The Old Gods Laugh, Part 2: classic literature vs. public interest

Educator, Poet, and Big Time, Professional Literary Critic Matthew Arnold (photo courtesy Wikimedia)

In Part 1 of this discussion of contemporary reading habits, I sought to find some rationale for the domination of “fiction bestseller lists” (flawed as measurement of anything though those lists might be) by works that are, in one form or another, escapism. I discussed the decline of  what the old “high culture/low culture” model called “literary experience” – the introduction, chiefly via the education system, of works/authors that could arguably be called classic to both those in elite private institutions and to those of us better classified as the hoi polloi through our public schools.

The genesis of this entire essay, as I mentioned earlier, was my anecdotal experience as a regular visitor (both as author and reader) to the popular social media site, Goodreads. The democratization of culture that the power of the Internet, especially Web 2.0 and its most powerful weapon social media, has been in some ways liberating, in some ways unfortunate. But as important as the rise of the ‘Net has been in creating the “distributed culture” (and its attendant weel and woe – and more woe), a look at the history of American reading habits, and the forces affecting those habits, gives us some interesting food for thought.

First, a few words about our poster boy, Mr. Arnold. Matthew Arnold is important to this essay for a couple of reasons: first, as a literary critic, he set a standard (created a norm, if you prefer) that eventually evolved into the critical culture that dominated literary studies in the 20th century. From the scholarly pursuits of detailing author biography and presenting historical context, literary examination came to be a series of ways of analyzing works themselves (culminating in that perfect Modernist methodology New Criticism that forbade any considerations of a literary work that were not textual).

To leverage the language of advertising for a (I hope) nobler purpose, “But wait – there’s more!” Besides his work as a critic and writer (Arnold was a talented poet whose work is part of that creaky collection of literary works known as the canon), Arnold served as a an inspector of schools for part of his career, as Professor of Poetry at Oxford for another part. So he was responsible for, at least partially, the development of educational curricula at elementary, secondary, and college levels. Arnold’s influence, chiefly, lies in his claim that the humanities’ chief function is to make students aware of the world outside themselves – to help them avoid being solely motivated by self-interest without regard for consequences to others – in simple terms, reading and appreciating literature makes one a better person.

Arnold’s writing on the importance of the humanities, particularly literature,  in education held sway for about 100 years, from its publication about 1870 until its ultimate collapse in the revolutions in education of the 1960’s. As a result, that repeated “experience” of literature to students from elementary school through the “general studies” period of the first two years of college education became the norm.

This had salutary effects in spite of its detractors’ claims that it was a kind of elitist social engineering. Here’s the proof:

If one examines Publishers Weekly’s list of the 10 best selling novels for each year for the period from 1895 (when the magazine began tallying sales) through the present (117 3/4 years), including the peak years of the effects of the Arnold-ean philosophy of education, one can see some interesting – and troubling – trends as we reach the present time. Using a strict determination of a “literary” author (i.e. one who is/will likely be a recognized member of the traditional canon) I simply counted up the number of such authors who appear on best seller lists for each decade of this period (the lists of the 1890’s and 2010’s are prorated, of course, since the former covers 6 years and the latter not quite 3).

So, here are the numbers: 1890’s – 3 authors; 1900’s 5; 1910’s – 5; 1920’s – 12; 1930’s – 22 (!); 1940’s – 11; 1950’s – 10; 1960’s 14; 1970’s – 16; 1980’s – 4; 1990’s – 4; 2000’s – 2; 2010’s – 1

The number of authors who made these lists include many who were “near canon” figures. These would make the numbers considerably higher and include names like Edna Ferber, J.M. Barrie, Frank Stockton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daphne DuMaurier, and Somerset Maugham to name only a few.

Note the rise in the numbers of “literary” authors from the 1920’s through the 1970’s appearing on best seller lists, then the sudden drop from the 1980’s onward. Note also, that from the 1980’s the academy was changed by both “professional administrators” (the academic equivalent of MBA’s whose aim was to enroll/retain the maximum number of students, even if that meant relaxing requirements) and by the rise of Boomers (those who had protested against the continued teaching of the canon of classic literature) into positions of academic power over curricular choices (which meant that they could focus humanities study on areas of interest to themselves as children of media: film, television, and pop music, especially rock). Finally, note also that these years are those of the largest influence for creative writing programs, which tend to be hot-house affairs whose aims seem at times, whether intended or not, to be elitist and exclusionary.

The decline of the appearance of “literary” authors on the best seller lists of the last 33 years can, then, arguably be attributed to a confluence of effects: changes in education that de-emphasize the study of literature and give favor (and academic credit) for more, shall we say, congenial (for pop culture immersed students) coursework; the emphasis on “what the public is interested in” rather than the “public interest,” given the imprimatur of official approval by no less a personage than the President of the United States; the insistence of creative writing programs on ever more “literary” (according to specific guidelines) productions from their students even as these programs turn out more and more graduates, effectively creating a “micro-culture” of “creative writing literature” even as these students are less and less connected to the classic canon; and finally, perhaps the death knell, the rise of the Internet and viable self-publishing options that have rendered the best seller lists reflections of (and governed by) marketing research  – traditional or guerilla – unbalanced by “elitist” junk like cultural or public interests.

So, as you make your next visit to Goodreads or any of the several other social media sites of its ilk, or scroll through the Times Literary Supplement or New York Review of Books, be aware that while we have a staggering range of choices as to what we can read, that Henry David Thoreau’s advice is more important than ever:

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.


About Jim Booth

writer, professor, rock star - pretty inaccurate summary, I think...
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19 Responses to The Old Gods Laugh, Part 2: classic literature vs. public interest

  1. steeleweed says:

    The Internet and mass communication in general has ‘democratized’ data. (I hate to call it information when so much of is is mis-information). Democracy blurs to the point of erasure the differences between people, ideas, ideologies,beliefs, etc. I can’t pinpoint when it began, but sometime (fortunately after my schooling), the idea took hold in the pubic mind that there was something wrong with declaring one thing Better than another, presumably on the grounds that the ‘better’ would unfairly be treated differently thanthe ‘worse’. Somehow, that morphed into a taboo against admitting one thing is Different from another.

    The perfect example is the change in meaning of the ‘Discriminate’. Strictly speaking, it means to be able to detect the differences between things. We speak of someone as having ‘discriminating taste in wines, or art or whatever. This, of course, implies there actually are differences to be detected. When, for political, social or ideological reasons, the very idea of difference is denied, the ability to recognize and voice them is taboo. Discrimination becomes something to condemn. The result is a an society which does not discriminate – and DOES NOT KNOW HOW to discriminate – between wise/foolish, good/bad, smart/stupid, educated/ignorant, right/wrong.

    The public in general has lost the ability to think. And that is no accident – it is a goal of some groups to keep the public unable to think, to compare, to evaluate. One need not be a conspiracy theorist to recognize that gutting the education system leaves people ignorant enough to believe Faux News. . . …

    • Jim Booth says:

      I see your points, steeleweed, and I’d offer this as “kind of” explanation, “kind of” analysis of some of what you observe here:

      1) The problem of leveling – you note that the Internet has democratized information – my argument is that it began before the rise of the Internet. I’ll speak anecdotally – when I began my teaching career, in the public schools of NC in the mid-1970’s, the idea of “streaming” all levels of students together – from those clearly academically gifted to those who, whether due to intellectual limitations or cultural de-motivations, were weak academically had taken root. My experience was that gifted students were dragged down and weak students were still unable to perform – because the solution for teachers was to teach to the “C” student. Things have not improved – and NCLB high stakes testing has exacerbated matters. We are not educating people according to their abilities but to fit “one size fits all” minimal standards that are unfair to all but the 20% who fit dead in that mythic “middle.” To use terms from Huxley’s BRAVE NEW WORLD, we educate as if everyone were a Gamma. This will not, I fear. end well for us as a culture.

      2) The bizarre thing to me is that in these areas – education, intellectual expression, artistic talent – our culture is all about a false or misguided form of democracy that is really devaluation of talent/giftedness, whatever one chooses to denominate it – while in other, perhaps more important areas – economic opportunity, representative government, civil liberties – the most anti-democratic elements of capitalism (and let’s face it, democracy and capitalism are strange bedfellows and our country has been remarkable in getting the two to play decently together over its history) are allowed, indeed, encouraged to run roughshod over our innate American sense of fairness and equality.

      This is the culture we’re in right now. One where the only discrimination acceptable is between products – brands of coffee, for example. Or that voting for an “American Idol” has the same importance that voting for government representatives does.

      We seem to be living out that old Chinese curse: We live in “interesting times.”

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  4. It’s important to note that spikes on those best-sellers lists aren’t reflective of what people are actually buying and reading; there are used and borrowed books to consider, and there seems to be some monkeying around with the list, else Harry Potter would be all over the place in the 1990’s/2000’s.

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  17. nzumel says:

    If the reason for literature is, as you and Mr. Arnold say, to encourage us to think outside ourselves and to force us to try to understand what’s outside our own experience, then there’s an argument for other literatures outside the classical one. Certainly, classical literature will give us this intellectual stretching, but so would the literature of other peoples or communities: Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Carlos Bulosan, Maxine Hong Kingston, Kobe Abe, Carlos Fuentes (I’m woefully under-read in African and Middle Eastern authors, otherwise I’d list some).

    Some of the above probably count as literary canon; some of them are more like popular literature. And isn’t there a cottage industry in academia right now in Victorian popular literature? Not exactly the apex of fine writing, but interesting in its own way.

    But like you, I’m not a big fan of sequel-mania, in either books or film.

    • Jim Booth says:

      The authors you list, nzumel, are all canonical figures – at least by now – so your taste is pretty darned good. 🙂 The interest in Victorian lit? It’ll pass – academic fads are like all fads.

      We’re in a period of flux where some genre/pop authors (Vonnegut, for example) have already been accorded canon status. Others such as Gaiman are being touted for such status. As pop lit and “classic” lit merge, one can only guess whither our views of literature and entertainment will take us.

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