Friday, January 02, 2009

Death of literature...greatly exaggerated

David Frum laments:
Literature is a declining presence in our modern society, increasingly an academic preoccupation. Intelligent young people read literature at university, and when they graduate, they stop. When they feel the need to feed the imagination, they turn to movies or television shows.
His evidence?
Here in the blogosphere, certainly, the contrast is stark. I just did a Google blogsearch. For "Franz Kafka" and "The Trial," 7900 entries. For HBO and "The Wire," 59,000. For HBO and "The Sopranos," 72,000. For "Battlestar Galactica," 399,000.
Sorry, David, that won't fly. People don't do internet searches to prove their virtue; they use them to pursue their interest and pleasure. And there was never any population in any place in any era in which a large majority would not be more viscerally interested in The Wire, The Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica than in an abstruse and allegorical text like The Trial. In fact, I think The Trial's relative blog authority is remarkably strong. Must be all those paper assignments.

Frum is also blithely certain that "movies and TV are more arresting, more accessible, and less demanding than text." Hmm. Someone should have given him Steven Berlin Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You over the holidays. A couple of snippets, cribbed from a Wikipedia summary:
In film, Johnson highlights the recent trend of mind-bending films: Memento, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Pulp Fiction. He argues these films have become popular despite their use of avant-garde techniques, which normally would restrict their accessibility and economic viability. The popularization of narrative experimentation in these films works to further Johnson's main thesis, which highlights an increase in complexity and viewer involvement throughout mass culture in the last twenty years....

Prior to "multiple threading", television episodes contained one or two main characters and one storyline. With the additional "collection of distinct strands" to the episodes, the public became willing "to tolerate more complicated narratives".[10] This allowed the audiences to comprehend more storylines and characters as well as linking different episodes, improving their cognitive skills. In television shows like The Sopranos multiple threading is a common tactic used to provide information to the audience in an interesting way. Johnson explains, "The narrative weaves together a collection of distinct strands-sometimes as many as ten, though at least half of the threads involve only a few quick scenes scattered through the episode".[11] He believes that due to the rising technology in pop culture the audience is conditioned to comprehend the increasingly difficult plots developed with multiple threading. Essentially, then, Johnson's theory of "multiple threading" is based on the increase of narrative complexity through time.

Mind you, multiple threading was popular in medieval romance too -- Mallory's Morte d'Arthur interweaves the stories of many roundtable knights, each followed in their turn. And Frum, like many cultural doomsayers, is right that the reading of books has lost market share as a leisure activity. But how do we know that that trend is not creative destructive, rather than destruction plain and simple?

Reading and writing are blending with other media and other pursuits. My 18 year-old son spends half his leisure time in front of a computer -- rummaging through Digg, reading, watching video clips, writing to friends whether via IM or Facebook walls or plain email. The degree of mental challenge or aesthetic stimulus in his choice, in everyone's choice, depends more on his own propensities than on some absolute measure of the quality of cultural artifact available to him. And that's the way it's always been and will always be.

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