The Death of Literature?

Last month I stumbled on a thoughtful article about Italo Calvino, an author I really enjoy reading. For a series of lectures at Harvard in the 1980s, he decided to address the value he saw in literature, and how this would translate into the literature of the coming twenty-first century. Sadly, Calvino died unexpectedly and never delivered the lectures; but his wife later published them as Six Memos for the Next Millennium. Now Margaret LaFleur discusses his twenty-five-year-old insights in light of the first decade of the millennium Calvino had intended to discuss.

Literature, she points out, has never had so much competition. As one who loves a good book, I know this is true and am a little bit disconcerted when I read things like these statements made a couple months ago by Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker (a Manhattan weblog magazine that is a “live review of city news and Manhattan culture,” according to its website). “People don’t really want to read text,” Denton says. “They want videos, they want images, bigger, more lavish.” In other words, the article points out, “consumers are looking for … products that more closely resemble TV and magazines.”

Um, I’ll tell ya, I gave up television fifteen years ago; I’m not looking for an experience that more closely resembles the medium my father was calling the boob tube back when I was a kid. Not that much has changed. And yet … and yet. I spend far more time in front of this computer than I do in my reading chair downstairs.

Even LaFleur admits, “Writing that is not smart and quick is going to lose readers to the sound bites that are, and are only a click away. … I believe this means that a reader now demands more of literature than perhaps she did fifty years ago. Literature will not sustain itself merely because it hasn’t disappeared, yet.”

I have a vested interest in this subject, of course, because I work in publishing. But it’s my opinion that there’s plenty of writing out there that is smart. So go remind yourself what literature is all about. This weekend, turn the television off and start reading a novel. Then send me an e-mail and tell me all about it!

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