The Deathless Death of Literature
Have we finally arrived at the definitive end of literature, or is there still a long road ahead of us?
Literature is dying, we all know that; we’re all well aware of that; we’re being incessantly reminded of that disconcerting fact nearly on a daily basis by various publications and — ironically, of all things — TV talk shows. It’s one endless, protracted agony complete with excruciating pain, tirelessly held vigils, votive candles being lit every now and then, and woeful laments. It’s a cruel agony that needs years and years, if not decades and whole centuries, to pillage and wreak havoc on the patient’s body yet without ever finishing him off entirely, without ever coming close to dealing that merciful coup de grâce and putting him out of his poorly edited misery. It’s also one of those ever-recurring issues that tend to resurface and firmly take hold of the reading public’s attention, inflame the assortment of its innermost fears for a week or two, only to suddenly vanish and be dropped from the cultural horizon after several heated debates and passionate op-eds written by concerned publishers and other self-proclaimed ambassadors of the realm of letters.
Literature is dying, we all know that; we’re all well aware of that; we’re being incessantly reminded of that disconcerting fact nearly on a daily basis.
To tell the truth, if I were a terminally ill patient with translucent tubes winding and spiraling around me fancily and a bit artistically, like electrons orbiting an atomic nucleus, I would gladly trade places with it at any given moment. I would love to be dying — if one can love such a thing at all — in such a fashion, at such an insanely sluggish pace, while seeing whole centuries pass and disappear in the rear-view mirror of the past tense without my nearing the deathbed or the slippery edge of the grave so much as a mere inch, or two of those.
Because, it’s a truly curious moribund state of literature when publishers are selling more books than ever; when more people than ever before can be described as fairly literate and capable of acquiring and then reading those books; when there are more people diagnosing themselves as aspiring authors ready to fight their way to the printing press than in several past centuries put together.
But, according to some, it’s still dying.
In fact, it has been dying for so long that a host of notable authors, those true luminaries of the printed page, and cultural personalities across many, often distant, epochs had their chance to express their regret at that fact and have their say about it. Thus, we could hear, or read, the distinguished likes of Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and Philip Roth join the choir of amateurish mourners and professional weepers at the — somehow never materializing in full — funeral of literature. But, even though they’re long gone and buried themselves, the object of their premature laments and anticipatory grief still seems to be quite sprightly as well as in surprisingly decent shape.
Even though they’re long gone and buried themselves, the object of their premature laments and anticipatory grief still seems to be in surprisingly decent shape.
In his ominously titled speech The Disappearance of Literature, Mark Twain mentions those of his contemporaries who feared that the works of Sir Walter Scott may not stand the test of time with flying colors — or with any colors, really — and disappear in the impenetrable depths of literary oblivion. As it turns out, both Mr. Twain and the above-mentioned contemporaries of his have become things of the past themselves — though, it has to be said, Mr. Twain enjoys a far livelier and more vigorous posthumous life than those fearful ones whom we don’t even know by their names — and the novels of Sir Walter Scott still exist and, in addition, are more or less widely read despite fierce competition from scores of colorful websites, intuitive mobile applications, and increasingly absorbing devices.
But the frenzy of book-death alarmists rages on.
Ernest Hemingway was the next one to prophesy the imminent demise of the novel — it was supposed to be quickly gone and forgotten. As we can plainly see, he is no longer among us while novels stubbornly refuse to hoist a white page, to cease being published, and to stop flying off the shelves. Apparently, Philip Roth must have sensed the need for some form of continuation of this singular tradition of grumbling and fear-mongering and proposed his own sinister prediction that books won’t be read within the next 25 years. He said it about nine years ago, managed to pass away himself in the meantime, but to see whether his dire prognosis was in any degree close to the truth we have to wait another nine years and then a few more. However, considering the rather dubious track record of similar prophecies when it comes to their accuracy, I think it’s safe to assume that nothing of the kind will happen that soon, if at all.
Considering the rather dubious track record of similar prophecies when it comes to their accuracy, I think it’s safe to assume that nothing of the kind will happen that soon, if at all.
I wouldn’t want to come across as unduly optimistic — just as I’m not too eager to join the ranks of those flirting with first-rate hysterics — but I strongly suspect that books are here to stay or will be with us for a little longer.
There’s a handful of reasons for it:
First of all, let’s not forget that people do grow up, at least they still tend to do so; pernicious technology hasn’t advanced that far yet as to hinder this process. Remember that whenever you glance at those young people on a subway car or on a crowded bus who flaunt those devices blinking at you balefully with their blinding screens. Remember that, for there will most likely come a day when they realize the futility of it, the silliness of all that, and, consequently, they will mature. Just as their parents haven’t fried they eyeballs by spending whole days glued to their TV screens, as if those were oversized microwaves (excepting the extreme cases requiring immediate attention of their cable guy), and just as their grandparents hadn’t become shell-shocked from listening to the radio roaring and blasting at full volume all day long.
Secondly, even if some of them won’t do it, even if they won’t relinquish that love of all that blinks and buzzes, I don’t believe that in the past there were no people allergic to the written word. I don’t believe that in the past reading books was the favorite pastime of whole societies, with even thugs rushing home, all scarred and bloodied, after a just-finished bar fight to catch up on their reading of the complete works of Dostoevsky.
I don’t believe that in the past there were no people allergic to the written word.
Nonetheless, we can’t dismiss all the arguments of those currently stoking fears of the literate apocalypse. We can’t chalk all of it up to misguided and unwarranted panic or to the inexplicable cultivation of a decades-old tradition of scaremongering. We can’t do it because it’s unwise to completely ignore any threat, no matter how wildly exaggerated it may appear to be at the moment, and it’s always better and more cost-effective to take the necessary precautions and make slight corrections of one’s course early on than to risk a total overhaul of the entire system when it’s essentially too late to take any action whatsoever.
Whether in this or in some other form, books enjoy a rather satisfactory chance of survival, just as they did throughout the past centuries. Will their time ever come? Most probably, for it always does. If there’s one thing history has taught us, it’s that nothing is above the merciless ticking of the clock. Meanwhile, it would be much better and much sounder — for no one else but ourselves — if instead of circling the literary wagons for no specific reason, if instead of getting armed and ready for the enemy who hasn’t yet departed from his camp, we finally shut the hell up and started reading those very books we blabber on about as well as enjoyed them until they’re among us, numerous and widely available.
Thank you for reading.
Copyright © 2019 by F. R. Foksal
F. R. Foksal is a Polish author writing in English, his second language. His short story collection, Hour Between Late Night and Early Morning, is available at Amazon. He believes that writing about literature doesn’t have to be boring and that books still stand a chance in today’s high-definition reality.