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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ESSAY: Will Literature Survive Into the 21st Century?




When I was a boy discovering literature, I used to think how wonderful it would be if every other person on the street were familiar with Proust and Joyce or T.E. Lawrence or Pasternak and Kafka. Later I learned how refractory to high culture the democratic masses were. Lincoln, as a young frontiersman, read Plutarch, Shakespeare and theBible. But then, he was Lincoln.


Later, when I was traveling in the Midwest by car, bus and train, I regularly visited small-town libraries and found that readers in Keokuk, Iowa, or Benton Harbor, Michigan, were checking out Proust and Joyce and even Svevo and Andrei Bely. D.H. Lawrence was also a favorite. I seem to have had a persistent democratic desire to find evidences of high culture in the most unlikely places.


For many decades now, I have been a fiction writer, and from the first I was aware that mine was a questionable occupation. In the 1930s, an elderly neighbor in Chicago told me that he wrote fiction for the pulps. "The people on the block wonder why I don't go to a job, and I'm seen puttering around, trimming the bushes or painting a fence instead of working in a factory. But I'm a writer. I sell to Argosy and Doc Savage," he said with a certain gloom. "They wouldn't call that a trade." Probably he noticed that I was a bookish boy, likely to sympathize with him, and perhaps he was trying to warn me to avoid being unlike others. But it was too late for that.


From the first, too, I had been warned that the novel was at the point of death, that, like the walled city or the crossbow, it was a thing of the past. And no one likes to be at odds with history. Oswald Spengler, a widely read author of the early '30s, taught that our tired old civilization was very nearly finished. His advice to the young was to avoid literature and the arts and become engineers.


In refusing to be obsolete, you challenged and defied the evolutionist historians. I had great respect for Spengler in my youth, but even then, I couldn't accept his conclusions, and, with respect and admiration, I mentally told him to get lost.


Sixty years later, in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal, I came upon the old Spenglerian argument in contemporary form by Terry Teachout. He speaks of our "atomized culture," and writes of "art forms as technologies." He tells us that movies will soon be "downloadable" - that is, transferable from one computer to the memory of another device - and predicts that films will soon be marketed like books. He predicts that the near-magical powers of technology are bringing us to the threshold of a new age and concludes: "Once this happens, my guess is that the independent movie will replace the novel as the principal vehicle for serious storytelling in the 21st century."


In support of this argument, Teachout cites the ominous drop in book sales and the great increase in movie attendance: "For Americans under the age of 30, film has replaced the novel as the dominant mode of artistic expression." Teachout adds that popular novelists like Tom Clancy and Stephen King "top out at around a million copies per book," and notes, "the final episode of NBC's 'Cheers,' by contrast, was seen by 42 million people."


On majoritarian grounds, the movies win. "The power of novels to shape the national conversation has declined," Teachout says. But I am not at all certain that in their day "Moby-Dick" or "The Scarlet Letter" had any considerable influence on the national conversation.


The literary masterpieces of the 20th century were, for the most part, the work of novelists who had no large public in mind. The novels of Proust and Joyce were written in a cultural twilight.


Teachout's article in the Journal follows the path generally taken by observers whose aim is to discover a trend. "According to one recent study, 55 percent of Americans spend less than 30 minutes [a day] reading anything at all. ... It may even be that movies have superseded novels not because Americans have grown dumber, but because the novel is an obsolete artistic technology."


"We are not accustomed to thinking of art forms as technologies," he says, "but that is what they are, which means they have been rendered moribund by new technical developments."


Together with this emphasis on technology that attracts the scientific-minded young, there are other preferences discernible: It is better to do as a majority of your contemporaries are doing. Moreover, the reader reads in solitude, whereas the viewer belongs to a majority. Add to this the importance of avoiding technological obsolescence and the attraction of feeling that technology will decide questions for us more dependably than the thinking of an individual, no matter how distinctive he may be.


John Cheever told me long ago that it was his readers who kept him going. When he was at work, he was aware of these readers and correspondents in the woods beyond the lawn. And the novelist Wright Morris, urging me to get an electric typewriter, said that he seldom turned his machine off. "When I'm not writing, I listen to the electricity."


How would Teachout square such idiosyncrasies with his "art forms as technologies?" Perhaps he would argue that these two writers had isolated themselves from "broad-based cultural influence." Teachout has one laudable purpose: He thinks he sees a way to bring together the great public of the movies with the small public of the highbrows. He is, however, interested in millions: millions of dollars, millions of readers, millions of viewers.


Back in the 20s, children between the ages of 8 and 12 lined up on Saturdays to buy their nickel tickets to see the crisis of last Saturday resolved. There was no rivalry then between the viewer and the reader. Nobody supervised our reading. We were on our own. We found or made a mental and imaginative life. Because we could read, we learned also to write. It did not confuse me to see "Treasure Island" at the movies, and then read the book. There was no competition for our attention.


One of the more attractive oddities of the United States is that our minorities are so numerous, so huge. A minority of millions is not at all unusual. But there are in fact millions of literate Americans in a state of separation from others of their kind. They are, if you like, the readers of Cheever, a crowd of them too large to be hidden in the woods. Departments of literature across the country have not succeeded in alienating them from books. My friend Keith Botsford and I felt strongly that if the woods were filled with readers gone astray, among those readers there were probably writers as well.


To learn in detail of their existence, you have only to publish a magazine like The Republic of Letters, the paper that Botsford and I started two years ago. We are a pair of utopian codgers who feel we have a duty to literature.


We have no way of guessing how many independent, self-initiated connoisseurs and lovers of literature have survived in remote corners of the world. The little evidence we have suggests that they are glad to find us, they are grateful. They want more than they are getting. Ingenious technology has failed to give them what they so badly need.


Saul Bellow, who won the 1976 Nobel Prize for literature, contributed this comment to The New York Times.