The Frontal Cortex

Taking Art Seriously

Earlier this week, the National Endowment for the Arts came out with a disturbing report:

Americans — particularly young Americans — appear to be reading less for fun, and as that happens, their reading test scores are declining. At the same time, performance in other academic disciplines like math and science is dipping for students whose access to books is limited, and employers are rating workers deficient in basic writing skills.

This report builds upon a 2004 NEA analysis that offered up a bleak assessment of the American reader. It turns out that reading, especially the reading of literature, has been in steady decline over the last 20 years. For the first time, less than half of the adult population reads novels, poetry or plays.

The first part of the solution is obvious: we need more Harry Potter’s. J.K. Rowling managed to turn the sparkling adventures of a boy wizard into a cultural event. Her superb stories seduced millions of kids (and adults) into reading a work of fiction.

But revitalizing the act of reading will also require us to undergo a larger cultural shift. I believe that our culture has devalued literature. We’ve turned the novel into nothing but a form of entertainment, a pretty diversion for a rainy day, a bit of escapism before we fall asleep. (Poetry has suffered an even more depressing descent.) The end result is that literature has become merely another pastime, forced to compete with our constantly expanding array of entertainment options, from cable television to online video games. Not surprisingly, The Iliad is regularly trounced by World of Warcraft.

Literature, however, is not merely entertainment. The point of my book is that great art is capable of teaching us about ourselves, revealing important truths about how the mind works (often before science). When we marginalize literature, we miss out on a profound source of knowledge about the human condition.

Consider Virginia Woolf. The first thing to note about Woolf is that she took her art very seriously. Before she wrote Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf wrote in her diary that in her new novel the “psychology should be done very realistically.” She wanted her novels to capture an aspect of human reality that had never before been described. The eminent novelists of her time – “Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy” – ignored the mind’s interiors. “They have looked,” Woolf wrote, “at factories, at Utopias, even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at life, never at human nature.”

Woolf tried to invert this hierarchy. She wrote novels that followed the flow of our consciousness, tracing the “flight of the mind” as it unfolds across time. “Only thoughts and feelings,” Woolf wrote to Katherine Mansfield, “no cups and tables.” This writerly form allowed Woolf to chronicle the texture of our thought, to put the brain on the page. As she wrote in her essay “Modern Fiction,” Let us [the modern novelist] record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.”

In my book, I go on to dissect a few scenes from To the Lighthouse to show how, exactly, Woolf documents our consciousness with startling scientific prescience. (It has a lot to do with emergence and the process of attention.) My point here, however, is that treating Woolf’s novels as nothing but elegantly written stories, a high-brow form of entertainment, is to miss out on a crucial aspect of the art. The reason her modernist fiction continues to be relevant is because it reflects a crucial aspect of human experience, distilling the psychological details of real life into prose and plot. That’s why her novels have endured: because they feel true, because they capture a layer of reality that cannot be described in any other way.

But back to the kids. Of course, nothing will make Virginia Woolf less popular than turning her into a form of intellectual medicine. Art is least appealing when it depends on snob appeal. In the end, classic works of literature are read for the same reasons as Harry Potter: because we want to know what happens. Because we’ve fallen in love with a character. Because the story has an end.

And yet, it’s also important to remind our children (and ourselves) that a book can teach us even as it entertains. Great literature is entertainment plus wisdom. Until our culture learns to take literature seriously, to treat novels and poems and plays with the significance they deserve, the literary arts will continue to be a form of entertainment that’s slowly going extinct.

Comments

  1. #1 Scott Belyea
    November 21, 2007

    I agree with your concern, but I suggest that there’s some pretty sloppy reasoning used here.

    But revitalizing the act of reading will also require us to undergo a larger cultural shift. I believe that our culture has devalued literature. We’ve turned the novel into nothing but a form of entertainment,

    When has it been anything else to the overwhelming majority of readers?

    The end result is that literature has become merely another pastime, forced to compete with our constantly expanding array of entertainment options, from cable television to online video games. Not surprisingly, The Iliad is regularly trounced by World of Warcraft.

    And I’d bet that readership of Varney the Vampire regularly trounced The Scarlet Letter.

    And when was the Iliad ever more than a minority interest?

    Until our culture learns to take literature seriously,

    Has it ever? That’s not intended to be sarcastic, by the way. But I believe that the reality is that interest in the “non-entertainment” or “improving” qualities of art has always been a minority interest (and a pretty small minority at that).

    Are fewer people reading “literature” (in your sense) than previously? Probably. Are fewer people listening to “serious music”? Same answer. How about reading or watching Shakespeare? Same answer.

    I don’t know what the “solution” is … or even if there is a solution or if one should be attempted. I am convinced that my interest in reading and in “serious music” relates significantly to what I experienced growing up. And I believe that schools have a role to play not just in giving children what they already know but in introducing them to things they may not be familiar with. Yes, that approach is a tough sell.

    I also point out that the NY Times article to which you link which discusses the report says:

    After all, it doesn’t consider magazines, it doesn’t consider newspapers and it doesn’t consider the Internet, except to imply that it steals time people used to spend with books.

    Reason for concern? Perhaps. But I get a flavour from your post of nostalgia for a Golden Age that never was …

  2. #2 Moopheus
    November 21, 2007

    “Until our culture learns to take literature seriously, to treat novels and poems and plays with the significance they deserve, the literary arts will continue to be a form of entertainment that’s slowly going extinct.”

    Good luck with that. Folks in the literary world have been saying this since, well, at least since the rotary steam press made books cheap enough for the masses. Heck, I’m sure the monks in the medieval scriptoriums were probably complaining that all anybody wanted was more copies of the Romance of the Rose instead of some nice psalm books.

    Virtually of the fiction produced in any given year is published solely for entertainment and making a quick buck, and will be shortly forgotten. This has been true for as long as publishing has existed as a commercial enterprise. And all along publishers complained about other forms of entertainment intruding on their turf: radio, tv, etc.

    It is true that there are a lot of good books out there, and most of them have never been read except by a fairly small percentage of readers, unless they were forced to in school. But the publishing industry has only itself to blame for its problems. It has responded badly to the latest “crisis” mainly by publishing an enormous pile of populist excrement topped off by a thin layer of self-indulgent twaddle produced by graduates of university MFA programs. It’s not surprising to me in the least that they continue to lose ground against other forms of entertainment.

    On the other end of the spectrum is the assumption that the literary novel presents some unique insight into the “human condition” that other forms of communication can’t match, which I once believed was true but have come to doubt. A good novel is a unique experience, but that doesn’t give it exclusive rights to human knowledge and experience.

  3. #3 Jonah
    November 21, 2007

    These are both excellent criticisms. I certainly don’t expect Woolf or Joyce or Gertrude Stein to become a bestseller anytime soon. They were elitist publications when they were first published – Stein’s first book, for example, sold 73 copies – and I see no reason why that should be any different now. However, I do believe that by taking art more seriously – by seeing it as another way to understand the mind – we can invest all of our books (low, middle and highbrow) with more urgency. In other words, I’m relying on a kind of halo effect. By looking for the wisdom in To the Lighthouse (or some other great work of art) we might be able to convince more kids that reading fiction has a real utility. It’s a form of entertainment that does more than pass the time.

  4. #4 Moopheus
    November 21, 2007

    “By looking for the wisdom in To the Lighthouse (or some other great work of art) we might be able to convince more kids that reading fiction has a real utility.”

    How does one determine where the wisdom is? What if the art is just really bullshit? I mean, one could say that the way the modernists have captured “psychological reality” is just a slightly more detailed recording of the chattering of the monkey mind. Why is Woolf preferable to D.T. Suzuki? (Not that one necessarily has to choose) What about, say Flannery O’Connor, one of the great American literary stylists of the 20th century, was deeply Catholic and her books reflected this. If one regards Catholic dogma as bologna, does this make her books less good, less worth reading?

  5. #5 Mick
    November 21, 2007

    I recall a moment, I think around the time that the film version of The Hours came out, when a tie-in edition of Mrs. Dalloway was actually a bestseller, albeit briefly. I wondered at that time what all these people were going to do with that book. Try to read it? Perhaps simply display it behind the couch? This book was primarily a consumer object, it seemed to me at that moment. Anyway, I think there is a large part of the population that would actually resent learning anything from books, regardless of their desire to learn. I imagine for those not used to it, reading is simply a chore, like how I regard mowing the lawn. Part of me does wish kids would learn to love reading like how I did when I was young, although my feelings about wishing everyone has my kind of experience are mixed. More generally, perhaps, I would wish for the desire for wisdom and a certain suspicion of “mere entertainment,” as I think you are saying.

  6. #6 Scott Belyea
    November 21, 2007

    They were elitist publications when they were first published – Stein’s first book, for example, sold 73 copies – and I see no reason why that should be any different now.

    This raises an interesting point, which I can best illustrate by moving from literature to music.

    The cantatas of Bach and the operas of Verdi (to take just two examples) were the opposite of elitist when first performed – their success depended on “mass appeal.” (I put that in quotes because it was a more selective audience than we’re talking about for Harry Potter, but the point still stands, I think.)

    With the passage of time, both have become “elitist”, at least in the sense of appealing to a restricted audience which is looking for something more than quick entertainment. Yet they survive.

    Perhaps we need to make a distinction between “great art” and “lesser art”. Great art will always survive. It’s popularity may wax and wane (the music of Mahler being an excellent and current example) but it won’t vanish. In other words, survival isn’t the issue; if it’s good enough, survival seems almost guaranteed.

    Is the question more how we can help people see that there might be opportunities for reading and listening that they would find reqarding if they gave them a chance? (And yes, this sounds elitist and condescending, as all such statements do.)

    But if such efforts fail, I doubt there’s a danger of “great art” vanishing.

  7. #7 peggy
    November 21, 2007

    Re your comment: “The first part of the solution is obvious: we need more Harry Potter’s. J.K. Rowling managed to turn the sparkling adventures of a boy wizard into a cultural event. Her superb stories seduced millions of kids (and adults) into reading a work of fiction.”

    While your general point is well taken, the sad fact is that Harry Potter did just and only that — i.e., seduced millions into reading a work of fiction or, at best, reading a particular author. Unfortunately, the Harry Potter series does not seem to have turned people on to any books other than those pertaining to the hero.

    Personally, I have learned most of what I know about human motivation (my own included), ethics and life itself from reading fiction. The best fiction provides a more nuanced and morally challenging way of seeing the world than religious instruction or public school education, for example.
    Other story-telling media are easier and faster, and my guess is that the ideas and images penetrate the mind more easily, but they also evaporate faster. Books demand and reward patient focus, and because the reader controls the flow of the act of reading, I think they encourage the mind to wander, think and discover in a way that a story on film does not do. Emily Dickinson said it best: There is no frigate like a book.

    It is indeed sad that book-reading is on the wane. Is introspection following the same downward curve?

  8. #8 Endicott
    November 21, 2007

    I’ll disagree with the previous comment
    “Unfortunately, the Harry Potter series does not seem to have turned people on to any books other than those pertaining to the hero.”
    I work in the children’s department of a library and cannot count the number of times I have heard from adults and children alike that Harry Potter made them realize that they could enjoy reading.

  9. #9 Mrs Whatsit
    November 22, 2007

    I admit that perhaps I missed a key point, but it seems as though the article to which you are referring simply states that reading for fun has declined. But your post and most of the comments here seem to be focused on the decline of “literature,” a term that more often than not refers to a particular quality of book. Furthermore, you state that, “We’ve turned the novel into nothing but a form of entertainment, a pretty diversion for a rainy day, a bit of escapism before we fall asleep.” But it seems that the point of the Times article and what NEA is saying is that part of the problem is that people do NOT see reading as a form of entertainment and people are NOT reading for fun. This trend is not going to be affected by endowing our current novels with some sort of mysterious “good for you” property. Most people (kids in particular) do not do whatever it is they do in their spare time because it has any significance other than that they enjoy doing it. Video games may help improve hand-eye coordination and therefore have an advantage over board games, but I do not think that is why kids chose video games as a form of entertainment over board games. Similarly, telling children that there is more to literature than entertainment value–that there may be some sort of “good for you” component–is not going to convince children to read more.

    The first step needs to be convincing people that reading can be just as–or even more–entertaining as any of the other ways to spend your time. People first need to see reading as a joy, as a treat, not as a chore.

  10. #10 peggy
    November 23, 2007

    In reply to Endicott, I wish you were right and I’m sure you are correct in that anecdotal evidence on a newfound love of reading abounds.
    But the hard numbers don’t support the claim, unfortunately, and between realizing one can enjoy reading and actually reading “falls the shadow,” as T.S. Eliot famously wrote.

  11. #11 Leisureguy
    November 29, 2007

    Very interesting post. I think you might find A Life of One’s Own, by Joanna Field, to be of considerable interest. It’s non-fiction, written by a woman who became a psychotherapist, and involves her own inward exploration and discoveries—somewhat as you describe William James’s approach to learning the mind in another post.