6.19.2007

Wait...are you saying literature isn't dead?



I think one of my biggest minor annoyances in life is talking to people about literature. Books.

When I meet people, I generally don't offer up that I write, although it is frequently a question that follows once people have asked what I do for a living, since it seems a natural extension of the place where I work. I cop to it if asked, yes, and then for some reason, people always feel compelled to confess to me various aspects of their reading habits. "I don't read much,"
they'll say, as if apologizing to me personally, or to pre-empt my seemingly inevitable judgment of their intelligence, class, or cultural savvy.

[As an aside, something similar occurred when I first came out. People would respond with the most outlandish confessions, like "Once I stole lip gloss from Wal-Mart!" or "Once I let a boy do me in the butt!" As if there's an equivalency there.]

The people who don't read much, I understand. People are busy. Books take a lot of time, and a lot of them are kind of bad, especially if you don't know what you're looking for, have gotten a crappy recommendation, or are new to reading for fun. For most people, reading is a chore akin to carefully flaying their own skin from their body and stretching it taut across a drum to be tanned into leather. I get that. Sometimes, some books make me dislike reading. This is the case with any book my father would enjoy: non (*shudder*) fiction.

People, I don't care if you read. Don't read if you don't want to. I'd rather talk about what's on TV anyway. Did you see the Veronica Mars finale??

Those who do read, I find, generally begin to ask me if I like a series of writers. They generally ask like this: "Do you like ____? Do you like ____? Do you like ____?" as if this were high school and I were handed a note that says, after each one, "check yes or no."

Their list of writers oftentimes looks like this:

Dead white guy
Dead white guy
Dead white woman
Nearly dead white guy
The DaVinci Code
White guy I think is probably dead, maybe in the past couple of months
Dead white guy

It's as if most people believe that "literature" is no longer being created. That all of these great books, written by dead people, somehow just appeared on the shelves in their local bookstore. They don't seem to understand that there are actual living writers creating actual works of art RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE. They also don't seem to understand that they can read those books shortly after they are published, while the writer is still alive, and that typically they can also go somewhere not far from their house to hear the author read, meet the author, etc.

I've learned when people ask me what I read that I generally have to list for them the dead people whose books I've enjoyed, or else they look at me quizzically, wondering who these writers are they've never heard of. "Oh, they're still alive," I explain, and then I'm met with a very skeptical look that I know means nothing written by a living person could be worth reading.

I think America's reading-living-writers crisis has become so extreme that "Living Writers" could be a real stumper of a category on Jeopardy!

Unless, of course, the book has been made into a movie, a TV movie, or a mini series.

3 comments:

  1. It's as if most people believe that "literature" is no longer being created...They don't seem to understand that there are actual living writers creating actual works of art RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE.

    Wow, you've nailed it--and you're right about Jeopardy. And many of those who voraciously read contemporary fiction, who use the library constantly and who are "Readers" don't realize that there are contemporary authors other than Grisham (or, a step up literarily, I guess, Jodi Picoult, Alexander McCall Smith, etc.), etc. If the book hasn't been reviewed in People or the paper or isn't on the bestseller list where they are getting their information about "what the current good books are"--it doesn't exist. Because where would they hear about it?

    A serious question--where would they hear about it? Even film--the film "Helvetica" was in Minneapolis for 3 screenings only at the Walker Art Center. If you didn't already know about the film (because you subscribed to certain RSS feeds or whatever) or about the event (because you're a Walker member), you couldn't have learned it was happening. Okay, so books don't only "happen" for a few screenings--but I think in some ways it's a failure of promotion. Most contemporary "literary" literature doesn't get thrown in your path unless you're actively seeking it...or Oprah chooses it...or it wins a Pulitzer. So--how do we remedy that? Put the bestsellers in the back of the store/library like grocery stores do with the most sought-after items (milk, eggs) so that folks have to walk by everything else first? Not a bad idea, really--though not customer-friendly. Upload a short movie to YouTube that was sure to get lots of word-of-mouth hits (like a burning Elmo doll)--and flash a literary book cover at the end (maybe flash it between someone's legs)?

    Or just making lots of personal recommendations whenever someone mentions "great literature" as if it were a thing of the past?

    Sorry for disorganization--I'm thinking out loud and will come back to it later...

    Great post. And "I once stole lip gloss from Wal-Mart" is the most effing priceless response to "I'm gay" I've ever heard.

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  2. omg, Charlie, you made me laugh and laugh and laugh!

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  3. Um, duh!!! Stephen King!

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