This is part one of an interview with John Harris, author and columnist for Dooney's Cafe:
CBT: Literature is in trouble -- that is, more trouble than usual. Why do you think this is? The increasing prevalence of TV? The distractions of increasingly narcotic subcultures such as video games? Sept. 11? The Crash of 2008? Or is talk of the "death of literature" simple exaggeration?
JH: It’s not likely that literature is in trouble. It’s just that the ways in which we use written language, to make and present stories and song, change. This makes us literary writers uncomfortable. When we’re uncomfortable we tend to conflate ourselves with our art. If our royalties are going down, literature is in trouble. If we can’t get published as easily as before, literature is in trouble. If we can’t get jobs in the English Department because enrolments are collapsing, literature is in trouble. If repressive regimes enforce censorship, literature is in trouble. If the economy tanks, literature is in trouble. If multinational publishing houses flood the market with crap novels, literature is in trouble.
Thinking like this is pretentious, and it confuses us. One thing we need to remember is that there’s a fairly convincing theory of art that holds that the more uncomfortable writers are, the better they write. Maybe literature would be better off if writers were in more trouble. Sharon Thesen put it this way at the 1984 Winnipeg Writing and Performance conference:
Poetry’s identity with social crisis and crises of meaning will always guarantee both its vitality and its general unpopularity . . . . In future, poetry may become less a “discharge of psychological evil-being” and more a homeopathic infusion into a healthy body politic, but his may mean the disappearance of (lyric) poetry as we know it — an occurrence I can’t say I look forward to. But that is the unsettled and questionable subject of poetic language speaking, that would rather have Artaud than Utopia.
Literary writers in Canada and other relatively free, prosperous and peaceful countries actually are in trouble, but in ways that are good. They are facing technical challenges connected to the platforms on which they deliver stories and songs. The Elizabethans faced similar challenges, in having to convert from manuscript to print circulation, from patronage to profit, from the church or schoolroom venue to the playhouse and a mass audience.
This goes back a long ways. With literature, writing as compared to speaking or singing increased in importance with the invention of paper. There was now a way of communicating across large spaces and over time, which was important to business, law and government. Society facilitated written communication by teaching reading and writing. All of this provided extra opportunities to people who invented stories and song lyrics and wrote them down. They could appeal to a larger audience. They could get jobs doing what they liked to do — at least the talking-about-literature part. They had stimulating new technologies to play with. Writers in one country could read what writers in another country were doing — the English, for example, in the fifteenth century, reading the Italians.
When the printing press was invented, writers could have books of poems and stories mass-produced and sold in the market. This enabled them to dominate other artists. Musicians and singers had to get audiences to come to listen. Painters and sculptors had to get people into galleries. Playwrights had to get audiences to the theatre.
Now there are marketable platforms for plays, music and sculpture, making things fairer for other artists and providing even more stimulating challenges and technology to story-tellers and song-writers. To talk of these platforms as being “narcotic,” as compared to the printed page, smacks of sour grapes. It implies that audiences are not to be enticed into reading or listening to poems and stories but forced because they are, essentially, stupid. They don’t know when something’s bad for them. Writers with this attitude may be conflating writing and teaching, taking a classroom of students to be a real audience. They are not. Audiences have to be entertained.
Certainly scientists should look at what various media of communications do to the mind, just as they might study certain narcotics, and certainly if problems are suspected governments should act. But writers don’t know enough about CAT or MRI scans to provide any direction in this, and some (Yeats, Frost) believe that it’s part of their job to put readers into a trance. Some evidently believe it’s part of their job to be in a trance.
Shakespeare wrote extremely sophisticated plays in extremely sophisticated English that appealed to both the educated and the uneducated. Likely he spent more time understanding that audience and writing for it than he did complaining about it. Money was an important motivator.
So, no “death of literature.” “Death of the book?” So what? Homer did okay without it. Shakespeare didn’t pay too much attention to it, though he made sure that his lyric and narrative poetry got published. For lyric and narrative, that’s where the money was. Now, maybe the computer screen is better. The audience decides these matters, not the writer, and it decides it through its purchases.