“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”
– William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919)
I’m concerned about the kinds of conversations we’re able to have with each other about books now, in an increasingly fragmented literary landscape. In what ways can we talk about books with one another when even avid readers haven’t read any of the same books? Like Yeats (and Joan Didion, who invoked this same passage in Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)), I’m worried about dispersion.
Even with my most literate friends, I find myself mostly pitching books, talking mostly about plot. After all, it’s almost impossible to talk about style, craft, and the subtle nuances of ideology with people who haven’t read the book. I read a lot of literary fiction, and I admit that my particular form of anxiety might be specific to that genre. How do I really talk about the greatness of a Jennifer Egan or Jeffrey Eugenides when I’m stuck explaining the plot? In other words, do I have to enroll in an MFA program to have these conversations about texture and form?
It’s this concern with the analytical quality and specificity of our conversations about books that leads me to literary celebrity as a construct. I find celebrity promising as a construct because it is a cultural machine for generating common points of reference. But I’m increasingly certain that for most of the literary landscape, it’s doesn’t really exist. I might think that Margaret Atwood (winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Booker Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship) or E.L. Doctorow (winner of the National Humanities Medal, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award, and the Library of Congress Prize) are bona fide consensus figures: living legends. But my most literate friends and my colleagues at Arizona State University frequently know little about them and their work. At the same time, they’re equally scandalized about my lack of familiarity with Jonathan Lethem or Thomas Pynchon.
In the chair next to me, Lee Konstantinou is writing about One Book and Big Read projects that unite an entire community around a single text. Two seats down from Lee, Dan Gillmor is writing about how authors create small niches of readers who hold them in particularly high regard. Digital platforms like Goodreads and in-person social formations like book clubs (not to mention university programs at the undergraduate and graduate level) represent ways of confronting this problem. And maybe it’s not a problem after all. Some readers/consumers prefer dispersion to an arbitrary and exclusionary canon, especially since most of our canons unquestioningly support and reproduce the privilege of wealthy straight people, white people, and men.
But I still worry that there’s something impoverished about a literary marketplace without (deserving) celebrities. Even in its most easily-despisable Hollywood form, celebrity enables diverse groups of people to participate in conversations at a significant level of detail. Celebrity can be a conduit for incredibly broad and inclusive conversations about values, ethics, politics, and the mechanics of identity and selfhood. Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise, Will Smith, Lindsay Lohan and their ilk give us a rich grammar to talk about who we are and who we want (and don’t want) to be. I believe that books are even more powerful devices for generating productive and challenging conversations, but without literary celebrity to diffuse shared referents throughout large swaths of the public, reading becomes a solitary activity instead of a starting point for interaction, interpretation, and thoughtful debate.
Maybe Goodreads and LibraryThing solve this problem for some of us. I hope that people respond to this piece by suggesting tools for having these kinds of in-depth, deliberative conversations.
It’s worth noting that digital platforms like Goodreads chain together reading and writing. If you want to use one of them to have a conversation about a book, you have to commit to some intellectual labor. So for those of us who consider ourselves ardent readers but not always enthusiastic writers, Goodreads can feel like another chore. And for a white collar professional / knowledge worker like me, Goodreads and book clubs sometimes too closely resemble things like web management and staff meetings—they can look and feel a little bit too much like work.
Perhaps this is an arena where booksellers can act as curators, or where other cultural authorities (like Lee Konstantinou’s Book DJ) can catalyze and manage conversations. By performing the cultural work of igniting and managing conversations in a highly visible way, maybe they can make the rest of us feel like we’re just having fun, enriching our minds, and freeloading on their sweat.
In their defense, authors and publishers are doing everything they can on the celebrity front—from Twitter and Facebook to low-yield book tours and TV appearances, where they can pick them up. Is literary celebrity even possible anymore? The only place I see it these days is in the red-hot young adult market; J.K. Rowling, like Stephen King before her, even failed in a subterfuge to escape her global fame. Maybe it’s just not possible for authors like my beloved Egan and Eugenides to “tip” in a broader media landscape where films, TV, and increasingly video games dominate our attention economy.
Perhaps the shift to “lifelong learning” that we’ve continued to hear about throughout the 1990s and 2000s will mean that classroom-style interpretive exercises—either in-person or virtual—will become a more consistent part of people’s adult lives. But “lifelong learning,” at least so far, hasn’t been a conversation about humanities education. I do believe that structure and obligation and community membership—soft forms of force—might be necessary if we want literary discourse to be a vibrant part of the broader culture. This will also require a critical understanding of the concept of a “canon” as something to be questioned, revised, critiqued, and examined closely, instead of an unassailable stamp of cultural primacy.
To close with one last quandary: if we’re not having these conversations about literature, has the conversation moved to another cultural site? Are video games, or apps, or movies, or sports, the place to look for robust, inclusive, analytical conversations that are “about” more than they seem to be about? If we can agree that it’s valuable to come together and talk about something we all have in common, what is that thing today? What should it be in the future?
Photo courtesy of Monica Arellano-Ongpin, used under a Creative Commons license.