Literature is dead. It's been said for years about the novel, and it's absolutely true. So what. Literature died a long time ago along with any concept of a shared cultural identity over the nature of art. The last writer was Kurt Vonnegut. He's dead. Fine. In his absence, and in retrospect, I and others celebrate Don DeLillo's White Noise as a sort of postcultural literature that captures the essence of Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation. So ultimately, it's not really a problem that literature is dead so much that culture is decaying with the ever increasing speed of a pesky outbreak of necrotic skin. There are writers around today who keep killing literature, writing and the arts in general with the blunt object of their words, but they will remain nameless because they often tour the area and are promoted by this publication. I know the usual suspects, the names that aficionados of this post-literature will cite when declaring me to be out of touch. That's fine, too.
The problem for writers is actually readers. And, of course, the fact that many writers no longer read. Did Oprah's Book Club save literature? That's between you and your god. I've never been one for book clubs myself or clubs of writers getting together to discuss their work. But there are still real readers.
And real writers. Don't hide. I know it's scary out there.
Literature's further decomposition often occurs in the classroom. It takes a rare and inspiring K-12 teacher to nurture the type of love of reading necessary to create the great readers that great literature's rebirth requires. Literature might also meet a quick death in a college English course—though that, too, can become a place for inspiration and great passion under the proper conditions.
I'm not even sure that I should care that literature and culture are dead. Some would argue, "Well, you see, literature and culture are not dead; it's the literature and art of the dominant culture, which held hegemony over the rest of us for so long, that are. We've been liberated into a nation of subcultures. There is no main culture. Hooray!"
To this I would reply that I am mostly talking about people being able to read and write a coherent sentence, a sentence that also has some meaning behind it, that has some relevance to aspects of the human experience we all share.
But, my detractors would argue, there's not supposed to be universal meaning anymore. It's just about what it means to you.
So after I've thrown my radio out the window, bashed my TV in with a giant mallet and unplugged my computer—at least until I need to update my blog and check my Facebook page so I can get all the relevant information I need about "my" world—I'll be left with a house that only has a bunch of books in it. Maybe I'll just be left with a couple of Vonneguts and a tattered copy of DeLillo. And Roberto Bolaño (yes, you need to read 2666).
Perhaps I'm generalizing a bit. But every time I leave the theater, for instance, I can only think to myself, "How often can revivals be revived? When is it time to pronounce that modern American theater, along with literature, deserves a trip to Dignitas to enjoy some death with dignity, like a terminally ill patient allowed the hemlock while he can still swallow of his own volition?" It may be time to reassess. Some think I'm a reactionary. Perhaps that's true. Some would call my comments elitist, deranged, idiotic or wrong. I'll accept any of those terms without much concern, and might, a few moments from now, agree with them.
But until then I say literature is dead. I say culture is dead. And I say you are too. And so am I. Because if our spirits cannot be inspired to the heights of human possibility anymore, if all we're good for is being the food for global capitalism in a post-9-11 world, if nothing really matters except what you think matters, then nothing really matters.
There are universal humanist values lurking beneath the surface ready to revive American culture and the American spirit or, perhaps more broadly, the human spirit. But you have to go and look for them and live them. Then you'll see what I'm saying.
Until then, I say literature is dead.
Except for what I write.
C. E. McAuley is an instructor in the Communication Studies Department at Sonoma State University.
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