The other day, a friend sent me an article about how art became irrelevant. It's mostly ground I've heard covered before: post-WWI and WWII, artists moved from critiquing the unprecedented human suffering wrought by Western society to utter rejection of the values of that society, which ended up making those artists irrelevant. It's a fairly conservative view of art, and I realized, after noodling around the site that published it, that it's a fairly conservative venue. But it doesn't matter; what I'm talking about here is related more to a side-trip the article took than the main argument, and the facts in that digression are solid, even if the main argument may have weaknesses. In this passage, Lewis recalled how art forms wither and die as culture and technology shift:
...the novel, like any genre of art, is the product of a particular cultural moment. Each genre reflects certain systems of belief and social structures, and it will flourish with them or shrivel accordingly. At the end of the Middle Ages, passion plays and manuscript illumination withered away; shortly thereafter, the Renaissance court conjured up opera and ballet.
A new technology can change the cultural moment with shocking speed. America’s culture of vaudeville, vibrant for a half century, sank into oblivion after the introduction of sound in film in 1927. Fred Allen, one vaudeville performer who found a lifeboat in radio, observed with chagrin how theater chains promptly began to bill motion pictures above their vaudeville programs. The big bands of the Swing Era and their culture of nightclubs and ballrooms could not survive television. Now it is literary culture that is on the chopping block. According to Publishers Weekly, the greatest sales of nonfiction books was achieved in 2007—the same year (the magazine might have noted) that Apple introduced the iPhone. Since then, book sales have been declining steadily, up to 10 percent a year.
I've called myself a failed writer, but if I take October 2013 as the moment I started in earnest, and not grad school more than a decade earlier, I haven't done that badly. I had one short story published and got good feedback on five others. One almost-good-enough was from a journal that has sent writers on to Pushcart awards and Best American Short Stories awards before. So it wasn't a bad rookie year. Combine that with a few poetry publications back in the early aughts, and I can probably assume that I don't totally suck at writing.
It's possible that if I kept at it, I might have been a "successful" writer. But what does that mean, nowadays? I don't think we're in danger of books disappearing, but they are losing steam. Shelley once called poets the "unacknowledged legislators of the world," but when was the last time you can think of a piece of literature having a major place in public discourse? Politicians may quote (or misquote) a bit from literature here and there, but I don't get the sense that people read books, particularly fiction, to become different people much nowadays.
And by "people," I mean me
I recently started reading the 2014 Best American Short Stories anthology. In the preface, Heidi Pitlor notes that " from my vantage point...it seems that more people in this country want to write than read. Many people who read this book are in fact writers in training, reading in order to learn how to write better." (She's right; that's a major reason why I bought it.) She followed her train of thought: "What happens when writing becomes more attractive than reading? Will we become--or are we already--a nation of performers with no audience?"
She admits that even she herself and her lit friends have developed a tendency to discuss television more than books when gathered together. She laments a lack of a literary community where thoughts about books are exchanged. She exhorted herself and the patrons of BASS to read more, Facebook less.
Me, I read eight of the twenty stories in the anthology and got bored. Only one, "The Breeze," by Joshua Ferris, struck me as great. The rest were merely well-built stories that impacted on the surface of my psyche.
Literature's influence on me has been profound, but I'm finding it moves me less and less. I have a graduate degree in literature, but even I find watching Mad Men somehow more satisfying than reading The Road was, and not just on a superficial level. My summer reading was all non-fiction. My son and his friends, who have grown up with video everything, will read far less than I do. Reading of fiction will not disappear, but it will mean less in the future than it has.
There are only a handful of writers who truly make a living from what they write. Most have to moonlight--teaching writing, if they are lucky. That's not to say if you don't "make it" that you're a bad writer. It's just that we've created a high supply of writers (a holdover from a past in which writing was a highly respected thing to do) and a low demand from readers. I'm not going to say this is good or bad for society. Although I have a feeling that a society that reads less is somehow linked to Donald Trump being taken seriously as a candidate for president, maybe watching shows and posting on social media about them fills a cultural need even better than old reading circles or salons used to do. Right or wrong, a post-literary shift is happening. Literature is becoming less and less a requirement for those who want to be taken seriously by society. If you wish to address that society in some way, a story in words might not be the best way to do it.
During grad school, I switched from poetry to fiction because I thought nobody read poetry anymore except maybe other poets. I now feel that fiction is crumbling into a few highly segregated neighborhoods of juvenile fiction, "best sellers," and literary fiction, which more and more is coming to mean "writing written for other writers." I've been reading that kind of writing long enough to know I don't like it, and that's not the audience I want to talk to, either.
So my fiction revival is definitely over. I don’t know if I’m done with writing forever. Fiction kind of took over a place in my life that religion used to occupy when I decided I just couldn’t believe in it anymore. I’ve found fiction harder to leave for good than religion. Even religion had some useful things about it that I've kept with me. Fiction has a lot more.
But since writing fiction is over for me for now, so is this blog—nearly. I think I still have a few saved rounds to fire off about "craft." But much more than that, I’m going to post a few of the stories I wrote during that year. Nobody will read them, but I might as well do something with them. Once I’ve posted a few (if I can bear to post any—looking at them after eight months off, the first two didn’t seem very good to me), I’ll do one final post about why I don’t recommend grad school in writing, so that will remain the top post in case someone is wondering about that one day and stumbles across me via Google. Those considering grad school can then at least read a few stories to decide if grad school just didn't work for me because nothing could have.
Stories to start in a few days. Because I know you're all dying of anticipation.