The Reading Crisis Revisited: Amazon and the Gatekeepers Against the Wall

Mark McGurl has a new book out. I enjoyed and reviewed his previous book “The Program Era,” here, and his new work, “Everything and Less: The Novel in the Age of Amazon,” which appears to revive the Reading Crisis theme I first started following over at Caleb Crain’s site, is reviewed by Benjamin Kunkel in a recent Bookforum post: Sense and Saleability: How Amazon changed the way we read. After reading the Kunkel review, I don’t feel I need to read the new McGurl take.

First, it’s still too early to say what’s really going on or how dramatically it’s affected our reading, particularly the reading of the common reader (who seems to persist, in spite of the odds). Second, Mcluhan, who explains the effects of the printing press, and predicts a long time ago now the current reading crisis (not to mention a plethora of other ideas), I still find more convincing. And while McLuhan did not personally look forward to the changes in literacy his theories explained or predicted, he didn’t necessarily feel the world would be a worse place as a “global village.”

In any case, if I’m reading Kunkel correctly, what today’s gatekeepers seem to want protecting turns out to have been cut off only in its infancy:

Between the Great Recession and 2019, the number of undergrads majoring in English shrank by more than a quarter, and it’s difficult to imagine the pandemic has reversed the trend. Meanwhile, over approximately the same dozen years, professors in English and other literature departments have more and more bent their attention away from the real or alleged masterpieces that formed the staple of literature courses ever since the consolidation of English as a field of study in the 1930s, and toward more popular or ordinary fare. Sometimes the new objects of study are popular books in that they belong to previously overlooked or scorned genres of “popular fiction,” such as crime novels, sci-fi, or horror: this is popularity from the standpoint of consumption. And sometimes they are popular books in the different sense that they are written, in huge quantities, by authors with few if any readers, whatever the genre of their work: this is popularity from the standpoint of production.

Bookforum, Dec/Jan/Feb 2022

Theory and the Social Sciences, not to mention Reagan as governor of California ruining a good thing for the children of laborers who might have somehow discovered literature in the 50’s and 60’s and where McGurl now sits as public intellectual gatekeeper at Stanford, presumably with small cohorts of readers filling sandbags, had already altered how we read and precipitated the slide of the English Major, still a baby if born as recently as 1930. Amazon has not changed anything, at least not having to do with literature.

Meantime, James Lardner posts a recent Gatekeeper entry on the New Yorker online site, lamenting and lambasting the so called for profits (as if schools like the factory at UCLA pumping out Phds in the 60’s and 70’s is not de facto a for profit).

But not all English majors are created equal, and this one wishes he would have become a plumber like his father (having never read a book, good or bad) wanted him to become. And then he wouldn’t be sitting here writing a post no one will read on a subject few care about when he should be down in the basement checking that the plumbing didn’t freeze last night.

Trilling’s “The Meaning of a Literary Idea”; or, the Essay as Argument: Why The Research Paper Should be Abolished

The more we fragment the further we get from the emergent whole, a picture that is satisfying for its very wholeness – in a way that an examination of any one pixel or isolated group of pixels can not be satisfying. A study of a part of something can never be as interesting as a study of the whole to which the part belongs. Yet the Humanities has fragmented into so many divergent and divested parts that an emergent, whole picture is now easy to miss. And this is true not just in the continuing bifurcations of disciplines, but in the splitting apart of self-contained disciplines. Consider, for example, the English department. English was once the repository for the study of literature, by which was meant a unified study of composition, language, and literature. Perhaps one concentrated in language and linguistics as opposed to literature. Still, the proper study of the English major was literature. (A recent article in The Oregonian reported that in most of the last 20 years the Portland Public School district has ignored its ESL responsibilities to disastrous results. This should come as no surprise, since we have meantime mangled teaching English as a 1st language.)

The English department is now the place students go to learn to write research papers, and even this part is at risk, as various specialty disciplines have already begun to teach their own. The “art for art’s sake” attitude is in part responsible, for it denies the literary work its ideas, while “art for art’s sake” is an ideology, not an idea. In “The Meaning of a Literary Idea,” Trilling explains: “Whether we deal with syllogisms or poems, we deal with dialectic – with, that is, a developing series of statements.” In other words, what we have come to call “creative literature,” is no different in form than what we must now call “non-creative literature,” though of course there is no such thing: there is only one literature, all of it creative, and while literature may consist of various genres, such as fiction and non-fiction, poetry and drama, the impulse to further split non-fiction into creative or non-creative fiction can only have its source in funding disputes arising from the splitting of the discipline – for it can’t possibly have anything to do with reading, writing, or critical thinking. This is true because, as Trilling says, “The most elementary thing to observe is that literature is of its nature involved with ideas because it deals with man in society, which is to say that it deals with formulations, valuations, and decisions, some of them implicit, others explicit.”

Ideas are organic; ideology is manufactured. Ideas are malleable; ideology is rigid: “Ideology is not the product of thought; it is the habit or the ritual of showing respect for certain formulas to which, for various reasons having to do with emotional safety, we have very strong ties of whose meaning and consequences in actuality we have no clear understanding.” And so in ideology, Trilling explains, we lose sight of this wholeness: “…an intimate relationship between literature and ideas, for in our culture ideas tend to deteriorate into ideology.” If Trilling could say that “poetry is a heuristic medium…a communication of knowledge,” then why do we feel compelled to divorce essays (personal or any other kind or name the latest textbook has invented) from research papers? The very idea of the research paper is essay turned ideology. We must either abolish the research paper or watch literature continue its slow demise toward extinction, an extinction of ideas.