I’m shocked! Shocked! Serious novels lack cultural relevance!

Nevertheless, this Weekly Standard piece by Roger Kimball is worth reading.  In “The Great American Novel: Will there ever be another?” Kimball argues that the novel has lost its former cultural relevance in part because the “character of culture” has changed.

I happen to agree.  I don’t happen to care. 

The novel went the way of alchemy, tapestry weaving, and cathedral building a long time ago in terms of cultural relevance.  Roger Kimball gives credit for this state of affairs precisely where it’s due.   It’s the culture. Or lack thereof.  Without a community of readers with shared cultural assumptions, as Kimball points out, the novel no longer has a well-defined, authoritative tradition to respond to.  I would add that without that shared community and culture, the novel, in some sense, no longer exists.  At least qua novel. 

Sure, novels get published and people buy them, but as Kimball says, an awful lot of his friends aren’t exactly reading them.  Fact is, an awful lot of people aren’t exactly reading them, either, including Philip Roth, who said in a recent interview that he’s “stopped reading fiction.”  See also my previous blog post.  So if the tree falls in the forest  . . . .

The novel is essentially a 19th century art form that requires a 19th century sensibility to remain viable.  That is, it requires such quaint things as untrammeled leisure time, undistracted attention, and solitude.  Oh, and shared cultural assumptions.  Shared cultural assumptions would be good.  But our culture is so atomized it’s not a stretch to suggest that the idea of a widespread shared culture is itself largely a nostalgia trip. 

Here’s what I mean.   I recently spent a pleasant evening with two highly educated colleagues in a tea house that offered, for an evening’s entertainment, a trivial pursuit type game.   There were maybe 30-40 people in the place competing to answer questions about popular culture, history, food, whatever.  What struck me was that nobody in that room, and I mean nobody (including myself), came close to answering all the questions.

And these were all people who presumably lived in and “shared” the same culture.  More striking, everyone competed in teams, meaning that even 4-5 people collaborating on the answers to basic questions about their own culture couldn’t reliably answer most of the questions.   Would this have been true 50 years ago?  Would this have been thinkable 50 years ago?

We no longer know each other.  We no longer know where we come from.  Perhaps, in some sense, we no longer come from anywhere.  And perhaps that is why informational reading now trumps literary reading.  You need to be able recognize certain cultural signposts to respond to literature.  Informational reading provides signposts – not necessarily shared cultural signposts, but stakes in the ground for increasingly discrete areas of life.  It answers questions.  It helps.  But serious fiction poses questions that, as a rapidly fragmenting culture, we’re losing our ability to recognize, let alone respond to.

The novel took form in the 18th century when educated readers shared, compared to today, a common culture and education.  Love or hate the goddess of Reason, support or decry Revolution, everyone pretty much wrote out of the same horizon.  Novels gained traction in the 19th century, in part because a) literacy increased and b) readers still shared a common culture, or, at least, common enough to present a workable foil for fiction.   

Perhaps the novel helped create its own decline by setting the stage for screwing with the shared culture to the point where it destroyed the thing that fed it.  I realize that’s overstating the case, but certainly the traditional novel’s often subversive critique of what was once the dominant culture helped lay the foundations for that destruction, or at least wrote the how-to manual.  It’s clear that the Internet finished the job.

Serious fiction reading has gone the way of the Victorian gentleman.  Perhaps there are a few of them about, and it’s a wonderful gig if you can get it, but its appeal is very much restricted to a few bluestocking throwbacks like me.  You need to return to the 1800s to pull it off.  But hey, if a hundred people a year can travel to Jerusalem and seriously believe they are the Messiah – this is no joke!  – then at least a hundred bluestockings can believe it’s still 1855 for purposes of serious reading.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  Medieval cathedrals are still beautiful, and their lack of cultural relevance does nothing to prevent some people from experiencing an aesthetic high when visiting them.  Latin enthusiasts still exist for a reason. I would hazard that one of the attractions of Latin (for some) is that it’s a dead language.  We’ve all met classical music enthusiasts who embrace it at least partly because it sets them apart; irrelevancy is sort of the point. 

A certain work of art is beautiful – what else matters?  Its relevancy to the tattered remnants of a once-shared culture?  Really?   Does it make you cry or doesn’t it?  Damn the rest.

So while I agree with Kimball, I don’t care that literary novels are a dying art form, or lack cultural relevancy, or aren’t as widely read as they once were.  So what?  If something must have cultural relevance to matter, and relevance is an increasingly hard bargain in a rapidly diminishing shared culture, then cultural relevance is a joke without a punch line anyway.  We’re all taking tea alone.   The same way we read.

 

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