by Tom Kelly
Literature is Not Quite Dead
But unless you’re a member of the writing community or the abnormally pro-active reader who dedicates hours to parsing through literary magazines, it might as well be. Think about it. How many living writers of merit garner any serious attention with the public? Sure, once or twice a year casual readers discover a “new,” living author, then proceed to ogle at and celebrate said person as if he or she were a dinosaur thought to be long extinct. A fifth of these people might read said writer’s Pen/Faulkner or Pulitzer-winning book. A third may purchase it. Most will share an NPR article recapping the event via social media and google interesting facts about the writer’s personal life which they will inevitably divulge to a friend or potential romantic interest whom they are trying to impress over dive bar conversation: Can you believe this brand new writer Donna Tartt pledged to a sorority in college? Disclaimer: Donna Tartt is hardly a blossoming flower. She has written actively for decades, making her about as new to the literary world as, say, the band Pearl Jam is to the music scene. But for some anomalous reason, your not-so anomalous reader thinks her fresh out of the artful oven.
As both a creative writing MFA poet and a twenty-something member of the hip community, I can’t help but feel partially responsible for this warped attitude towards, and treatment of, living authors accomplished or not. My place in society as a poet and student finds me actively involved in supporting and endorsing writers who work tirelessly: crafting new material, soliciting manuscripts, busting ass to promote published material that will (hopefully) supplement their income. But my role as, and fulfillment of, the hipster archetype in an artsy neighborhood regularly places me in grab ass interface about “literature” where my attempts at steering discourse to more timely works get steamrolled by either the diehard beatnik craze or pretentious and asinine Proust fetishizing. Consider this: a youthful subculture that prides itself on being edgy, progressive, intelligent, and actively engaged with what’s relevant; yet, to most of them, the literary world is a dusty, leather-bound brothel where people go to suck dead white dudes’ dicks. (Well at least it’s ironic and that’s what counts, right?)
Digressing from the snark and quips, I don’t know how to tell the hip, casual reader that their off-the-cuff dismissal and marginalization of living writers is a backward smack on the cheek without invoking a tone that comes across as something close to scathing and, to them, pretentious out the wazoo. Most often, I smile and nod when someone interrupts me to talk about Allen Ginsberg’s radical poetic innovation—the relevance of “Howl” or “America.” But by foregoing my license to speak, I am part of the problem. Having hitched on the beatnik glamour train for several years myself, I have actively contributed to the greater part of the problem. To large degrees, I feel guilty and somewhat ashamed. And if you’re getting flustered while reading this (Wait, is he talking about me?), absolutely, I’m talking about you. But more importantly, I’m challenging you to share in the guilt and shame with me.
Believe me, I’ve been there. I understand the trendy, sub-literate hipster mating ritual that consists of romanticizing typewriters and hanging outside of cafes, pretending to read antiquated copies of books that lean towards the literary–usually authored by people of some critical acclaim who have been dead for at least twenty years–in hopes of being noticed. Nostalgia is cute, and it’s very sexy right now to be perceived as a unique, “intellectual” sunflower. Modernist literature cosplay is boatloads of fun, and deep conversation about the transcendentalists makes for hella crazy pillow talk. But let’s not shit ourselves. Romanticizing is bastardizing. This association between the literary and the days of yore is a foolish and damning abstraction that seems to take precedent over, and conceal the state of, the literary world today in popular culture.
It’s an aesthetic reinforced by major publishers and book sellers who figure correctly that it doesn’t cost nearly as much to advertise and produce new materials (public domain’s a son of a bitch), and that casual readers are more likely to hop on a familiar name anyway. Aint nothing better after a long day than fattening up the ego with a Great American Burger…er, I mean, novel. But by playing the antique book snob or the B&N Classics junkie, we are, in effect, feeding the corporate fat cat and helping to further bury the writing community. It’s a lamentable state of affairs when a living writer’s biggest competition is F Scott Fitzgerald or Jane Austen, rather than his or her peers.
We could blame a cornucopia of circumstances for this predicament including but not limited to: cynicism and weariness toward conventional narrative structure, apprehension to what’s unfamiliar, and (my personal favorite) an apparent lack of quality literature at present. But as is the case with all art forms, finding, appreciating, and forming opinions on the good stuff takes time and research. If by now you’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m probably talking about you, I beg: the next time you’re out book shopping, rather than opting for the easy route of picking up the familiar The Sun Also Rises and allowing yourself to be spoon fed opinions about the book’s quality by peers, why not put forth the effort to discover a poet or fiction writer unknown to you and your friends? Why not act like the edgy, literate person I know you aspire to be and try something new?
If you want to dismiss my take on the attitude towards the literary world, that’s fine. But before doing so, please entertain these questions for just a minute: Why the Luddite attitude towards e-readers, but not mp3s? How come modern music has a clearly defined place in culture that’s separate from “the classics,” but the literary world is viewed by so many as a timeless vector in which we can talk about Jack Kerouac and Jennifer Egan like they’re next door neighbors? Look, baby, there’s not much denying that we can learn a lot from those who are long dead. But clinging to the past without properly acknowledging the present as an equally valuable, powerful animal is the fruit of ignorance that’s deadly to all art forms.
Tom is a 2nd year MFA candidate in Poetry at Old Dominion University where he works extensively with the Writer’s in Community outreach program teaching children that reading and writing can be relevant and exciting. When he isn’t crafting 8-bit sestinas and pro wrestler persona poems, he enjoys making pictures of himself into Hey Girl memes and nights on the town indulging in the local fare. He is a Libra, INFP, and counter-phobic loyalist, respectively.