The debate of the future of literature has raged for generations with academics and critics alike claiming novels to be a dying art form. “Thought provoking prose steeped in imagery and symbolism are dead” claim these elite voices from high horses. We are a “receiver” culture these days. We only want to be entertained and produce algorithmic tomes that are easily read and digested over a lunch hour and leave us as quickly as our club sandwich.
I call bullshit. Literature is not dead, in fact, I will claim here and now that literature will never die. I know this because I know and believe in the writer. Giving life to a novel is giving a piece of yourself to the world. It is a grind and the biggest pay off for most of us is that our words can directly benefit another human being. There are far easier ways to make a lot more money than producing a novel. Has it been done? Are there authors churning out cookie-cutter work to turn a profit? Sure, but they are the exception, not the rule. The majority of us wouldn’t toil away, forsaking better reason and judgement to create something for the world to scrutinize for only a paycheck. We do it because we have stories to tell, lives we hope to change, world’s we want to bring to life. We do it because literature affects us as readers and we want the chance to have the same affect on others.
So, why do these naysayers claim our art dead? A lot of reasons, first and foremost being fear. The world is changing, we consume content in ways we never have before and there’s boundless possibilities for how we will consume it in the future. Some older generations speculate that our “entitled” youth will lose patience for sitting down and reading a book. That they will not want to think hard because in the age of Google, you don’t have to. I know this is wrong because I have children. The one old enough to read keeps his nose buried in books most of his waking hours. He’s read a huge chunk of the “classics” and a large selection of the modern masterpieces, and he’s not alone. The vast majority of his young compatriots share his love of reading. It’s not a “dorky” or “nerdy” thing to do as it was when I was young, it’s a center of their conversation.
Enthusiasm can be cited as another reason for the death call of literature. Thomas Wolfe proclaimed that “New Journalism” would replace novels, meanwhile his fellow Merry Prankster, Ken Kesey, wrote some of the greatest literary works of the 20th century. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion (possibly my favorite novel of all time) were both published amid speculation that literature was dead (1962 and 1964). Did Wolfe believe that Kesey and Thompson were creating mindless dribble that would put the death nail into the novel? No, he believed that the escapades he was embarking on would change the literary world to an extent that novels as we knew them would cease to exist. He had right to be excited. What Wolfe, Thompson, Kesey, and others did was amazing and they have inspired generations of authors and journalists. Their combined works changed the landscape of literature, hell, society, but it didn’t replace literature. It added to it.
Plain old generational snobbery is another factor that keeps the debate alive. The older we get, the more we judge the youth living in our present. Nostalgia and experience dull our senses to accepting new and different ways of doing things. We lose understanding of how Harry Potter could evoke the same emotion as To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s the same across arts, really. Older generations long for the simpler comedies of I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show to today’s Modern Family and New Girl. Does that mean that the sitcom is dead? No. It means that they have changed, evolved. I’m of what I like to call “The Nick at Nite Generation” so I will watch and laugh at any and all of those, but older generations will cling to the first as hard as some younger may cling to the second. It doesn’t make any entity inherently better than the other, but quality is in the eye of the beholder.
Also, and finally, some people are just pretentious little shits who like to claim that all work today is crap because it makes them feel smarter than everyone. These guys are just jerks.
Great works of literature can be entertaining. In fact, it’s best if they are because then they can reach and affect more people. Books are not pain. They are not elitist works meant only to be enjoyed by the academically gifted. They are powerful mechanisms of change. Thought provoking prose and enduring symbolism can be found in many great works of our time. Lives have been changed by thousands of books that have been published this century.
Literature is not dead because writers/readers won’t let it die. If you’re working on the next great masterpiece in literary fiction, keep working. Don’t be dissuade by the condescending voice of the few, write to reach the many that need your words.