The Dumbing Down Of American Fiction

5023 words - 21 pages

The Dumbing Down of American Fiction

The 1976 film "Network" is an acerbic satire of television's single-minded obsession with mass ratings.One of the film's main characters, Howard Beale, is called the "Mad Prophet of the Airways," and his weekly harangues produce a "ratings motherlode"--yet he constantly admonishes his viewers to "Turn the damn tube off!"During one such rant Beale berates his audience as functional illiterates: "Less than three percent of you even read books!" he shouts messianically--and then promptly collapses from a sort of apoplexic overload.

Almost twenty years later, contemplating the contemporary American publishing scene, I feel a Bealean rage coming on (and ...view middle of the document...

Our potential customers total then not even one percent of the reading-capable population, but only half of one percent.If there are 100 million computers in this country, then there may be 100 times as many computers as there are consistent readers of books.

Well, it's a post-book world, you respond.Books are, like the horse and buggy, obsolete.Like the typewriter.Like the barbershop quartet.Like the Cold War.

And yet we holdouts, we inveterate readers, we who love our books so well for reasons so perverse and obsolete that they cannot be expressed in even the most sophisticated marketing formulae, we Neanderthals of the written word (a very ironic evolutionary slot, it's true) continue to insist that there is a place in this world beyond words for books (books, that is, which look like books, and not those electronic "equivalents" made up of magnetic blips which are spread out across a fiber optic network as huge and diverse as some Valhallan cyberweb).We want our books to have weight and substance, to have a smell (leather is nice, but so is moldy paper), to take up space on a shelf, to be a thing which gathers dust, to occupy a space we can point to when we are struggling to recall Macbeth's deepest fear (which was, appropriately, 'tomorrow' multiplied until it lost all allure and became merely the next day), to be an object which ages along with us, though its wisdom and value never grows old.We believe, that is to say, in books of four dimensions, and not those of none.

And yet, even as there are fewer of us to read books, there seem to be more of them demanding to be read.Never before have there been so many books published each year.How odd that in this supposedly post-print culture, books breed like clothes hangers while readers dwindle like humpback whales.

So perhaps it will seem perverse if I complain about this overabundance of books.After all, many well-intentioned people are writing well-intentioned essays about training more writers to write more books, all in order to fuel a Renaissance of American literacy.And yet that is precisely what I am going to argue against.In other words, I believe that what we need is fewer writers writing fewer but better books, if we are ever to achieve a revitalized American readership.

It does not take a government-funded study to know that bookstores these days are crammed full to the scruppers with books.One need only walk in the door to be assaulted by high-gloss color and embossed titles, holographic come-ons and sales displays with the same book repeated, like Warhol's Mao, to the point of vertigo.Which is exactly the sort of response a character in DeLillo's most recent novel, Mao II, experiences when he enters a bookstore in New York:

He looked at the gleaming best-sellers.People drifted through the store, appearing caught in some unhappy dazzlement.There were books on step terraces and Lucite wall-shelves, books in pyramids and theme displays.He went downstairs to the...

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