readers dead? 12.05.2006, 8:19 AM
posted by ben vershbow
From a new Bookforum interview, this is Gore Vidal's rather grim take on the place of the novel -- or novelist -- in public life:
BOOKFORUM: You write in Point to Point Navigation that you were once a "famous novelist," by which you don't mean you've stopped writing novels. You say, "To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer."
GORE VIDAL: Yes. There's no such thing as a famous novelist.
BF: But what about a writer like Salman Rushdie?
GV: He's moderately well known, but he's not read by a large public. He's very good, but "famous" has nothing to do with being good or bad.
BF: A few critics have declared the American novel dead.
GV: I don't think the novel is dead. I think the readers are dead. The novel doesn't interest anybody, and that's largely because there are no famous novelists. Fame means that you are touching everybody or potentially touching everybody with what you've done--that they like to think about it and talk about it and exchange views on it.
It's interesting to consider that that particular kind of 1950s fame that Vidal the novelist (he wears many hats) so enjoyed may have had less to do with the novel as a form and more to do with the celebrity culture of television, where, at that time, a serious literary writer could rank among the gods. Perhaps what Vidal, fallen from Olympus, really is lamenting is the passing of a brief but charmed period of media convergence where books were strangely served, rather than undermined (the conventional narrative), by television.
BF: Novelists used to work the nightly talk-show circuit. It's hard to believe that there was a time in this country when writers were regarded as celebrities.
GV: I started all of that. I was the first novelist to go on television back in the '50s, on The Jack Paar Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
At that time, the power of television was concentrated in a tiny handful of big networks. People shared a small constellation of cultural reference points in a mass media market. Then came cable, the internet, YouTube, the long tail. Is today's reading public really dead or just more atomized? Have our ways of reading become fragmented to the point that we can no longer be touched all at once by a single creative vision -- or visionary?
But wait -- couldn't Oprah, if she chose, launch a book into the center of a national discussion? And what about the web? What can it do?
bob stein on December 5, 2006 10:06 AM:
1) i would have thought that the age of "famous" writers was not the 1950s but quite further back in history -- before the age of radio and television. my guess is that Vidal is not talking about mere celebrity but rather the fame that comes from actually reading and being affected by a work. writers may be celebrities in the age of television, but that doesn't necessarily mean that their written words have an equivalent impact. for comparison, i've always been struck by Neil Postman's contention that three fourths of the revolutionary era population had likely read Thomas Paines' Common Sense.
2) i think that Oprah can get a book noticed, read and discussed but even her numbers are relatively small when considered as a percentage of the population. the internet holds out more promise for the written word, but my presumption, this will only be important if and when, writers start to adapt new, probably pithier forms, of writing which can have the necessary impact in our densely packed media landscape.
Andrew W on December 5, 2006 10:30 AM:
And don't forget that Vidal was a writer for Ben Hur, which came out a decade after Vidal got into television writing. It was a big (if uncredited) break for him.
Avi Santo on December 5, 2006 11:21 AM:
Of interest to me is how many contemporary filmmakers and television producers move back and forth from comic books to film/TV. Joss Whedon and Kevin Smith are likely the best known of the bunch. While they aren't novelists by Vidal's standards, neither was Dickens when he wrote those serialized newspaper stories about Oliver Twist, so who is to say that the author is dead (except, of course for Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault), when, in fact, perhaps, it is just that the contemporary author writes in visual images, dialogue, and computer code. We need to be careful of dismissing contemporary convergences of written and audio/visual media just because they don't meet elitist standards of "literature".
I do think however that we live in a moment where popular heroes outlive their originators, but not the authorial impulse to reimagine them. In other words, the mark of the contemporary auteur is not their ability to create a widely read or even original text, but their ability to put a new imprint on an existing story; to contribute a new node in the ever-expanding inter-text. For example, the Superman story is widely consumed in many different media, but the most successful variations are those authored by particular writers, artists, directors, etc, who contribute novel variations on a worn formula.
KF on December 5, 2006 11:28 AM:
Oh, boy. Don't get me started. I've got an entire book's worth of arguments about this. These sorts of declinist arguments (no one reads anymore, and reading used to be so important; there are no famous novelists anymore, and novelists used to be stars!) nearly always seem to me led by two incorrect premises: a nostalgic over-estimation of the past importance of reading/the novel/the novelist to mainstream US culture, and a pessimistic, overly narrow underestimation of what's happening in contemporary culture. Yes, reading was very important, and the novel was a key cultural form, and novelists used to hit the talk-show circuit, but all of that was a far more limited phenomenon than it seems. Reading, particularly of fiction, has generally been the province of an educated segment of the population with an adequate supply of leisure time and the desire to fill that leisure time with an imaginative, edifying experience. It's arguable that in the 1950s economic and social forces combined to make that segment of the population seem both extremely large and central, but it was far from universal. (In a similar vein, one might revisit who the audience for talk shows such as Jack Paar and Johnny Carson was, and how that audience -- and thus the nature of the talk show -- has shifted in the last fifty years.)
But, on the present: anyone who suggests that there are no famous authors today has a very narrow definition of fame. Making such a statement requires never having shown up at a David Foster Wallace reading, or a similar appearance by any number of other writers. And even writers who don't appear are famous: Pynchon has been on The Simpsons! Can you imagine the mob scene if he ever decided to show up in public? It's of course arguable, as I think Vidal is suggesting, that this kind of fame isn't mainstream, that these audiences are somehow on the fringe of contemporary culture; I'd argue that such readerships have always been more removed from the mainstream than they might have seemed, and that, in fact, the construction of this audience as "marginal" within US culture has been part of a conscious attempt to protect the novel's audience by creating a sort of cultural wildlife preserve, away from the depredations of more contemporary media forms.
And on those contemporary media forms: it's my sense that people aren't doing less reading than they used to, but rather that they're doing far more; it's just that the scene of reading no longer involves a retreat from the general flow of life into a quiet space with a discrete, printed object. Now the scene of reading is everywhere: public, communal, wired. And the form of reading looks quite different: sometimes it involves the interpretation of visual images and embodied performances rather than simply the processing of text. The book is not alone, and won't ever be alone again; authors have got to start thinking about the ways that new forms of reading might be used to their advantage, rather than retreating into nostalgia.
(End rant. See The Anxiety of Obsolescence for much, much more.)
KF on December 5, 2006 12:01 PM:
(I failed to mention the first time out that all of this has echoes of Norma Desmond reverberating in my head: 'Reading is big. It's print that got small.')
Michael Becker on December 5, 2006 1:23 PM:
Gut reaction here, but Vidal seems conceited. I agree with KF who says that readers are reading more than they did in the time of "celebrity authors." What the traditionalists like Vidal dislike is that people aren't reading one thing for as long as they used to. A person sitting down and reading a hundred pages in a novel is less likely than a person reading snippets from a hundred Web pages in a day. The traditionalists mourn the death of their style of reading (I'm thinking specifically of Harold Bloom here, who won't let the canon die). What they fail to realize is that, for better or worse, the world has been deconstructed. We read the pieces that are left.
Barbara on December 5, 2006 9:20 PM:
This is just nonsense. People are reading books (whole books! imagine!!) in great numbers. There are tens of thousands of book discussion groups active on the Internet. There are book events in grocery stores. The number of books published is way, way up over the past ten years. The number of new books sold is up but not by much. The number of used books sold is soaring.
Michael Korda said in his memoir that television saved book publishing. The Internet is actually doing a lot for it, too. But there's still a huge desire by people in the book business to say reading is on decline, only the special few do it, and it's all due to television (or now, the Internet).
sebastian mary on December 6, 2006 8:12 AM:
The tone of Vidal's post reminds me of the rather curmudgeonly tone some Brits take when talking about the succession of America to the formerly British title of Number One Empire. The empire of print publishing, on which, one suspects, some would still like to think the sun will never set, is severely challenged by a contemporary culture that demands - and produces - new forms of writing in order to structure and express itself. To continue the metaphor, that's not to say that Britain doesn't continue to participate in world affairs - just that it's not top dog any more. But for Britain to declare that just because the sun did set on the British Empire, empires in general are dead, would be ludicrous. The same goes for pronouncements that readers - or authors, or writing - are dead. Reading and writing isn't dead, it's just changing.
kazys varnelis on December 6, 2006 9:50 AM:
Vidal isn't the only advocate of the novel to make such an observation (John Barth famously did some time ago). Nor is he off base. Take the transformation of the New Yorker, for instance. It was once known primarily for its fiction. Shirley Jackson's the Lottery drew more mail than any story in the magazine's history and writers like Philip Roth and John Updike graced the pages. Who writes the stories for the New Yorker today? I routinely skip over the fiction and don't know anybody who reads it. Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Gopnik, and Seymour Hersch are the names I follow. In a world of insanely rapid change and daily threats to our existence (read: the Bush administration), reality is more compelling than fiction.
What surprised me is the simplicity of Vidal's argument: novelists aren't famous anymore because they don't command media attention. This is something of a tautology. We have to ask why novelists aren't famous anymore, why novels aren't such a focal point for society anymore.
Fiction is a form of virtual reality, a way of getting into someone else's head. We have new ways of doing that now. But more than that, the novel is losing its central role in society as the subject is becoming thoroughly fragmented. As Ian Watt pointed out in his Rise of the Novel, modern fiction is an 18th century product, the purest art form of the bourgeoisie, the place in which the bourgeois subject is constituted. Already 40 years ago, Roland Barthes was suggesting that the death of the author was nigh, the result of the birth of the reader. Our age of participatory media is a fulfillment of his prophecies. If we increasingly understand ourselves as nodes in a network (or multiple networks) rather than as Jeffersonian individuals, then a medium constituted by the latter model of subjectivity is obsolete. This is not to say that there won't be any great novels in the future, but remember that there was a time when poetry was a popular form. I know that some of you will consider me a philistine for saying so, but who reads poetry anymore? Fiction will slowly move in the same direction.
MT on December 7, 2006 1:59 AM:
But wait -- couldn't Oprah, if she chose, launch a book into the center of a national discussion?
The author of such a book becomes famous-for-being-famous more than he or she becomes famous as the author of known words. Most of the people talking about him or her haven't read the book. Most of the talking they're doing is about other talking being done. Most of the people aware of the authorship have neither read it nor talked about it, and most of them couldn't identify a blurb encapsulating the book in a lineup or multiple choice exam. "National discussion" is just a euphemism for this mess, all components of which matter economically (despite denials from the self-styled cognoscienti), because they all count toward notoriety, which must be the biggest or at least most universal element of prestige and social status. This excess of non-expert or indirect reference to the text makes perfect sense in an era in which "publication" (including broadcast, telephony and communication over distance in general) has become virtually free while composition and consumption have become more expensive (because they require time, which is money, and there's more competition).