––because even teaching literature is no longer a stable profession. And these teachers will, in turn, hand down the same works and erect a new generation of literary custodians, who will live out their lives in the offices they borrow on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, forever bemoaning the good ol’ days when one could see people like Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer on the cover of magazines, or fighting it out on late night television. This is exactly the kind of bitching you can expect to hear when writers get around each other. And it’s all true. All of it. So, can they be blamed for the flurry of pamphlets they’ve been dropping from the ivory tower before they’re forced to vacate it?

Against this loss of centrality, writers have had to adopt a more rearguard posture with regard to the role that literature has in the culture, and what it can accomplish. Enter the empathy model: the belief that the novel, in offering access to the minds of other conscious beings, is therefore unique in its capacity to inspire empathy. It’s not just novelists who think this way. In his fantastic book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that the novel’s ability to generate empathy has been one of the contributing factors in the decline of violence among our species, something any writer would be happy to hear. The other model, similar but distinct, is the alleviation of loneliness––touted by David Foster Wallace, Franzen, Smith and many more, which is often incorporated into the empathy model. Together, they represent the regnant view of literature’s utility in a time when writers are no longer considered authorities for tectonic shifts in social and political life.

There are limitations to these models. Both minor, in the scheme of things. The belief that literature is good mostly for the alleviation of loneliness, for example, is a bit slavish, and escapist, and is also not unique to literature (music, film and theatre also carry the same capacity to identify loneliness and purge the spirit through the recognition of suffering in others). It also places reading a book in the same category of behaviour as checking your Facebook for updates, or posting a photo on Instagram and waiting for “likes” of approval. Indeed, a whole media industry designed to make people feel less lonely (which has succeeded only in making them feel more lonely) has been built up over the last twenty years by the minds in Silicon Valley, and as this technology becomes more sophisticated, and the people at the switches cleverer in finding new ways to engage us, it’s unlikely that the novel will be able to compete for lonely hearts in a serious way.

The novel’s saving grace though, is in its ability to allow us access to another conscious person’s loneliness in a way that Facebook, Twitter, et al. can never deliver (this is where the empathy model comes in). The idea of direct access is also a bit of an illusion though. It’s access to the mind, sure, but it’s highly stylized and controlled in a way that conscious thought isn’t. It’s an illusion of direct access in the same way that realism is an illusion of reality. It offers approximation at the most, and shouldn’t be upheld as the be all end all of literature’s virtues.

Still, these models are offered up as answers to the ever-looming question: “why keep writing novels when no one reads them anymore?” It’s at the heart of Franzen’s essay, and in a great deal of Wallace’s verbally documented work. Yet the thorn in the side of most writers is not a lack of empathy––which can only be reinstated with more reading; (empathy is arguably in greater supply now than at any point in our species’ history). No, it’s the marginalization of literature in the culture that antagonizes today’s writer. Which makes the aforementioned models something of a non-sequitur to the “why write?” question.

If we truly are witnessing the novel in its death throes, it is but one casualty among many in an accelerating age of cognitive stratification, increased specialization, fish tank communities, and proliferating aesthetic niches. The internet has made so much of this possible, and it’s hard not to see every art form going the same way. No taste is triumphant anymore. This is to say that the mainstream is itself in peril as much as the domination of any narrative art within it. Indeed, the very notion of a mainstream seems to be perishing in overproduction and disaffection with the cultural gatekeepers.

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Is this hyperbole? The 2016 election awakened us to a new media universe, wherein “non-news” platforms like Facebook and Reddit were the top publishers of content. On the right side of that universe, companies like Breitbart and Info Wars have replaced the trust previously given to CNN, or even FOX. Beyond that, pretty much no one under forty watches regularly scheduled programming on network TV. Mediums that were pronounced dead, like radio, have seen a renaissance and are arguably in their golden age, largely due to non-corporate sponsored podcasts that offer a level of long-form conversation that soundbite television can’t dream of competing with. And within this, we have what Eric Weinstein has dubbed the “Intellectual Dark Web” (Sam Harris, Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, etc.): a group of independent, self-branded thinkers that have become a major force in the current discourse.

If the culture can elevate a clinical psychologist like Peterson, or a spitting Slovenian Marxist like Slavoj Žižek to the level of celebrity, what excuse do novelists have for failing to engage the public? I’m not suggesting that writers go out there and start opposing controversial legislation to get attention, or start their own YouTube channels. But barricading themselves in the halls of the academy and nurturing an antipathy towards the culture that has left them behind almost certainly isn’t the answer either. Writers, for their part, have asked for it. Writers tend to be solitary, anti-social and sometimes reactionary creatures who find themselves more comfortable at the margins of society. And this is the reputation they’ve cultivated. The last novelist to appear on the cover of TIME magazine, for example, was Jonathan Franzen, whose reputation (through no fault of his own) is that of an over-opinionated curmudgeon who despises all things popular. David Foster Wallace too, was wary of appearing on television because it was too loaded with irony and self-image.

Fortunately, eschewing social media doesn’t automatically disqualify one from the conversation. The career benefits of having a twitter account (which every publisher twists their writer’s arms to create) are vastly overstated, and it’s perfectly possible to survive without one. This is a good thing, lest writers take to composing “twitter novels” to feel more relevant. This would be to simply embrace what’s vogue, and it would be worse than digging in.

Publishers too, have something to answer for. Like the news media, the gatekeepers of publishing have been sending their audience a subconscious message for decades now: that they’re not smart enough to handle a question that requires a long answer, that their attention spans are too short, that what is easy is what is best for them, that certain books are too difficult to read, and therefore aren’t worth trying to sell. The attitude is self-imposed: we’ve been conditioned to expect less, and have come to believe we deserve nothing more. There is no greater refutation to this than the success of big (and sometimes difficult) books like Infinite Jest, The Corrections or My Struggle when the right resources are put behind them. Or the explosive popularity of podcasts that offer three hours of uninterrupted conversation at a quality far above anything one is going to get in six and a half minutes on cable news.

These are not reasons to be optimistic in a time of decline. These are empirically verifiable truths that all point to the same thing: that writers don’t need to get on the social media bandwagon to get relevant (which is the only thing publishers have come up with)––nor do they need to shrink from their adversarial role in the culture. Literature is well on its way––like everything else––to becoming niche. The internet is furnishing for us an endless catacomb––like Borges’ Library of Babel––where everything will be buried and nothing will ever die. A permanent afterlife that is forever now. In this world there is no “the death of…” And can a thing like the novel ever really be laid to rest there?

Still, writers have a reason to be worried. In the last century, we’ve witnessed the fall of poetry from popular art into almost total obscurity. Now, a book of poetry is considered “successful” if it sells more than a thousand copies. (Byron could have done those numbers in his sleep.) There’s no reason to believe this won’t also happen to the novel. But the novel, unlike poetry, is a social form. If poetry is the social art for the solitary being, the novel is the solitary art for the social. And this requires that the novelist must be, in the words of Auden: “the whole of boredom… among the Just/ Be just, among the Filthy, filthy too.” That is to say that the novel is––like its apparent enemy, image culture––a form for the everyman/woman. It works high and low.

Since the height of modernism, which was a “nothing new under the sun” time for its writers as well, the novel has proven remarkably flexible and resilient, and the arrival of the new mediums that challenged it, like television, saw it expand its narrative capabilities. It’s possible that the internet will do the same, though it’s too early to tell. Since the same time, writers have been anxious about the death of literature, either from within or without. Death is unlikely. That it will become marginal is almost certain, if not already a fait accompli. The reasons to keep on writing in lieu of this should go unchanged. The 2,000-year-old mandate to “teach and delight” has always been good enough. It was good enough for the Greeks, for the renaissance humanists, and it should be good enough for us postmoderns living in a time of asymptotic decline.

How writers choose to adapt to this new status might be a matter of style: literature can be like the opera, or it can be like indie rock (this writer prefers the latter). Occasionally some might make it big, but most will hover about the middle, doing interesting work that’s still worth doing, for not much money, to a small but devoted community. Again, I believe this will be the fate of every art form, eventually. It’s not great news, but things could be worse.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends.

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Jared Marcel Pollen was born in Canada. He studied politics and literature at the University of Windsor and received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College in NY. His work has appeared in The Millions, Salo Press and Potluck Magazine, among others. He is a regular contributor at Political Animal Magazine. He is also the author of the forthcoming collection of short stories, The Unified Field of Loneliness, available in September from Crowsnest Books. He currently lives in Prague.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 8th, 2019.