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.

Plumber’s Helper

We slept until noon. Around three, Sylvie left to register for her conference at some humongous hotel on the bay. After registration and check-in there would be meet and greet meetings followed by an opening night banquet, speeches and entertainment, closing with some notorious keynote speaker with a wishful thinking slide show on passion, motivation, and sports. But Sylvie would be back at the bungalow for the night. She would not be sleeping at the hotel. I walked around the bungalow and yard, checking out the details, sipping a late afternoon coffee, feeling lazy and easy going. Our neighbors to the east were noisily going in and out of their place, filling a small dumpster out front with trash from their house. I wandered over to say hello. Josh and Margo were co-presidents of a service fraternity, and they’d leased the house for a week of meetings and parties in sync with the fall semesters starting up. The clean-up was almost over, and they were vacating the place as soon as they got it inspected and got their security and cleaning deposits back. Meantime, did I know anything about plumbing? One of their toilets was backed up. I found a plumber’s helper and a drain snake in the garage and went to work. Apparently they don’t teach you in college not to flush a bikini down a toilet, I said. Or an empty beer can. Margo looked distraught. Josh said he’d not taken Plumbing 101 yet. I plunged the second toilet for good measure. When I asked Josh what he was studying he said he’d soon be finished with a business degree in marketing and planned to pursue an MBA. His goal was to amass as much capital as he possibly could over the next ten years then sit back on his laurels and surf. He was planning a startup that would amass capital for the express purpose of funding other startups. Right, Margo joshed him, it will take you the next ten years just to pay off your student loans. Margo was studying forensic science. Maybe you should both consider a plumbing start-up, I suggested, and left them to their clean-up, studies, and careers.

“Plumber’s Helper” is episode 62 of Inventories, a Novel in Progress in Serial Format at The Coming of the Toads.

Body Talk

Mr. Body awoke feeling poky.
“It’s your diet,” Mrs. Body sd.
“I eat the same crap as everybody.”
“Just as you say.”

“What are those gold chains
about their necks all about?”
“True that. Tiffany’s on steroids.”
“What are the qualities

of good plumbing?”
“You don’t hear the pipes
growling in the walls.”
“No leaks, but you can get

to the pipes if you need to
repair one without having
to wreck the dwelling.”
“The pipes don’t poison

the water.”
“Urge.”
“I beseech thee,
where’s the coffee?”

Lenten Surf Season

Work morning and Luke up early helping his dad load plumbing tools,
wrenches and chisels, elbows and nipples, the ladle and the lead pot
full of soft lead that looks like frozen surf.
Luke now taller than his dad.

“Give Dan a call,” Luke said. “He’s drivin’ now.
We’re headin’ inland to work,”
and he ran his rough hand meanly over Jack’s salt matted hair.
“I’m afraid my surfin’ days are near over, kid,” Luke said.

Dan lived with his grandma back in the alley
behind Roman’s, off Devil’s Path.
He was working on an old Chevy beater.
He was a cross between a surfer and a hodad.

“You turnin’ into a hodad,” Jack said,
but it was a question, and Dan laughed.
“All you think about is surfing, kid,” Dan said.
“I have to give Grandma a ride to mass.

Give me a quarter for some gas, go to mass with us,
then we’ll drive down and check out some waves.
You hear Gary got shot? Not coming home, though.
Sent him up to Japan for some R and R.”

“I love the mass,” Danny’s grandma said.
She sat in the middle of the bench seat,
smelling like toilet water and wax.
“I love the quiet, the peace.

I love the back of the church dark,
the hard polished oaken pews,
the altar lit like a halo, the smell
of the candles, the incense,

the smell of Father Dayly’s hands
when he puts the host between my lips
and sets it down softly onto my tongue.”
“I know you do, Grandma.”

“No, you don’t. You boys can’t know
nothin’ about it, how I love the sudden bells.
I love the mass so much,” Danny’s grandma said,
“I’m giving it up for Lent.”

They turned to look at the old woman,
Jack rolled his window down,
and Danny’s grandma saw the salt water in Jack’s eyes.
“But,” she said, spitting it out, and paused.

“Yes, Grandma?” Danny said.
“You go to mass without me during Lent.
You give up surfing for Lent.”
Jack could hear the waves laughing at him.

Rising from the beach and curling over the dunes,
a breeze hisses like a glass blower’s torch.
The spring swell peals across the bay,
the waves a glass cavalry menagerie.

Surfing

Notes on Experience, Story, and Voice

Joe Linker Pizza Face by Emily“The idea that everyone has a story to tell (which underlies the notion that anyone can write since all a writer needs is a story) is strictly correct,” Jenny Diski said, writing in the London Review of Books (7 Mar, 21) about Marco Roth’s memoir, “The Scientists: A Family Romance.” Well, Henry James thought so, anyway. Continued Diski, echoing James, “If you were born, you’re in there with a story.”

“Every talk has his stay,” James Joyce said. But does every story have a voice? Is the writer’s job to tell the stories of those without voices? Is the critic’s job to decide how long the voice’s stay is welcomed, if at all? Not if Joyce had anything to stay about it: “Why? It is a sot of a swigswag, systomy dystomy, which everabody you ever anywhere at all doze. Why? Such me” (FW, 597). But even if one has a story with an illuminating voice, should one talk? And once one starts talking, must one tell all? Well, maybe not all, there are time and space constraints, after all. Ah, and there’s the rub, what to tell, and what to withhold.

Memoirs, like all forms of writing, have narrators: is he, or she, reliable? What have they left out? And even if they’ve tried to put everything in, there’s the problem of point of view. Would the story tell of the same experience related from another’s point of view, someone else who was witness? A memoir doesn’t contain fictional characters, but real people, but to the reader who has never met them, they may feel and sound like characters. The characters speak, but are their words reliable? The memoirist creates a set, described, composed, like a family photo album, and adds tone, the attitude toward the experience, all drawn with words that suggest as well as denote. And there is that slippery, mercurial ball of memory we always seem to be chasing after. We might call that ball ambiguity.

And writing in the March 18 New Yorker, Adam Gopnik says, “Thanks to the Internet…anyone can write” (21). The assumption is that not everyone should. All these amateur bloggers serve up knuckle balls to the professional writer, though the proliferation of adult amateur softball leagues doesn’t seem to hamper the work of pro baseball players. How many family garages or basements sport bands? That they don’t all reach Nirvana doesn’t invalidate their experience, as much as it might hurt our hearing. Why is the amateur spirit more tolerated, if not enjoyed, in music, arts and crafts, gardening, cooking, and sports (golf, anyone?) than in writing?

Henry James, in his essay “On the Art of Fiction” (1894), talks about experience, and answers a question about whether or not one individual’s experience might be more valid and valuable than another’s when it comes to writing about that experience. James is speaking of fiction, Diski of memoir. But memoir might be the most flagrant of fictions, since it attempts to disguise its narration as truth. But what makes any experience worth writing and reading? For James, the more cloistered a life’s experience the more opportunity for close reading of that experience. The only requirement is that one pay attention: “The young lady living in a village has only to be a damsel upon whom nothing is lost to make it quite unfair (as it seems to me) to declare to her that she shall have nothing to say about the military…The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life, in general, so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it – this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience, and they occur in country and in town, and in the most differing stages of education. If experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe. Therefore, if I should certainly say to a novice, ‘Write from experience, and experience only,’ I should feel that this was a rather tantalising monition if I were not careful immediately to add, ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!’”

Maybe everyone has a story, but not everyone has a voice, but through certain kinds of experience one might discover one’s voice, the expression of which might be realized in writing. But the expression of one’s story might also be realized in music, nursing, or plumbing. Maybe the writer’s job is to tell the stories of those without voices. But a more instructive way of thinking about experience, story, and voice might be to say that the writer’s job is to reveal voice where story is found in any one individual’s experience (not necessarily the writer’s), so that a reader might enjoy a kind of reading epiphany, realizing it’s the significance of their own experience being reflected. The reader hears her or his own voice. One need not be a writer, or a reader, to experience one’s own voice. But first we must find our voice, and where will we find it amidst all the wrack and ruin, the dry brine, the commercialism and the consumerism and the garbage sloughing like wax dripping from our ears, and deep in our ears a muffled sound like gigantic iron church bells echoing? But if indeed that’s our experience, how should it be voiced, or should we keep it silent?

We might read something and question the author’s authority, the authority of his or her voice. But the author of the writing should not be confused with the speaker of a narrative. Even if the writer who tells us the “I” of her poems is indeed her own voice, and that is the reason she writes, to describe her world, her reality, using her own voice, we still might think in terms of author and narrator, not necessarily the same. How does the writer decide what to put in and what to leave out of her poems about her reality? That decision making is the process of narration. Because as authors of our own narratives, our own stories, we still create characters, even if we call those characters ourselves, as in the memoir. This is why I said above that the memoir is perhaps the most flagrant of fictions.

Maybe no one has a voice, and we are all voiceless. We might all have stories, but we are all helpless, writers and non-writers alike, to voice those stories. This is why we keep writing, why there is no end to storytelling, amateur as well as professional. Earlier this year, a couple of houses on our block replaced their sewer lines to the street. I watched the workers and the job progress. I had done this kind of work with my father, years ago, and I marveled now as I did then at the simplicity of the technology, which has not changed much over the years. “Just remember, shit runs downhill,” my Dad said, handing me the shovel to dig a sewer pipe ditch. “That it do,” he said, concluding his short story, the voice of experience slowly dripping off as he walked away to more complicated, but no more important, matters on the job.

Related Post: Correcting, Grading, and Commenting: Right, Wrong, and Indifferent

Plumbing & Writing: A Review of the Literature (at the Toads)

Sky Plumbing
Plumbing in the Sky

One of these days, I’ll craft a post equal to one of my Dad’s plumbing jobs. Meantime, here are a few past posts that mention the improbable connection between writing and plumbing:

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

E. B. White and the Plumber

The Elite and the Effete: From Access to Egress

A Portrait of the Plumber as a Poor Speller; or, Wrong Word

A Plumber’s Noir