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’20 Under 40:’ Celebration of the future, or lit’s last gasp?

June 17, 2010

Susan Orlean: People still love books.

In reaction to The New Yorker‘s “20 under 40” issue of young writers to watch, The Millions has issued its own list of 20 under 40, without duplicating a single name. The question in my mind, though: What could possess a gifted young person to cast his or her lot with a dying art form?

By “dying art form,” I don’t mean the short story, which has been dying for about 100 years now, though like Doc Holliday, keeps rising from its death bed to periodically kick ass. No, I mean prose fiction in general. Don’t these young people know that no one reads any more?

My friend and colleague Connie Ogle, book critic at the Miami Herald (Look Ma! A newspaper that still produces its own book reviews!), chooses a glass-half-full view. Between The New Yorker and The Millions, she says, we’re reminded “that there are tons of promising young writers out there. Whew. Good to remember.”

But I can’t help scratching my head. Fewer and fewer people are reading, everyone knows that. The National Endowment for the Arts sounded the alarm in 2004 with a report that fewer than half of American adults read books — with the steepest rate of decline, 28 percent, among young people.
Two excellent writers of my acquaintance, both a bit over 40, both coincidentally named “Edmund,” have expressed doubts about the future of reading and writing.
Edmund Skellings (b. 1932), the poet laureate of Florida and one of the few older writers I know who embraces technology without reserve, says the near future will see a flowering of poetry, as the human attention span becomes unable to sustain concentration for anything like a novel or even a short story.
At the Key West Literary Seminar in 2008 — when the topic was “New Writers” –– novelist and critic Edmund White (b. 1940) said that novelists will soon be like poets, writing out of love for a tiny audience of aficianados: “For a long time writers were spoiled by having millions of readers. Now we accept that we have to work for a living, and write as we can.”
I remember that seminar vividly. I watched in bemusement as a couple dozen “emerging writers,” sponsored by older, established authors like Judy Blume, Mark Doty, Lee Smith, Junot Diaz and Annie Dillard, read their stories and talked about the writing life with a fresh-faced innocence that almost broke my heart.
One after another, I asked: Why are you choosing to become a writer at time when books matter less and less? Some said they had no choice but to writer, others that they had stories to tell. But everyone expressed faith in the future of reading. Their peers, they assured me, however feckless they seem today, will awaken to a need for “authenticity,” and turn away from video games, YouTube, Internet porn to the real nourishment of good books.
Faith is a good thing. I hope theirs is not misplaced, but I cannot quite share it. Gadgets abound, and I find little reason to think they won’t continue to proliferate at an astonishing pace, drawing ever more time and attention from the printed page until people forget utterly the value and pleasure of immersive reading.
For observations directly counter to mine, check out Susan Orlean’s  Free Range blog. Orleans, musing on the life-changing potential of a great book, concludes that our love of reading will survive even the demise of the bookstore.
We love to talk about books, she says, and to share them with others. “Even if books become microchip implants or streaming Bluetooth torrents, I believe, and hope, that impulse will never change.”
So who do you think is right, best-selling nonfiction author Susan Orlean (The Orchid Thief), or your humble literary pessimist (uh, me)?
14 Comments leave one →
  1. June 17, 2010 1:13 pm

    I choose to remain defiantly optimistic, Chauncey, because I believe (for me, at least) to write or not to write is not a choice. Though perhaps adapt or perish is… I believe in good books as I do in good conversations and don’t wish to imagine a life without them. And though not quite innocent or fresh-faced, this under-40 year old also believes in the reader who hungers for authenticity… even if they don’t realize it until it lands on their lap(top;)


    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 17, 2010 2:49 pm

      Oh, Yahia, I still think of you as fresh faced, even if the first bloom has been vanquished by the harsh mistress, experience. Your elegantly reasoned comments always make me smile, and lighten this curmudgeonly heart. I believe the world needs both its optimists and its pessimists, and we need each other, too. Thanks for being one of mine.

  2. Candice Simmons permalink
    June 17, 2010 1:16 pm

    You are wrong, Chauncey Mabe. People shall always read books. In some form.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 17, 2010 2:51 pm

      I’m pretty sure not, Candice, the human desire for reading was never as strong as those of us addicted to books might have wanted to believe, and I doubt it can withstand the onslaught of digital media. But not less an authority than Susan Orlean agrees with you, and I hope you are right and I am wrong. As you know, those are words that seldom pass my lips. Or fingers.

  3. rachel permalink
    June 17, 2010 1:18 pm

    I do not foresee the death of books. Reading is too important for us, I think it makes us human. Story telling is a human necessity, and I think that there is a need for books even in the age of the interent. If anything I agree with the Edmund White quote that it could become more like poetry. But poetry is still alive! And so is the short story. In fact, the short story is one of my favorite things to read. So I’m sorry Chauncey Mabe but I choose to agree with Susan Orleans.

    And as opposed to young aspiring journalists who often don’t even read newspapers, I think that young authors actually read. So they have that going for them..

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 17, 2010 2:55 pm

      I agree that storytelling is a basic need of human spirit and psychology, but the written word is not the only way to satisfy it. Time was, no one could read, and oral storytellers did the trick. Now, with books in decline, we have TV, the Internet, video games filling the void (and, actually, driving it). It seems to me that something about the monkey brain residing somewhere inside each of us finds the shiny, flashy video screen irresistible, and the dull gray print page cannot hope to compete, no matter how much more value it may hold. But Susan Orlean is a powerful ally, and I hope you are right.

  4. Tommy Smart permalink
    June 17, 2010 2:10 pm

    Ouch! I will not agree that prose fiction is a dying art form. Declining, in danger, in need of rehab, festering, foundering, perhaps. My argument springs from my idealism and optimism, to be sure. Yet, I need these traits to maintain forward momentum. Reading and writing will never die, it’s only in really bad and/or scary sci-fi novels that reading doesn’t exist. I would have to stand with the “emerging writers” in their belief/hope that younger readers will turn their backs on the superficial intellectual pornography that is “Jersey Shore”, “Keeping up with the Kardashians”, Twitter, fb, Grand Theft Auto, etc. for substantial, thought provoking activities. I maintain this attitude in the face of growing illiteracy and the even worse crime, aliteracy. I really must believe this is just the pendulum swinging.

    The conclusion to the NEA paper “Reading at Risk” asks some pertinent questions, (How to respond to illiteracy and aliteracy, have changes in marketing affected literature participation, education levels being the surest predictor of lit. participation what can be done to increase the reading level by less educated adults) that if addressed could resuscitate reading.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 17, 2010 2:57 pm

      I admire your passion and idealism, Tommy. Maybe reading can be saved if we ask the right questions and take the right steps. I’ll get on it as soon as I find a new job, modify my mortgage, meet my deadlines, get an oil change, picket BP, save the planet and avoid bankruptcy. I think I left out a few things…

  5. Connie permalink
    June 17, 2010 5:04 pm

    Stop raining on my parade, Chauncey! I’m with Susan on this. Maybe there will be fewer of us, but there will always be readers. Maybe some will be reading your dreaded electronic books. But still reading.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 17, 2010 5:25 pm

      I hope you’re right, but I’m almost certain you’re not. The medium is the message, and the message of digital electronics is something other than “read me!”

  6. Connie permalink
    June 17, 2010 5:06 pm

    By the way, your post reminded me of a book fair a few years back, when my boyfriend Martin Amis talked about the death of the novel…like, once all the people in his generation were gone or incapacitated, great literature would die. It struck me as completely ludicrous. Of COURSE there are still good writers around (whether or not you like the New Yorker list or not – me, I’m kind of over Jonathan Safran Foer, though I do admire his anti-meat-eating screeds). That I find most encouraging.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      June 17, 2010 5:30 pm

      You really want a boyfriend who’s so much shorter than you? He’ll have to stand on a box to reach your lips for a kiss. Yeah, Martin’s whole generation, a gifted bunch to be sure, are deafened by the roar of their own self regard. As of JSF, Everything’s Illuminated was one half of a good book, one half of a pastiche of Singer and Holocaust stories by much better writers. Self-righteous vegetarians make me want to eat Bambi. But I have no significant argument with the 20 under 40 list, or the one at the Millions. Both are silly, but I always say anything that gets people talking about books, writers and reading is a good thing.

  7. John Karwacki permalink
    June 18, 2010 6:54 am

    The death of the novel has been greatly exaggerated. As others point out, humans have been sharing tales since man could scratch pictures on cave walls; then along came Gutenberg and now we have Kindle and Ipad. Remember, we are on the spearhead of human evolution being hurled blindly into that dark night. Embrace the future Chauncey, it’s coming either way.

  8. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    June 18, 2010 9:55 am

    Oh, yes, the future is coming, but I’m just saying I don’t think it’s going to include much reading. The innate human need for story will be satisfied by video games, movies and other new fangled things as electronic devices lead us farther and farther from the written word. And the world will get along fine, despite the tragecy (from my point of view, anyhow) of what will be lost. Meanwhile, I’m doing my best to embrace the future: We’re discussing this on what not so long ago was called the “world wide web,” are we not? Sigh.

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