(Mis)Education and Contemporary (Non)Literature
Contemporary Publication, the Beauty of Language, and the Death of Literary Education
Books are published at a rate previously unheard of. Anyone and everyone can work on their novels, stories, memoirs, or other books. With the increasing popularity of activities such as NaNoWriMo, we are encouraging everyone to be writers. Can’t get your book published through a traditional or indie publisher? We can self-publish now. This is how atrocities like Fifty Shades of Grey made it into the mainstream culture — books that should never have been published in the first place (or at least needed serious editing).
Unfortunately, the contemporary publication cycle results in formulaic publishing. I have purchased numerous books on writing techniques, getting my novel published, the craft of writing a novel, memoir writing, world building, character building, plot and structure, outlining my novel, the list goes on and on. Most of these books boil contemporary writing and literature down to simple formulae to get your book published. A lot of them caution the writer against trying any new and creative literary devices. You, too, can write and publish your novel in 90 days! In 30 minutes a day!
Here, I want to explore some of my favorite literary works and their authors and why they would not even make it past a publisher’s bin today. The current publication environment severely limits the publication of great literary works and limits the exposure of the general public to works of literary merit. If it has literary value, I usually will find it in one of my local indie or independent bookstores published by an indie publisher. It is rare for the big-name publishers to recognize and publish a work of literary genius today. I also see the mass consumption of mass market paperback and popular fiction as a concomitant miseducation of society. People are reading, but the books they are reading are not challenging. They are not expanding their horizons and experiences through their reading. They are engaging in mindless reads for escape. These are concerning developments and — to me, at least — highlight several challenges we face as a society.
The Beauty of Language and Literary Daring of the Past
One of the aspects of literary work that is missing from many of the books that are published by contemporary publishers is the beauty of language. Contemporary fiction follows a formula, it is written in “plain-language’ and distributed to the masses for enjoyment. Reading is a form of entertainment today, rather than an intellectual pursuit. People talk about how much they read, but when you dig into what they are reading the intelligentsia of society become less impressed. I find myself wondering if anyone has done a study on the differential impact of reading a lot and reading quality works.
In order to further interrogate the challenges of contemporary publishing for the literati, I want to explore why a few of my favorite authors were so important to the canon. Some of these authors are ones that others claim are too difficult to read, that their books do not make sense, that they just wrote a bunch of nonsense, or that only literary snobs read their work. I would counter with the avalanche of mindless stories that do not deserve the title “literature” have flooded the market and made the average reader unable to challenge themselves with the great works of literary fiction. In short, we have miseducated our reading public by dumbing down books and providing entertainment rather than beauty, easy reads rather than an intellectual challenge.
I start with the works of Nabokov. Nabokov has to be one of my favorite authors. He was a literary genius. Most know him best for his controversial book Lolita, and they know him because the book was controversial. Not many people take the time to interrogate why that work was so controversial. Anyone who has taken the time to read anything in Nabokov’s body of work knows that his language is simply stunning. There is a lyrical beauty to his writing, and he plays with literary structures in an intriguing way. For me, the reason that Lolita is so controversial to most people is that Nabokov pulls you into the story with beautiful writing and language while dealing with a controversial and dark topic. The beauty of the language makes the reader fall in love with the story, but this puts the reader in a difficult place. You love the story for the beauty of the writing, but the content is uncomfortable at best. The magic that Nabokov weaves through his writing would likely not survive in the contemporary publishing world. They would not see the beauty of his writing, only that the masses would not be likely to read it. Indeed, I wonder how many common readers would voluntarily pick up one of his lesser-known books at the bookstore. How can they? Most of the box stores do not keep much beyond Lolita in stock. Try his other books. You won’t be sorry.
A lesser known author that I enjoy is one that likely will not be familiar to most average readers — Alain Robbe-Grillet. Robbe-Grillet is another controversial author who also became a filmmaker. The beauty of his writing lies in his rich descriptions. The detail in his descriptions really puts you in the scene and allows you to experience it. He also, as a successful postmodernist, plays with notions of time and space in his writing. Some might find this confusing, but I found it beautiful. It really brings to light the blurring of fact and fiction. His objective fiction highlights the search for a new form of narrative. Again, the content can venture into dark places — A Sentimental Novel can be a difficult read for even the biggest Robbe-Grillet fans, and many think he just went too far in this work. Ultimately, there is a dark beauty to his writing. I doubt many would pick him up at the local chain bookstore. In fact, now I feel the need to drive down to the one nearest my house and see if they have any of his books in stock. Alas, they are not open yet.
A third author that I enjoy is Marcel Proust. Proust is well-known in literary circles, but I would imagine that while he is well-known not many have actually read his books. Some may have made their way through Swann’s Way, but failed to read the remaining volumes in his masterwork. Often, people read Proust to say that they have read it, not for the literary qualities of the work. Indeed, I doubt the full masterwork would be published in its current state by contemporary publishers (they would likely ask him to cut it, and they would edit out the beautiful language to make it “more readable” to the average reader). Proust mixes beautiful language with rich descriptions to provide an examination of time and memory. He also provides portraits of social classes in his writing. No one is immune to his attention. Admittedly, I am currently almost finished with the second book, but I intend to work my way through all of them. There is much to be learned from reading Proust.
Similar lessons can be learned from the reading of some of my other favorite novelists and writers. Jane Austen provides rich studies in characters injected with social commentary on the life of a woman (revolutionary at the time). Virginia Woolf highlights the strengths and challenges of women while experimenting with a stream of consciousness narrative style. Tolstoy is, well, Tolstoy. He is just a literary great whose examination is of characters, language, and description in realistic fiction combined with subtle shifts in point of view (don’t try this at home, average writer) and subtle shifts in consciousness make his books impossible to put down despite their volume. George Orwell’s dystopian nightmares make important political statements that have transcended time. J.R.R. Tolkien capitalized on his mastery of languages — contemporary and ancient — to create beautiful and poetic stories that have, somewhat surprisingly, become best-sellers (partially due to their adaptability to the movie screen, but mostly due to the amazing pull of his writing). How many of the great novelists and literary greats would have made it past the editorial chopping block of a contemporary publisher though?
I wrap up this part of the conversation by considering one of my favorite authors — James Joyce. His writings were often controversial — Ulysses was censored for obscenity — but always beautiful. I have seen many comment on how difficult Joyce is or how his writing does not make sense. I have written more about why you should read Joyce here. Suffice it to say, he channeled his knowledge of 11 different languages to create a lyrical beauty in his writing. If you have trouble following his stream-of-consciousness-style writing, get an audio version of the book recorded with an Irish accent. That should help you hear the lyrical quality and poetry behind his writing. The key question for me in this moment is: Would Joyce even be published today? I would hope so, but I suspect it would be a challenge.
The Contemporary Publishing Challenge
There is a challenge in contemporary publishing. The author who submits their work to a publisher is competing with thousands, if not tens of thousands, of others for the attention of the publisher. The sheer volume of writing being reviewed prevents publishers from taking the time to truly read and consider the volumes in front of them.
The solution to this challenge has become a streamlined, corporatized version of publishing. They use market models to predict the books that will sell well instead of concerning themselves with the literary quality of the books in front of them. Every once in a while, a work with literary value will make its way through, but far more often books that are published fit predefined standards for what makes a “good book.” Essentially, publishers are looking for books for mass consumption. Challenging literary works do not typically meet what they are looking for. This is contributing to a number of challenges in society.
Contemporary Best-Selling Fiction and the Miseducation of Society
The formulaic publishing standards often define the best-seller lists. People choose their next reads from best-seller lists, book club lists, and other similar sources of information. Unfortunately, this just reinforces the publication of books that are written based on the successful publishing formulae of previous books. Rarely does a work that engages the reader using novel literary techniques or that truly challenges the reader make it onto those lists. Books that do not make it onto those lists do not make it onto the display tables. Indeed, you might have to special order them or go to an eclectic indie or independent bookstore that is willing to make recommendations based on what the employees have read and enjoyed.
Let’s look at the people who work in bookstores. They come in a few forms. You have the “I need a job, and this is a job” people who have never opened a book in their lives. You ask this person for a book recommendation or try to strike up a conversation about the book you are purchasing, and they get terribly uncomfortable and say they haven’t had time to read that one. The conversation typically stops here. Then you have the “I like books, but only best-selling, popular fiction” workers. They can make recommendations based on the bestseller lists, and they may have even read those books. Ask them to make recommendations in classic or esoteric literature, and they look confused and try to redirect you to the bestseller displays at the front of the store. Some of my favorite bookstore employees are the “I work here for the discount for my own reading habit” employees and the “I work here to spread the joy of reading to others” employees. These are the workers that you will find hiding in the corner over their latest read at every break. The employees who stash a book next to the cash register and pick it up when things are slow. You read these employees’ recommended book cards and immediately want to buy the book. They look at you, ask a couple of questions, and can make a recommendation in any genre. These are the bookstore employees that I look for.
All of this is to highlight the challenges we face in our current reading world. Some people may be reading a lot, but are they reading books of quality? Do the books that they read challenge their perspective on the world? Do they challenge them to reach to the edges and push the limits of their intellectual capacity? Do they allow the reader to make new connections that enlighten their life?
Much like education, generally-speaking, the publication of best-selling, genre-focused books that stay on the best-seller list for a few weeks and then get relegated to the discount table is a miseducation at best. In schools we are teaching students just enough to allow them to be good and docile workers in the market economy, but not enough for them to question that economy. We allow people to learn enough to perform in the middle-class occupations that wait for them, but not enough for them to question power structures or the status quo.
Books are operating the same way. We publish books en masse with the goal of entertaining the reading public. Most people are not reading as an intellectual pursuit. This is okay. If a person is reading for entertainment, at least they are reading! I do grow increasingly concerned at conversations that I have about books where people disparage difficult literature and quality literature and indicate a preference for the bestseller list. Every once in a while, a literary work makes it onto the bestseller list, and I hope it will cause more people to explore new areas of literature that they have not previously explored. I am not holding my breath.
Where Do We Go From Here?
One of the most revolutionary things that we can do in a media-controlled, commodity-focused society is to read books outside of the bestseller list. Read things that will cause you to question the status quo. Read things that will cause a paradigm shift. Read things that will allow you to see the world from a different perspective.
It is okay to still enjoy the entertainment reads. I still pick up a Game of Thrones novel or a romance novel from time to time. Sometimes we just need something to read without thinking, and that is okay. Just make sure that is not all that you are reading. If you are looking for a place to start this exploration, check out the MLA Top 100 Novels lists, the BBC Great British Novels list, or other similar lists. Read books in the literary canon. Check out college syllabi for different types of literature courses. Read nonfiction and fiction. Read on topics you would not normally read on. Expand your horizons. Challenge yourself. Question the world around you.
We cannot easily change our test-focused, market-driven educational system. That will take years of effort to change (particularly since corporations and government entities are driving education rather than letting educators drive education — but that is a topic for another article). The best way for us to begin to challenge the fast-food education being provided in society is to claim ownership of our own educations. Becoming an intellectual does not require expensive degrees — and often those expensive degrees are only the beginning of an education. You can educate yourself with a library card and a bus pass. What made our ancestors and the founders of our great societies “great”? What made the authors and thinkers of previous generations so compelling? They educated themselves. They read, and they read things that challenged their perspectives.
Be a revolutionary. Read beyond what you would normally read. Challenge your perspectives. Gain empathy and kindness. And then get out there and talk to others about your reading. Your excitement about the new books you are reading and the new things you are learning will be contagious. Hope for the future of society lies in reading and education but reading and education beyond corporatized best-seller lists. Take ownership of your reading. That is a great contribution that anyone can make to society.