Razib has some thought-provoking, if incorrect, speculations on literature, literary audiences and modernity:
Here’s the argument: contemporary mainstream fiction is very different from the storytelling of the deep past because of a demand side shift. Women consume most fiction today, and their tastes differ, on average, from those of men. How do they differ? To be short about it men are into plot, while women are into character. This means that modern literary fiction emphasizes psychological complexity, subtly and finesse. In contrast, male-oriented action adventure or science fiction exhibits a tendency toward flat monochromatic characters and a reliance on interesting events and twists. Over my lifetime I’ve read a fair amount; but the vast majority of the fiction has been science fiction & fantasy. Many males outgrow this bias, perhaps as they become more psychologically complex and nuanced, but I haven’t (though I don’t read much fiction in general at this point). I know many other males who are similar; we aren’t dumb, and not all of us have Asperger’s. We just aren’t interested into characterization or character. We are people of exotic ideas, novelty of story arc and exploration of startling landscapes. Contemporary mainstream fiction, high, middlebrow and low, does not usually satisfy these needs.
Why does any of this matter? For one, I think that it is somewhat peculiar that many of us find fiction from the past more engaging than popular contemporary works. Aupelius’ Golden Ass gets my attention; most contemporary fiction does not. I am arguing here that this is partly due to the fact that in the past those who read copiously were, on average, much more like me than they were like the typical human. Not only were readers by and large men (usually of some means and comfort), but they were often also disproportionately eggheads who were eccentric by their nature. How many elite scholars were there such as Claudius who were not attracted to the public life of politics and do not appear in the annals of history? With the printing press, cheaper paper, and the rise of mass literacy, things changed, the distribution of taste shifted. And so did the distribution of genres.
Obviously, his theories about the differences between male and female readers are gross oversimplifications. In fact, they are so oversimplified as to be utterly meaningless. Philip Roth is most certainly a male, writing testosterone-laden fiction, and yet his work is defined by its characters. (Quick: summarize the plot of “Portnoy’s Complaint”…)
But I do think Razib is mostly right to characterize modern literary fiction as more “psychologically complex” than, say, Virgil, Ovid and most ancient literature, with its emphasis on plot and memorable dramatic arcs. On the other hand, this generalization requires some lofty exceptions, so that Shakespeare, Cervantes, Euripedes, etc. are all classified as moderns.
And I’d also quibble with his theory of changes in demand driving a shift in literary content. His argument is that the female reading masses have propelled literature inwards, so that it’s more interested in the mind than in, say, Martians and picaresque adventures set in space. (I happen to think that’s a very good thing…But then I’ve never enjoyed science fiction, since most of the stuff I’ve read is bad science and even worse fiction. The only notable exception I can think of is Philip K. Dick.) Anyways, I think Razib’s theory overlooks the fact that modernist literature – the first movement dedicated to “psychological complexity” – was an incredibly elite movement, with virtually no popular appeal. That’s why Virginia Woolf needed her own printing press. Gertrude Stein’s first novel sold 73 copies. Proust had to pay to get the first volumes of In Search of Lost Time printed. Joyce had a certain cult status, but that was largely because he was lewd enough to get banned. So I think it’s wrong to blame the womanly masses for this movement away from manly plot.
So why did novelists begin exploring the interiors of the mind? I’d argue that the modernist experiments were largely a response to the success of modern science. By the start of the 20th century, you had scientists coming up with lucid and successful descriptions of the material world. Reality was being broken apart into its elemental parts. I think artists responded to this empirical assault by trying to carve out their own cultural space. If science dealt with the material world, then perhaps art dealt with the psychological side? As Woolf wrote to Katherine Mansfield, “Only thoughts and feelings…no cups and tables.” Or as she famously wrote in her essay “Modern Fiction,” “They [the eminent novelists of the time, like H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett] have looked at factories, at Utopias, even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at life, never at human nature.” In other words, Woolf wasn’t interested in human nature because she wanted to sell lots of books to female readers. (Woolf was a tremendous snob, as her diary makes clear.) Rather, she was interested in human nature because she thought that the purpose of literature was to reveal the reality of the mind.