I recently came across the work of Gavin Jones, a Stanford scholar who is researching the role that failure has played in the creation of great literature (he recently published a book entitled Failure and the American Writer: A Literary History). He argues that the professional and personal failures Poe, Twain, Melville and others experienced informed their work in important ways. “Failure,” Jones claims, “as it unfolds in literary pages, becomes essential to an understanding of what makes us human – both within and beyond the pressures of social context.”
I wonder if he’s unintentionally hit upon a paradox, that writers engaged in the publication game have always been under tremendous pressure to succeed, both financially and critically. The market is thick with people vying to create the next best thing, and now more than ever, that thing should be as edgy and immediate and compelling as possible. If writers pay close attention to the market, they would be encouraged to write the literary equivalent of a pop single, something that is catchy enough to grab the short attention spans of buyers looking for their next fix amid the constantly replenishing sea of new volumes. And popularity doesn’t buy you a reprieve, either. I have a few friends who write hugely successful young adult series, and they bemoan their increasingly short deadlines and the constantly increasing pressure to write the next installment (which, of course, should be even more irresistible than the last).
But what does this do to the content of what we read? If the most successful writers are working in a market that pressures them to produce quick, glittering things, will we lose the deep complexity the best of literature has been (arguably) founded upon? Would Ulysses or The Invisible Man or Beloved or The Sound and the Fury or The Great Gatsby stand a chance if they were to be published for the first time in 2016? Would the slow build of life experience as it informs the novel have any purchase in the modern world? Would it ever have the chance to rise to the top of the heap that is full if works that are frequently very well written but, by necessity, hastily composed and forced into a break-neck pace?
When Harry Potter first hit the stratosphere, I remember a great divide between those who argued it didn’t earn its accolades, and those who applauded any book that could get so many kids reading (actually, this was only one of many divides that surrounded the unprecedented success of those books). I happen to fall in the latter camp, and also think that Rowling’s work is straight up wonderful, but I don’t think it represents the pinnacle of literary depth. And I miss the support great, slow, old-fashioned novels deservedly received. They invited readers to go deep and go long into human experience, and I’m not sure anything can quite replace them. Nor do I see any reason for them not to continue to be written, but I worry about their future to secure the audiences they need to keep them afloat. And I fear that content is not enough, anymore. That, perhaps, great novels written by small writers will never see the light of day.
What do you think, dear reader (or fellow writer)? How do you choose how to spend your literary time these days? Is it informed by what’s dangled in front of you or your fellow (wo)man? Do you conscientiously seek out titles that aren’t on a bestseller or top pick list or that don’t have a booksellers blurb dangling beneath them at your local Indie? Are you seeing the kind of complexity you ache for in modern letters? And are we better off or worse for what we’re reading today?