The illusion of bounty: the flattening of literary sensibilities in a digital age

At the 2017 Writers’ Trust Awards in November, master of ceremonies Nick Mount made reference to an article by then Globe and Mail books editor Mark Medley. The article questioned whether Canada has too many literary awards, and though Mount, in his designated role, was hesitant to admit this might in fact be the case, he pointed out that a number of people Medley interviewed suggested that one reason awards are vested with such significance in this country has to do with shrinking review coverage for books in major media. With venues for review coverage contracting or disappearing altogether, awards serve a dual purpose as marketing tools and a means to bring books to readers’ attention.

Mount went one step further, stating that not only are the number of reviews decreasing, but Canada does not have any singular voices for book criticism – writers who appear regularly in newspapers or magazines to the extent that general readers are able to recognize an individual approach or sensibility and use those attributes as a guide for discovering books and writers. It would appear that Mount was referring to critics such as Irving Howe, Lionel Trilling, or H.L. Mencken, to name a trio of recognizable Americans popular in the middle of the last century. These critics did not provide quick, pithy responses to individual texts as a kind of consumer guide; instead, they delved deeply and read widely. They also maintained a broad knowledge of literary history and were able to situate new works within a literary tradition, as well as writing in a thoughtful, entertaining manner on such diverse subjects as politics, sports, music, film, theatre, economics, and travel.

In today’s literary ecosystem, the only critic who comes close to these so-called “public intellectuals,” in terms of word count and ubiquity, is James Wood, the book critic for The New Yorker. This July, Michiko Kakutani, one of the most feared and respected book critics in the U.S., stepped down from her post as the regular reviewer for the New York Times. In Canada, the only writer who could make a living as a dedicated book columnist, at least in the last few years, was Philip Marchand. (A search of Marchand’s work at the National Post indicates that his most recent column was a June 6 review of Elaine Dewar’s book The Handover.)

None of this should come as a surprise. The postmodern sensibility prevalent in the early 21st century is generally suspicious of authority, in the sense of an individual voice backed by extensive study, a deep knowledge of history, and the requisite expertise to exercise evaluative judgment over works under consideration. But on the level of simple economics, the decline in book criticism should appear equally inevitable. Publishers refuse to spend money to buy ads in media outlets, resulting in those outlets being forced to cut both the space available for book coverage and the money they are able to pay to the people who write about books. And a push for shorter, image laden, internet-friendly content has resulted in capsule reviews that serve as quick thumbs-up or thumbs-down assessments rather than a careful, thoughtful engagement with a work.

These complaints are by no means new. The American writer Elizabeth Hardwick made them as early as 1959, in an essay starkly titled “The Decline of Book Reviewing.” Even in the economically vibrant, boisterous postwar period – a time that might be considered the heyday for newspapers and general-interest magazines – Hardwick was moved to note that “book-review sections as a cultural enterprise are, like a pocket of unemployment, in a state of baneful depression insofar as liveliness and interest are concerned.” Perhaps ironically from our vantage, Hardwick’s diagnosis of the sorry state of book reviews resulted from there being not too few of them, but too many. The result, however, was the same: a flattening of attention and ambition that disallowed anything unfamiliar, difficult, idiosyncratic, or individual.

More than a decade earlier, in 1946, Lionel Trilling noted much the same kind of flattening; he identified a decline in literature possessed of the “energy to advance our civilization” that he assessed had been ongoing since the 1920s. Trilling predicted the “emotional space of the human mind” capable of making room for serious consideration of literary works “will be pre-empted by the substitutes for literature – the radio, the movies, and certain magazines – which are antagonistic to literature not merely because they are competing genres but also because of the political and cultural assumptions that control them.” Trilling’s comments appear in the introduction to an anthology commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Partisan Review, “an organ which, in the cultural field, was devoted to the interests of the Communist Party,” so it’s reasonable that he would highlight the “political and cultural assumptions” (read: capitalism) that contribute to the denigration of serious literary writing.

Today, those assumptions are intrinsically embedded in what has become the dominant mode of communication regarding cultural endeavours: the internet. A decade or more ago, the promise of the internet involved a kind of unending fertile valley that would give rise to a vast and diverse garden of commentary and critique. Bloggers – unshackled from the imperative of a corporation’s bottom line and not beholden to advertisers (that was the theory, in any case) – were tapped as the future of literary discourse, once the old fogies on the print side died out or ceded the field. But the starry-eyed digital utopians failed to take into account the logic of capitalism to which Trilling pointed: flash forward to 2017, and the only people making any money from online content are the oligarchs who run the platforms. Meanwhile, writing about books and literature has been reduced to a kind of pale book chat, a kaffeeklatsch of like-minded, mutually reinforcing groups, many of them driven – consciously or otherwise – by the imperatives of multinational publishers’ marketing departments.

Daniel Green remarks on this phenomenon in his recent book of criticism, Beyond the Blurb:

Literary blogs are (unwittingly, I hope) abetting the capitalist imperative to get out “product” as quickly as possible. New books appear, are duly noted, presumably consumed, and then we’re on to the next one. While sometimes lit bloggers consider an older title, it’s usually by an already established author or a “classic” of one sort or another. Little time is spent considering more recent books that might not have gotten enough attention, or assessing a writer’s work as a whole. Once the book has passed its “sell by” date, nothing else is heard of it and every book is considered in isolation, as a piece of literary news competing for its 15 seconds.

The Canadian critic Alex Good echoes this in his book Revolutions: Essays on Contemporary Canadian Fiction (in a chapter fatalistically titled “The Digital Apocalypse”). Good suggests that the signal effect of the shift to digital “has been to downgrade all art and personal expression to the level of the ephemeral, quickly consumed and discarded content.”

The emphasis on speed is germane; the internet is an insatiable maw that demands constant infusions of easily digestible content. This is antithetical to serious literature, which requires the application of qualities diametrically opposed to rapidity and mass consumption. Those more literary qualities – concentration, patience, deliberation, a tolerance for nuance and ambiguity – are in short supply in today’s culture, a situation that has negative impacts on reviews and literary criticism appearing both online and in print.

The fact that none of these arguments is new or unique to our current historical moment provides little succour in the face of broad cultural complacency and a demonstrated willingness to elevate mediocre books to the status of masterpieces while casting any and all critical responses in the same overheated and clichéd language (a new novel is “compelling” or “riveting,” a book that will “remain with you long after the last page is turned”). On the contrary, it’s remarkably easy to give in to pessimism or despair at the prospect of diminishment in the face of paradoxical plenty: while there exists a shortage of dedicated critics and cultivated readers, more written material – both in print and online – is appearing faster than at any other time in history. The illusion of bounty proliferates while the critical apparatus that should contextualize and comment on it gets choked off at the root.

The typical response to such doom-and-gloom naysaying is to refer to the naysayer as a dinosaur, a figure on the verge of extinction who refuses to evolve with the culture. And this may be a fair assessment. But as Good also points out in his essay, the process of evolution does not necessarily imply progress or betterment. “Evolution,” Good writes, “just as easily follows the path of least resistance and leads to degeneration and decline. And what we lose will not easily be regained.”

The illusion of bounty: the flattening of literary sensibilities in a digital age
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3 thoughts on “The illusion of bounty: the flattening of literary sensibilities in a digital age

  • December 11, 2017 at 10:31 pm
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    Relieved to read this.

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  • December 8, 2017 at 2:58 pm
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    And just to heighten the gloom… here’s Good quoting Colin Robinson from the London Review of Books: “In an increasingly self-centered society a premium is placed on being heard rather than listening, being seen rather than watching, and on being read rather than reading.”

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  • December 8, 2017 at 12:57 pm
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    Ah, Dear Steven, things are quite dire, aren’t they? Add to this the fact that those writers who are thinking about writing outside of their own work are in creative writing programs teaching others, not to think about writing, but to write their own books and take care of their own interests. In all this self-interested literature where indeed does quality literary discourse emerge from? What is needed, quite apart from money to pay for a critical writing community, is the training of critical thinkers and writers. The space to allow these writers to read widely, to think, deeply and voraciously, to argue in public, to take up ideas and defend them. As it happens I recently taught that Hardwick essay in my Digital Literary Production class at Concordia where students are reading Hardwick alongside a new generation of critical writers and reviewers that are popping up, despite all this bad news. It’s time to fund less prizes and more coffers to pay for writers to breathe and think. This new generation is worth the investment. Support them. Support beyond the individual and regional Canada Council & others. Pay young writers. Boycott empty useless content. Thanks for your thoughts! xx

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