A few articles making the rounds this week capture the mixed-upness of our feelings about the “value” of writing in today’s society. According to some people, the novel has been dying for quite some, leading critic Sam Sacks to write that “[t]he vocabulary of literary ennui is now so familiar that it produces its own kind of boredom.” Most of the people poking the novel’s exquisite corpse well know that plenty of people still read on beaches, in planes, and sitting in armchairs. The novel, then, isn’t dead or even dying; it’s just not novel enough for some critics. It moved out to the suburbs and invested in some durable, comfy pants.
Now, I’m by no means saying that I think enough people are sitting around reading serious fiction. I find it particularly distressing how many young people I’ve come across in the past decade or so of teaching at highly selective colleges who not only haven’t read many seminal and age-appropriate classics (The Sun Also Rises, The Age of Innocence, Black Boy, etc.), but can’t name a single novel of any kind that they’ve read within the past few years. It seems that many stopped reading for pleasure once they finished the Harry Potter series, and found ways around actually doing the work in their vaunted AP classes. Thanks, SparkNotes.
Obviously, this isn’t the case for all of my students, and I’ve had and continue to have some who read and write for pleasure. And many, when forced to write for or about themselves, produce thoughtful work. But landing a decent job teaching, writing, or writing about literature feels as realistic as becoming a professional athlete these days, so even kids who are passionate about literature end up majoring in something like Business (whatever that actually entails) or, if they’re smart, one of the science fields. Reading and writing are weekend pursuits, if that.
Regardless of their major, most of these young people spend a good chunk of their time on social media (increasingly Instagram and Tumblr over Facebook) and watching streaming videos via one of hundreds of services, most of which I’ve never heard of. This probably explains why when asked to write about about the status of the written word today, they often end up saying something remarkably similar to the point former USA Today reporter Chuck Raasch makes in a recent piece over at Real Clear Politics. His argument is a warmed-over mixture of Orwell, Carr, and Postman (who himself parroted a lot of McLuhan), but I liked the following passage, if only for its use of the word “devaluing”:
In the century and a half since [the Civil War], we have evolved from word to image creatures, devaluing the power of the written word and turning ourselves into a species of short gazers, focused on the emotions of the moment rather than the contemplative thoughts about consequences and meaning of our actions. Many everyday writers in the mid-19th century were far more contemplative, far more likely to contextualize the long-term meaning of their actions. They meticulously observed and carefully described because, although photography was the hot new medium during the Civil War, words remained the dominant way of communicating thought, memory, aspiration, hope.
Still (and later moving) images have been a fundamental tool of personal and group expression dating back to cave paintings. Writing itself is a stylized form of the still image, so the sharp distinction Raasch draws between the two is debatable on first terms. But I get what he means, and I think students sense this too, especially when they tell me that they don’t like writing. Full stop. What they mean is that it’s hard to write well, and given the seeming dominance of visual culture, they aren’t sure if all the work it takes to write good prose is actually worth it. In other words, they aren’t sure how valuable writing actually is and will be going forward.
If you read this this blog, you like reading and writing, and are probably old enough to know that being able to write well actually has tangible benefits in the “real” (“business”) world. It may not make you a millionaire, but it’s a skill that you can pair with other skills (and gobs of charm) to support a decent middle-class life. But it’s hard to see this sometimes, particularly when one is young, and I don’t think that a piece like Raasch’s actually helps make the case for the importance of writing, especially because the idea of writing losing its “value” seems silly when you read about the $2 million advance Knopf recently gave Garth Risk Hallberg for the right publish his first novel, City on Fire. You read that correctly. A guy who hasn’t published a novel yet is getting a solid middle-infielder’s payday. Sure, this sum could be based on future film royalties Knopf hopes to get from an adaptation, but that’s still a hell of a lot of money for 900 pages of words our culture supposedly doesn’t value.
Writing isn’t dying any more than the novel itself is dying. False declarations to this effect do more harm to the written word than Instagram or Netflix ever will. Where and how we read are changing, and the relationship between image and text is more important than ever. It is up to people who appreciate good writing of all kinds to make it clear to young people that writing matters because writing is everywhere and bound up with everything they will do if they want a stimulating career and life.