SAVING THE FUTURE OF LITERATURE
A RECENT Substack essay by cultural historian Ted Gioia, “The State of the Culture (2023),” has received a level of attention on social media the past two weeks. It’s an interesting analysis of the dilemma the arts face at the moment, where there’s far too many choices, too much supply for static demand. As Gioia states: “The metrics for our culture have never been. . . well, they’ve never been larger.” And: “Our culture is one of abundance and instantaneous gratification . . . Never before has so much culture been available to so many at such little cost.” The problem amid this abundance, Gioia says– for literature in particular– is a dwindling audience.
In his analysis of the situation Ted Gioia is undeniably right. He’s also right that the demand for writing– for books and literature– needs to greatly expand. Where’s he’s wrong is in his prescription for how to accomplish that.
His tried-and-failed solution is education. More and better education! “– let’s focus our efforts on creating a discerning audience for these offerings.” Audience development and institutional outreach– geared toward bringing good writing (and music and painting) to the masses instead of the usual large conglomerate offerings of generic pop music, big-budget CGI Marvel movies, and predictably bland mass market genre fiction.
The problem with Ted Gioia’s solution is it doesn’t work. Music education has been a part of public schools for at least seventy years. Billions have been spent by nonprofits and universities on training skilled new musicians while promoting appreciation of the art. You want outreach? A huge portion of any major orchestra’s budget is spent on outreach, through education programs in schools and at the orchestra’s facilities itself. I’ve worked as a salesman for a major orchestra (and other arts organizations), and part of my job was simple outreach. Letting the public know this art was there.
What’s been the result? Classical music, which circa 1955 accounted for 20% of the record-buying market, is currently down to 1%. Jazz, Broadway cast albums, and other forms of “serious” music are faring no better.
The situation is little different for literature. Despite hundreds of writing programs throughout the country churning out many thousands of well-trained writers, the literary art has never been more culturally marginalized and socially irrelevant than now. The Big Five book conglomerates don’t have a clue how to excite the general public, and neither do college professors and literary critics, most of whom bemoan the decline of “serious reading.”
The preferred solution, in our eyes, is a completely revamped art, which the New Pop Lit project is about. Creating new kinds of short stories (once the most popular American art form), which can grab the reader from the first lines and never let go, and at the same time, be topical and relevant and maybe polemical but in all aspects engaged with the world and the lives of those who aren’t reading much of anything. This will include more striking-looking print vehicles than books with their predictably-formatted black-and-white texts accompanying linear single-viewpoint narratives. We’ve put forth some prototypes of alternatives, available at our POP SHOP.
The solution is all-new art, unlike anything yet seen, which demands to be bought. Art which can create true excitement among a lethargic, jaded public.
Is this possible? The music industry of the past offers a road map: the consolidation of strands of roots music into rock n roll, which via pure energy burst big-time onto the American cultural scene in the mid-1950s and pushed all other offerings to the sidelines. Rock was a demand-centered phenomenon, as record sales multiplied several times over during a twenty-year period, and vibrant music became an indispensable part of everyday life.
Could a similar cultural earthquake happen in the sleepy world of letters? If it can be imagined it can happen.