Monday, March 26, 2007

Criticism of the Critics

I posted this on my other blog and I just simply had to post it here as well. WARNING: Angry rant ahead.

In the April issue of Harper's magazine, Cynthia Ozick quotes an essay titled "Defeating the Poem" written by Denis Donoghue, a literary scholar and a professor of thirty years. In his essay, Donoghue reports:

"Those students who think of themselves as writers and take classes in 'creative writing' to define themselves as poets or fiction writers evidently write more than they read, and regard reading as a gross expenditure of time and energy. They are not open to the idea that one learns to write by reading good writers."

Oh, ye Gods of literature, say it ain't so. Have we sunk so low that even writers don't want to read? Or as Oznick puts it, "So is that where the readers of the next generation are going: to the perdition of egotism and moralizing politicized self-righteousness?"

I always get a bit defensive when writers lament and cry out in letters, "The readers have all gone! Where have all the readers gone?" I wish to say, "Here I am. I'm right here. Don't I count?" I know, of course, that that's not what they mean. What they mean is that there simply aren't as many readers like myself out there as there used to be. But, doesn't it seem just a bit self-defeating to write articles about people who don't read because, obviously, anyone who reads the article is, by definition, a reader? So, it begs the question, who is the intended audience for these articles anyway? Fellow writers, literary critics, readers, or all three? No ones seems to disagree with the fact that readership is declining in America (and in Britain, apparently) so what is the point of all these articles really?

The fact that libraries are getting rid of their Shakespeare and their Dickens because young readers find them too boring and too difficult to read is outrageous, indeed. But what's being done about it? Outrage without action is annoying, boring, and frankly, pointless. Writers, however, seem content to do what writers do - write - and leave the action for someone else. In the past, that may have all been fine and dandy. But to those writers who want the readers of yesteryear back, I'd tell them the same thing I'd tell a child crying, "Mommy! Mommy! He stole my candy." Go get it back. Getting readers to return to reading doesn't require beating, cheating, or stealing (especially if, as Oznick writes, people are already "Googling obsessively (hours and hours)" and "blogging and emailing and text messaging" which all requires reading for "hours and hours").

No, what getting readers back requires is ingenuity and creativity, two things which writers have in sufficient supply. But, most importantly, what it requires is action. Action not through words but through deeds. Large scale reading programs and fairs, and English teachers skilled enough to educate and impart to their students a sense of their own passion for reading. I always tell people who tell me they don't like to read that they simply just haven't read the right book. Where are the programs to help people find their inner reader in the same way that writers are encouraged and taught to find their inner voice?

Call me naive but I truly and honestly believe that there is a reader in everyone. Anyone will read if you place the right book in front of them. This is especially the case with children and younger students, which is where it should all begin, before they've convinced themselves that their time is better spent with television, the internet, and video games. But so often, we speak of these things as if it has to be either/or. Either you read or you watch television; either you play video games or you read. This simply isn't the case. I spend plenty of time surfing the internet - checking email, Googling, blogging (obviously) and all. I also take time out of my day to watch my favorite television shows. And yet somehow, miracle of miracles, I read. A lot.

This isn't - it shouldn't be - a battle of the internet versus reading. This should be a battle for reading, period. When adults who have trouble learning how to check their email and speak of not knowing a thing about computers as if they consider it a badge of honor, champion reading books they, in effect, make reading seem old, stale, and out of date, much in the same way that young people consider cassette tapes and records a thing of the past. But reading isn't something of the past. Even if we couldn't claim that books written years ago could tell universal truths transcendent of time, books are still a thing of the present simply by their virtue of being printed everyday. If books are thing of the present, so too then must be reading.

Internet, television, and video games aren't the problem. Inaction is the problem. There seems to be this idea that marketing reading and literature is sordid and beneath the pure act of reading, especially if one is going to read literature. But if you are above marketing the sacred past-time then you must also be above complaining about the declining readership. To get readers to come back to reading today requires the kind of work that wasn't required fifty years ago and, so what? If you want your place in the hearts and minds of the public and the larger culture, you must be willing to work for it. Some of us, like myself, don't require that kind of work but, as I've said before, obviously this isn't about me or other book lovers like me. This is about the poor people out there whose lives are sadly un-enriched by the mind-blowing, thought-provoking power of books.

If we, none of us, wish to see books relegated to the "deafening silence of irrelevance" then we must take our noses out of our books, our fingers from the keyboards, and demand reading's place in the heart and mind of our community and culture. The place is there; it hasn't gone anywhere. It's simply gotten smaller. If we want to make it larger we must take a break from our philosophizing and our agonizing over the declining numbers and do something, because time is getting short. If Donoghue is to be believed, then we are already fast approaching the day when even our writers won't read. When that happens, the time for arguing and debating will be over, because there won't be anyone to debate with.

To the Library and Beyond

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine remarked that, for someone who reads as much as I do, I don’t go to the library very often. I told him what I tell everyone who asks: I don’t go to libraries because they always want their books back. I’m possessive about my books, especially books I like, and I don’t like having to give them back. It’s selfish I know, but after having accumulated $30 dollar fines on a number of occasions, I’d decided that everyone would be better served – my pocketbook and honest library patrons alike – if I got my books from the bookstore where, for a set price, my books could languish on my shelves as long as I liked.

My pocketbook, however, has of late been rather bare so this past weekend I bit the bullet, promised to be a good library patron, and applied for a new library card. I’d forgotten how much going to the library is like being a kid in a candy store with license to get whatever and however much I liked. Oh, the bounty I escaped with:

Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
Tokyo: Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta
Nice Big American Baby by Judy Budnitz
Heat by Bill Buford
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
And a bunch of plays by Shakespeare that I haven’t read in a while or ever (King Lear, As You Like It, and the Henry VI plays to name a few).

Habitually, I read the first chapter of any new book I acquire. It satisfies my curiosity and allows me to finish books I’ve already committed to reading. So I spent a very pleasurable afternoon dipping my toe into a new book before flitting off to a another pool. Here’s a sampling of the first sentence from a few of the books:

“One night last summer, all the killers in my head assembled on stage in Massachusetts to sing show tunes.” –- Assassination Vacation

“Not so long ago, in one of those small, carefree lands that used to be so common but which now, alas, are hardly to be found, there was a prince whose name was Ibrahim.” -- Tokyo: Cancelled (Alright, this isn’t exactly the first sentence in the book. Tokyo: Cancelled is modeled after The Canterbury Tales. This is the first sentence in the first story “The Tailor.”)

“There was a woman who had seven sons and she was happy. Then she had a daughter.” -- from “Where We Come From” in Nice Big American Baby. I’m not going to give away the story but someone please tell me: is it even possible for a woman to carry a baby inside for her for four years and not – I don’t know – die?

"Years ago, before the trains stopped running on so many of the branch lines, a woman with a high, freckled forehead and a frizz of reddish hair came into the railway station and inquired about shipping furniture." -- Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marraige

“A human being is primarily a bag for putting food into; the other functions and faculties may be more godlike, but in point of time they come afterwards.” – Quoted by George Orwell, from The Road to Wigan Pier as preface to Heat