Few Thoughts on the Condition of Literature

in the Age of the Market

 

by

Natalija Grgorinic & Ognjen Raden

 

 

Entering the literary scene, and that might just be the case with North America, but there are indications it’s not very different anywhere else, one meets the odds stacked up high against a newcomer. Instead of help or support one encounters only bleak or dark divinations for the downward spiraling course contemporary literature appears to be on. These sorts of “encouragements” come from those already established, more or less, who seem to be protecting their position at the expanse of their very domain, stunting the growth of the entire field of literature in order to preserve it as their own property.

But who owns the literature today? Or better yet, whom does it belong to? Does literature belong to those who produce it, or does it belong to those who consume it? Recently the consumers of literature seem to have given up on it, but under more careful inspection it appears that it is so only because those who are producing it have given up on it as well[1].

As far as acknowledgement goes there are two kinds of literature, that which receives some sort of acknowledgement, and the other that is shunned, ignored, left out from any discourse. The literature that meets any reception can further be divided into one that belongs to the market, and one that belongs to the academic community. In past there might have existed different classification, the one that set literature as an art in opposition or contrast to literature as a product, but such a division seems outdated enough, because that literature, literature as art, has fallen out of the picture, has indeed disappeared into the category of that which is not perceived as literature at all[2]. All what had remained, literature as a product, got divided between the market and the Academia.

The clearest evidence of this is visible in the fact that almost all poetry is considered non-marketable, and thus has fallen under the domain of academic scrutiny, while at the same time almost all prose has been co-opted by the market. Of course, there exists poetry that does not meet or goes against academic standards, as there is enough prose which is equally un-marketable, but it is the fact that such literature does not exist in the same way a falling tree makes no sound unless there is someone who will witness its fall.

So whom does literature belong to? Our contention is that it does not belong to those who produce it any more, same as it does not belong to those who consume it. It belongs to those who market it, the publishers, the booksellers; it belongs to those who live of it, the reviewers, the professors. It is they who have abducted the literature, made it their own. It is they who have thrown the author and the reader out of the relationship, or better yet reduced them to abstractions that figure only in calculations of market analyses or equations of literary history and theory.

The author still creates, but only that which will generate profit or academic acclaim. The author might choose something completely different, but in that case the author will actively create – nothing, since of all forms of art, literature has the most unfortunate feature of not being finished until it is rendered presentable through the process of publication and critical acceptance.

In other words, where a painter is done with his painting with the last stroke of the brush, and is free to hang the work even on a wall of a public restroom, and where a musician is free to play any tune in front of that same restroom; literature, self-published literature, is free to serve as – toilet paper – and is regarded as little better than toilet paper, by the money-making peddlers, and by the academic scrutinizers.

In its highest form literature was equally a source of artistic truth as it was a source of information, a source of ideas and ideology, source of education, of moral guidance and even a source of entertainment. This has greatly changed in the last fifty years through introduction of new media, but more importantly, through the process of separating literature from those it originally belonged to. Under the excuse of freedom of choice, literature had been cut up, butchered, like meat in a shop, neatly packaged into slices, minced, precooked, wrapped in plastic and offered in shining refrigerators under labels, categorized and processed to satisfy specific needs of picky readers. Contemporary bookstore resembles modern democracy, each book has its genre, form, label, readership, age group, subject group, the result of which is stratification of books equaling the stratification of the society.  Wherever there is division, there is also hierarchy and hierarchy in literary production is responsible for trapping the readers within their classes. Once viewed merely as a product, a work of literature no longer serves its purpose, a book as a product is designed to keep people in their place, within the confines of their class, status and frame of mind.

It’s enough to compare what is sold under literature to who is actually reading today. According to “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America” conducted by National Endowment for the Arts, published in June of 2004. the total population of readers in US is roughly 96 million people which equals the number of readers from the year of 1982. It is a 10 percent decline in reading or a loss of 20 million potential readers. According to NEA statistics the average American reader is white (77 million), female (59 million), age between 35 and 54 (41 million), with finished high school or some college (54 million) with family income of more than 50 000 dollars (46 million). Or in other words, a reader most likely not to seek literature which inspires any change, a reader seeking affirmation for what he or she is, a reader comfortable in his or her place, looking only to enhance that comfort. The largest group of readers are middle-aged women who, taking in account the widest possible range of interests, are still equally disinterested in change. There will be no revolution (of any kind including esthetical), nor any talk of revolution in that class simply because they are addicted to comfort either due to their age, status or lack of motivation.

So by answering the question Who are the readers? one answers the question What is the literature like? and consequently, Who are the writers?

The main problem with the contemporary reader is that he/she wants to possess knowledge without putting in the effort of acquiring it, or even before acquiring it. It is a paradox that marks all literature that sells. People simply don’t want to find out anything new. That what is bound to get their attention is something they feel they already know everything about. Whatever the trace of new in literature might be it is flushed out for the benefit of the reader. Literature is no longer allowed to be provocative, too deep or too sharp emotions are to be dulled or rooted, any puzzling idea is to be extracted, innovative proposals or concepts are banned by the manufacturer. Commercial publishing additionally feed such behavior by categorizing books, they become an equivalent of a precooked meal – beef or pork, mystery or fantasy - despite some more or less brave exceptions contemporary genre fiction is as nutritious as a TV dinner.

Our ability to perceive has been contaminated by television, the field of literature has been soiled by the spreading effect of dominant visual culture. And while other art forms can cohabitate with it, more or less successfully, literature is losing battle for the attention of the final recipient.

Short attention span of the audience is combined with images and ideas that don’t cause conflict – the reader must read only about what he/she has seen, or heard of, resulting in the complete blind trust in the picture brought by the utter, even irreversible scorn and mistrust for the word.

Lower classes, workers, people of lower economical standard abandoned literature completely simply because literature abandoned them completely. They are returning the favor by planting themselves in front of a television set.

Schoolchildren, students, young adults have been chartered and occupied as the exclusive territory of the entertainment industry, with education not working on their behalf, but rather being the agent in further lowering of the standards.

From historical perspective it is quite obvious how this decline had come around. The time of the 1950s seems to have been the very first and the very last time of literacy – not only in US, but worldwide. People enjoyed full power and full benefit of the written word for but a very short time. It is at that time that a progressive, philosophically and thematically fresh literature found a receptive large population of readers. This was the result of first half of the 20th century when the rise in general literacy equaled and responded to the development of challenging literature. The world of the 1950s felt secure enough to read the most advanced literary work of the 1920s and 1930s. In a way it was a peak where material security met with ideological progressiveness. It was also a point where culture in traditional sense ceased to exist. It was after that that it came under the control of the market. What we want to suggest is that especially American culture was not ready or able to deal with the changes that took place in the world, changes such as women winning their right to work and participate in the society independently, people of color claiming their right to equality and lower classes being elevated to all-encompassing middle class. These were the challenges culture was not able to respond to, but these challenges were quite easily and successfully met by the market. So in order to survive, culture was sold to the highest bidder.

It is through struggle for human and civil rights that black people of America won their right to participate in the culture, but only to find out that there was nothing to participate in. By wining its way out of slavery and out of segregation black culture joined the mainstream going down the drain of a culture condemned to the dark night of the image. Reliance on the image and the sound, more than on the word or thought had a devastating effect upon the culture. People are no longer capable of understanding the meaning, to conceal that fact they are ready to say that there is no meaning to be found anymore, or they’ll say that everything might mean anything, but never anything in particular. It is through the struggle for the class equality that the American working class won their right to participate in the culture, only to find out there is nothing to participate in.

That what is considered to be American culture owes its existence exclusively to the dogma that culture does not belong to everyone, and that not everyone has a right to create culture. So while the culture was clean of color, while it was pure of residual class element, it was promoted and preserved. The moment it got boarded by color and low class it was abandoned by its proponents and patrons, and whoever wanted to stay had to deal with a sinking ship. Rats fled first.

So what had remained of American culture got salvaged, cut up for scrap iron, used for the production of a more profitable means of mass ideology transportation. Anti-intellectualism got elevated to the highest of pedestals, the stone tablets of Moses got pulled out to the light of day so that television can carve an amendment on them with a safety pin, or an ice-pick: DO NOT THINK.

The barons of industry found out there is money in making people stupid. Stall-boys of the Academy followed suit by introducing “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to the university.

Culture in the age of advanced capitalism is an unfortunate baby dropped by the silk-skinned hands of the masters who no longer deem profitable or prestigious to hold it, and not caught in the rough calloused palms of the servants who are not yet accustomed to care for it. The baby, the culture, thus hits the floor, develops deformities growing maybe by itself, the way baby alligators grow by themselves in the city sewage when flushed down the toilet.

Contemporary literature follows the rest of contemporary, if not popular culture, leaving out meaning and competing with the image by bare form. More that any other form of art literature is an art of thought[3], and while music and visual arts can evoke a thought, an idea, only literature can say it – providing there is someone who will listen. First feature of literature lost was its function as a source of information. Printed media, radio, television and finally the Internet made sure of that. Soon, in combination with entertainment and advertising industry those media became the predominant sources of ideology. Educational and moral functions followed, or were put aside by new, prevailing ideologies. That what was left got further cleaved into halves, two remaining functions got separated, polarized, came into opposition of one to another. Brought under the wing of industry popular literature became even more dissected (genres).

Writers and theoreticians of writing seem to have conceded to the proposition that there is nothing new to be expressed in literature. Since the readers have been discouraged to use literature as a source of new ideas those who produce it have begun to regard it in the same light – yes, the idea has remained, but it is being put into a form rather than into a content which results in most of modern literature being empty – empty of ideas, and empty of emotions.

Commercial literature, on the other hand, is almost exclusively interested in exploitation of emotion, in the process of which it works on reinforcing the same convenient, marketable, socially acceptable stereotypes.

The situation thus produced resembles a new form of slavery – the word has been taken from the people, it doesn’t belong to them anymore and it is arguable if it ever had.

Average reader has no historical perspective on a work of literature, he/she is more likely to be taken by it as a whole, without giving in to urge to open it up to learn and judge how it functions.

Academic readers, or consumers of literature, have greater knowledge than the average reader, so their interest in literature is different than that of an average reader. They don’t view a work of art in its totality, but are more interested in evaluating its innovativeness in only certain segments. Since a work of literature is alive, as any work of art, it cannot survive academic approach.

Forgetting is an important part of culture, almost as important as invention – only today forgetting seems to have become a predominant culture mode, particularly in popular culture, while historical approach has remained the exclusive domain of the Academia. The problem of the historical approach is evident in the fact that, for example, the work of Ralph Ellison will never be evaluated in the same manner or the same extent as the work of William Shakespeare. If what is wrong with popular culture is the fact that it cannot or will not hold to anything long enough for its value to be proved or disapproved, the problem with Academia is that it is inherently incapable of letting go, of keeping things in perspective. It, the Academia, suffers from what seems to be a reversed optical illusion where things appear to be bigger further they are from us, further in the past that is. Nothing can break the subjectivity of a member of Academia, although he will swear of his objectivity on a stack of Encyclopedias. He will say that the greatest American novel of all times is, for example, Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” without realizing that the very statement negates the existence of American novel. Of course, there is no possible empirical method of making sure that “Moby Dick” is indeed as great as the rumor has it, simply because claim of its greatness relies only upon a consensus in which “science” gives way to a democratic process even more flawed and malleable than the one producing modern day imperialism. And the reason why no other work of literature after Herman Melville has any chance of usurping the place his novel holds in this great American literary competition is simply because all authors who had followed him, and keep following, have no admissible excuse for not reading “Moby Dick”. If they read it, it must be what makes their own work good, if they tried to get away as far as possible from the grooves its wagon left in the dirt, it must have shaped their writing even deeper, and even if they had successfully avoided it, it was still available, and the mere availability of Melville lessens their work.

In that Academia is obsessed with what was first, the same way popular culture is obsessed with what is the latest. In between there is an unbearable, ever-growing void. Contemporary culture is that vacuum created between the two points in perspective on time – in other words it is nonexistent as a living thing, with all the air sucked out there are just hard particles in absence of fluidity that would serve as a conduit, connecting them in a living, life giving system.

What lies in the root of this problem is the fact that the readers got sold out, or sold down the river, firstly by authors, who exchanged their responsibility for the comfort of non-conflict, who instead of continuing to open new spaces conceded to fencing in their public by the barbed wire of predictable, pleasant, soothing idea. It’s a satin-padded prison cell, that which goes under literature today, a concentration camp disguised as a picnic sight, the painted sun never sets, the plastic grass never wilts and the bright, blinding light of electrical bulbs both offers warmth and freezes a person in an utter intellectual inertia. The market knows no mercy. None is to be found in academic laboratories either, where the other, “higher” literature is willingly subjected to inhuman experiments devised to prove nothing save the superiority of the scientist over the subject matter.

The reader got sold out, the link between the reader and the author got broken, the reader got sold out, and neither the market, the publisher, the reviewer, or the academic community, the theoretician, the historian were ever fostering the inclination to act as the agent, the representative, the champion for the reader. The author sold the reader down the river to have his picture on the television, to have his name mentioned in a lecture, the author abandoned his very existence to instantly become a part of history, and to become a part of that elusive ever new, the latest, one that will come immediately after now, it, the “thing”. In that the author sold out the present down the river, the only time a living entity can exist in, by forfeiting the moment, the author’s choice got reduced to him either becoming petrified in past, or evaporating in the very next “thing”.



[1] The use of language of economy is deliberate since the discourse of economy seems to have remained as the only universal channel of communication. Terms such as ownership, production, belonging can be misinterpreted by only a few, whereas the use of language such as creation, communication, exchange of information are likely to be modified by the person who encounters them. Additional and more important reason for use of the terminology of economy is that it leaves no doubt as to what is the current position of literature in the society, which is a position of constant misuse, objectification and commodification.

[2] By now, it should be clear that what we are concerned with is the degenerative discourse on literature which has remained the only public discourse. It – the literature, in the way it was or in the way it should be – is observed from the perspective that is merely a product of the present time. It seems to be the consensus of the moment that literature is something separate from art. Since all the artistic norms have been broken or ignored in what is predominantly considered to be literature today, it is no longer “appropriate” to discuss work of literature as a work of art. Abandoning arguments of artistic value and importance the whole discussion of literature has been reduced to  “grocery talk”.

[3] Is literature merely an art of language or is it an art of thought? This is a problem no other art form faces, and while theoretically it is conceivable that a word can become divorced from its meaning, it is hard to accept that any product of human endeavor is without meaning. Even rejecting meaning adds meaning to the very process. Even if meaning in the form of denotation and connotation are abandoned, there is still meaning as a sense, the rationale; no form of art, no human creation can divorce itself from intention, because without intention it does not exist, it is not complete. The dreaded question forced on any piece of writing is: What purpose does it serve? Would a poem with no meaning have a purpose, or would it be created with the intention of it not being the one serving a purpose, but transferring the service of purpose onto the recipient. Would a poem with no meaning give purpose to the reader, would that purpose be that the reader serves the purpose and serves the poem? And if that would be its true meaning, its true purpose, wouldn’t that be a meaning equal to any other, wouldn’t that be a purpose, one that the poem would necessarily serve? Is the meaning of the work of art only the one that is infused in its conception, or is it the added one? And who really cares what the author says once the work is done and out?