The age of Matthew Arnold is dead: “elitism” vs. popular culture…
In Part 1 of this discussion of contemporary reading habits, I sought to find some rationale for the domination of “fiction bestseller lists” (flawed as measurement of anything though those lists might be) by works that are, in one form or another, escapism. I discussed the decline of what the old “high culture/low culture” model called “literary experience” – the introduction, chiefly via the education system, of works/authors that could arguably be called classic to both those in elite private institutions and to those of us better classified as the hoi polloi through our public schools.
The genesis of this entire essay, as I mentioned earlier, was my anecdotal experience as a regular visitor (both as author and reader) to the popular social media site, Goodreads. The democratization of culture that the power of the Internet, and especially its most powerful weapon, social media, has been in some ways liberating, in some ways unfortunate. But as important as the rise of the Net has been in creating the “distributed culture” (and its attendant weel and woe – and more woe), a look at the history of American reading habits, and the forces affecting those habits, gives us some interesting food for thought.
First, a few words about our poster boy, Mr. Arnold. Matthew Arnold is important to this essay for a couple of reasons: first, as a literary critic, he set a standard (created a norm, if you prefer) that eventually evolved into the critical culture that dominated literary studies in the 20th century. From the scholarly pursuits of detailing author biography and presenting historical context, literary examination came to be a series of ways of analyzing works themselves (culminating in that perfect Modernist methodology, New Criticism, which forbade any considerations of a literary work that were not textual).
To leverage the language of advertising for a (I hope) nobler purpose, “But wait – there’s more!” Besides his work as a critic and writer (Arnold was a talented poet whose work is part of that creaky collection of literary works known as the canon), Arnold served as a an inspector of schools for part of his career, as Professor of Poetry at Oxford for another part. So he was responsible for, at least partially, the development of educational curricula at elementary, secondary, and college levels. Arnold’s influence, chiefly, lies in his claim that the humanities’ chief function is to make students aware of the world outside themselves – to help them avoid being solely motivated by self-interest without regard for consequences to others – in simple terms, reading and appreciating literature makes one a better person.
Arnold’s writing on the importance of the humanities, particularly literature, in education held sway for about 100 years, from its publication about 1870 until its ultimate collapse in the revolutions in education of the 1960′s. As a result, that repeated “experience” of literature to students from elementary school through the “general studies” period of the first two years of college education became the norm.
This had salutary effects in spite of its detractors’ claims that it was a kind of elitist social engineering. Here’s the proof:
If one examines Publishers Weekly’s list of the 10 best selling novels for each year for the period from 1895 (when the magazine began tallying sales) through the present (117 3/4 years), including the peak years of the effects of the Arnold-ean philosophy of education, one can see some interesting – and troubling – trends as we reach the present time. Using a strict determination of a “literary” author (i.e. one who is/will likely be a recognized member of the traditional canon) I simply counted up the number of such authors who appear on best seller lists for each decade of this period (the lists of the 1890′s and 2010′s are prorated, of course, since the former covers 6 years and the latter not quite 3).
So, here are the numbers: 1890′s – 3 authors; 1900′s 5; 1910′s – 5; 1920′s – 12; 1930′s – 22 (!); 1940′s – 11; 1950′s – 10; 1960′s 14; 1970′s – 16; 1980′s – 4; 1990′s – 4; 2000′s – 2; 2010′s – 1
The number of authors who made these lists include many who were “near canon” figures. These would make the numbers considerably higher and include names like Edna Ferber, J.M. Barrie, Frank Stockton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Daphne DuMaurier, and Somerset Maugham to name only a few.
Note the rise in the numbers of “literary” authors from the 1920′s through the 1970′s appearing on best seller lists, then the sudden drop from the 1980′s onward. Note also, that from the 1980′s the academy was changed by both “professional administrators” (the academic equivalent of MBA’s whose aim was to enroll/retain the maximum number of students, even if that meant relaxing requirements) and by the rise of Boomers (those who had protested against the continued teaching of the canon of classic literature) into positions of academic power over curricular choices (which meant that they could focus humanities study on areas of interest to themselves as children of media: film, television, and pop music, especially rock). Finally, note also that these years are those of the largest influence for creative writing programs, which tend to be hot-house affairs whose aims seem at times, whether intended or not, to be elitist and exclusionary.
The decline of the appearance of “literary” authors on the best seller lists of the last 33 years can, then, arguably be attributed to a confluence of effects: changes in education that de-emphasize the study of literature and give favor (and academic credit) for more, shall we say, congenial (for pop culture immersed students) coursework; the emphasis on “what the public is interested in” rather than the “public interest,” given the imprimatur of official approval by no less a personage than the President of the United States; the insistence of creative writing programs on ever more “literary” (according to specific guidelines) productions from their students even as these programs turn out more and more graduates, effectively creating a “micro-culture” of “creative writing literature” even as these students are less and less connected to the classic canon; and finally, perhaps the death knell, the rise of the Internet and viable self-publishing options that have rendered the best seller lists reflections of (and governed by) marketing research – traditional or guerilla – unbalanced by “elitist” junk like cultural or public interests.
So, as you make your next visit to Goodreads or any of the several other social media sites of its ilk, or scroll through the Times Literary Supplement or New York Review of Books, be aware that while we have a staggering range of choices as to what we can read, that Henry David Thoreau’s advice is more important than ever:
Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.