American Culture

The old gods laugh, part 2: classic literature vs. public interest…

The age of Matthew Arnold is dead: “elitism” vs. popular culture…

Educator, Poet, and Big Time, Professional Literary Critic Matthew Arnold (photo courtesy Wikimedia)

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.

5 replies »

  1. I’ve read some about Matthew Arnold from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. I’m not a “all high-culture all the time” kind of guy, but I do wish people would stretch themselves some, and even make efforts at improvement.

    • You know, RetroHound, I have thought much about this – here’s what I believe the thinking used to be: the education community accepted that students (at every level from elementary through college) would get plenty of exposure to pop culture experiences – both because of media’s power and by choice. So what education tried to do is introduce these same people to the “high culture” stuff like “great books/art/music.” That was considered a “good” thing by pretty much the entire culture. It was only with the rise of “laissez faire should apply to everything” thinking beginning in the 80’s coupled with the thinking that marketing mattered more than content (this started at the college level and – ta da! – “trickled down” through secondary-elementary) that decided “market preferences” should determine what people learn. That, coupled with high stakes testing systems designed to create worker bees who can be entertained by fluff has eroded any ideas of cultural transmission (and its attendant benefits of what you call “improvement,” i.e., learning to think and analyze – and call BS when presented with what is clearly mis/dis-information. This profound change in the the way the culture is being “taught” to view education is just beginning to show its effects. As Al Jolson noted in “The Jazz Singer,” we ain’t seen nothing yet.

      • and btw, i agree that the current climate of celebrating ignorance and the uncouth is a bad thing (yes, this means you, texas) and find it intriguing that you lay it at the door of democratized media.

  2. I can’t quite get my head around the central point raised by this post, “Are people better off when their betters tell them what to read?” because I can’t get past the methodological questions around the analysis.

    I guess one question is whether some of the more current authors you leave off the “literary list” will one day be put on it by your great-great-great grandson. That is, if maybe the writers you put on the list at the time were not considered classic then but are now. Obviously, history has treated many authors more seriously than did their contemporaries–Dickens, Doyle, McDonald, all of whom sold well but were sniffed at.

    A second question, of course, is how much bestseller lists represent actual consumption and whether today’s list is the same as yesterday’s. My understanding is that publishing has always been a cloistered world, and best seller lists a measure of certain books sold through certain outlets. Maybe today’s lists measure more publishers, more books, and more distribution channels, and thus are simply more honest reflections of what more people are reading.

    Finally, of course, the absolute number of books consumed makes a difference. For example, if half the books on the list in 1920 were written by literary authors but on average only 1000 people bought their books, that’s clearly not as “good” as if in 2013 one of the authors on the list was literary and 10,000,000 people bought her books. Using sloppy math (just to make the point,) that would mean that in 1920, 1 in every 40,000,000 people read a good book and in 2013, 1 in every 20 did. That may not be clear, but trust me, there’s an arithmetic problem here.

    • Otherwise,

      1) I didn’t/don’t make the canon. So calling it “my” list is an inaccurate description. And I would say those “quasi-canonical” figures I mention are probably all on the canon list now. Harold Bloom, of course, would disagree:

      2) The bestseller list is done by PW as a straight numbers thing that lists the top selling authors. The absolute number of books per author doesn’t make a difference. It’s which authors show up on the list – not the number of books they sell that says something about cultural interests. And for the last 13 years that list has been dominated by writers like Evanovich, Sparks, Koontz, Brown, and Patterson – some (or all) of whom don’t actually write their books. I don’t think history will judge them as it has Dickens (who was always taken seriously, as was Twain, another big seller). If you want to use Doyle, Stevenson, maybe even London, then okay, I get your point – although all those guys were admired by canonical writers of their time – the 20th century age of lit crit distorts this kind of stuff.

      3) That ignorance thing is related to education overwhelmed by competing systems – the media’s power far supersedes that of an institution like education to make its messages penetrate. After all, all those messages about turning off our electronics and experiencing the world come – via the media. I know that irony is not lost on either of us. That “democratizing” of the media means ratings rather than public interest drives ALL programming decisions. Maybe you find that acceptable – but I don’t see much good has come of it. (Truth be told, I don’t think you do, either.)

      One last point: if a doctor gives one medical advice, that’s acceptable, right? If a lawyer gives legal advice, that also acceptable? Then why in the hell is the advice of educational professionals considered so suspect? They’ve killed far fewer people (or got them put into jail) that those other two groups. But only educators are the incompetents.

      That is the puzzle I can’t get MY mind around.

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