Desperately Seeking Readers
Alex Good, Revolutions: Essays on Contemporary Canadian Fiction (Biblioasis, 2017).
Literary critic Alex Good’s acerbic collection of essays on contemporary Canadian fiction – which he doesn’t appear to like very much — nonetheless starts in the right place: namely, with readers, the state of book reading in general, and the much-remarked-upon decline of interest in “serious fiction.” Beyond that, he’s got a trickier topic to deal with — the character of current Canadian novels and shorter fiction (what we call, along with Canadian poetry and drama, “CanLit”).
Good is a former editor of Canadian Notes and Queries, a veteran book reviewer, and he runs a website called “goodreports” where you can find his current assessments of a wide range of books. He says at the beginning of his introduction to Revolutions, “The fundamental challenge facing literature in the twenty-first century is its need to find – somehow, somewhere – an audience.” As well, he promptly adds economic and other practical matters to the mix as he addresses the question of locating people who might read. “Writers can’t be simply tossing their words into the void, down a wishing well, or (what comes to the same thing) posting them online,” Good argues, adding, “That the audience has to be a paying audience is just as essential.”
The decline in what’s sometimes known as “literary fiction” has been noticeable. “My understanding,” Good notes, “is that a well-received Canadian novel published by a mid-sized or small press today will have trouble selling more than 500 copies. Even established authors published by larger presses will sometimes have trouble breaking a thousand without the help of a prize sticker or some other promotional tie-in. This is in a country with a population of over 36 million.” He adds, “We live in a post-literate age, one in which [novelist] Douglas Glover concludes, ‘books have become irrelevant.’”
Good notices that finding out who reads and how many books sell is itself a mysterious business, hampered by “trade secrets” on sales and a dearth of research on reading habits. In a 2015 article, Barbara Kay reports that in Canada “the average new novel sells 400-700 copies; short story collections 300-500; poetry 150-400.” The news gets even worse. A 2009 survey reveals that “half of the Canadians surveyed could not name a single Canadian author, while 47 per cent did not recognize any name in a list that included Alice Munro, Leonard Cohen, Robertson Davies, Michael Ondaatje, Mordecai Richler and Carol Shields. Amongst young people in the survey, who presumably study CanLit in high school at least, 62 per cent could not name a single Canadian author.” (Barbara Kay, “The bureaucrats killed CanLit,” National Post, July 8, 2015.)
Good also cites the gloomy statistics from the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) survey, Reading at Risk (2004), which found a rapidly dwindling number of people who had read at least one “literary book” per annum in the years between 1992 and the time of the survey, as well as a 2014 Pew Research Report that found that the number of people who admitted to not having read a single book of any kind that year had tripled in the last quarter century. Good makes use of the work of Mark Bauerlein, an Emory University English professor who ran the NEA reading study and later wrote The Dumbest Generation (2008), a book which deals with not only the decline of book reading, but also related “knowledge deficits” (declines in knowledge of geography, history, civics, the arts, and the ability to write literate prose). A somewhat shell-shocked Good admits, “I have to say that, despite being a cultural pessimist of long-standing, I had no idea that I would be witness to reading becoming such a marginal activity in my own lifetime. And yet, here we are.”
The problem is not one of people being unable to read, or illiteracy. The real problem, says Good, is “the rise of aliteracy, the growth of a population that can read but simply doesn’t want to.” Good acknowledges that mass aliteracy and illiteracy is not exactly news. Cultural critics have been discussing the issue for a half-century. But our own time differs from previous eras of mass illiteracy “when the vast majority of people couldn’t read.” What’s more, never before have books (to say nothing of other forms of information) been so accessible, given the technological revolution of the past two decades. While there has historically always been a preponderance of non-readers to readers, the present moment is notable for the number of people who can read, but simply prefer to do other things with their free time.
In much of the rest of his overview, Good describes the contemporary landscape of “advanced aliteracy,” which ranges from academics bragging about not reading (there’s Pierre Bayard’s chic treatise of a few years ago, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read) to reviewers, editors, and literary prize jurors equally proud of skimming, perusing, glancing, and doing anything but reading. Some of this account of professional non-reading may be a bit of an exaggeration – a kind of Evelyn Waugh-type spoof in the manner of Scoop — to underscore Good’s main thesis, but enough of it rings sufficiently true to draw nods of agreement. (No, I will not ask how many students in the class have heard of Evelyn Waugh, or his 1938 satire on sensationalistic journalism; nor will there be a test question about Waugh on the exam at the end of this review.) Or as one Canadian cultural columnist that Good cites put it, “This fall, I won’t be reading any of the books nominated for Canadian literary prizes. And I don’t feel guilty about it either.”
One of the immodest reasons that I agree with Good’s argument about the plight of book reading and its cultural consequences is that I made pretty much the same argument about 5 or 6 years ago in a book called Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen’s, 2011), and little since then has provided any grounds for altering my views. (Good, by the way, is kind enough to cite my text in passing in a late chapter of his book, “The Digital Apocalypse.”) Although most university and high school teachers were aware of the decline of reading a decade or more ago, simply on the anecdotal basis of what they saw firsthand in their classrooms, it was difficult to alert ordinary citizens not in the teaching business. For one thing, those ordinary citizens were busily becoming aliterate themselves, partially thanks to their dependence on new digital phones and game devices.
In his bookend closing chapter about digital and other apocalypses, Good notes that writers such as Canada’s Margaret Atwood have taken up the dystopian prospects for reading (and much else) in works like The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and the more recent Oryx and Crake (2003). In the latter, Atwood’s protagonist, Snowman, one of the survivors of a plague that has carried away most of the human race, leaving only genetically engineered rudimentary beings known as “Crakers,” considers keeping a Robinson Crusoe-like journal. But Snowman realizes “he’ll have no future readers, because the Crakers can’t read. Any reader he can possibly imagine is in the past.”
Good suggests that earlier writers like Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932) and Ray Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 (1953) have imagined a readerless future even more effectively than Atwood. Huxley envisioned a brave new world “where ‘feelies’ and other trivial entertainments would be more popular than reading, thus making the thought police” that George Orwell imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four simply redundant. “In much the same way,” Good observes, “state censorship isn’t the real villain in Fahrenheit 451… The public, we are told, ‘stopped reading of its own accord,” preferring immersive and interactive social networking and ‘three-dimensional sex magazines’ to books and newspapers (the latter ‘dying like huge moths… no one wanted them back.’).” Good also notes that social critic Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), remarked that Huxley described a world where “people adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.”
Good adds, “In much the same fashion, aliteracy today is a consumer choice driven by new technologies.” He then goes on to devote a considerable amount of space to worrying about ebooks, the intellectual effect of the internet, the economy of book publishing, and related topics. At least with respect to one element of the cultural landscape, ebooks, Good might set his mind a bit more at ease. In this morning’s issue of the digital newspaper I read, I’m assured by the British Publishing Association that “figures published today… show that sales of consumer ebooks have dropped by 17 per cent, while sales of physical books are up 8 per cent.” Spending on books was up across the board, the report adds cheerily. Of course, all this may merely mean that prices are up; more important, it doesn’t really tell us much about whether reading (and what kind of reading) is declining or burgeoning. The thesis of this “trending” article is that books printed on paper are making a fashion comeback, suggesting that dire fears inspired by ebooks may have been a red herring all along. (Paula Cocozza, “How eBooks lost their shine: ‘Kindles now look clunky and unhip’,” The Guardian, Apr. 27, 2017.)
So, let’s say that the issue is book reading in the context of a fraying culture, and not such ancillary matters as delivery modes (digital or print), or authors as increasingly members of the precariat social class. I’ll also leave aside making the case once more that reading books is culturally preferable to what most people consume as “entertainment” these days, and simply take it as a given here that likely readers know what I’m talking about when I claim that books should be at the core of the culture.
In writing my own book, Reading the 21st Century, while taking impending cultural catastrophe as an underlying context, I was able to do a couple of things to soften the blow. Adopting the slogan, “There’s lots of great writing, but reading is in big trouble,” I was able to encourage the still large “saving remnant” of readers by writing extensively about several great books published from around the world in the first decade of the new century, including such novels as Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, Javier Cercas’s The Soldiers of Salamis, Jose Saramago’s Death with Interruptions and Amos Oz’s hybrid novel/memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, among others.
My other strategic move was to stop worrying about “literature” and to treat all books, fiction and non-fiction, as “writing” — as “interesting” or not — simply tracking and assessing “the important intellectual currents and the books that gave expression to them in the first decade” of the new millennium. That meant I could write chapters about books dealing with cultural peril (such as Mark Bauerlein’s Dumbest Generation), about 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (and books like Steve Coll’s Ghost Wars and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in the Emerald City), or the then-current “new atheism” debate (and Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion). This strategy not only reflected my own patterns of reading (and those of people I knew), but it provided room to talk about the “exit strategies” of elderly writers (like Edward Said and J.M. Coetzee, as well as Roth and Saramago), or to discuss new international writing in English (like Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun), and to delve into books about the current Great Recession (such as Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism). Finally, my book was written as a book, with as coherent a throughline as I could muster, rather than a patched-together collection of essays.
Alex Good’s Revolutions begins with a contextual proposition about reading similar to my own, but is a much more problematic project in several ways. For one thing, while I was enthusing over a batch of what I considered to be wonderful books, Good, in writing about contemporary Canadian fiction, gives the impression he doesn’t very much like it. To be fair, Good can’t be accused of not providing adequate warning. His discussion and his method, as he says early on, is “for much of the way, ‘negative’ in tone. This is mainly because I don’t believe everything is just fine. Much of the literary commentary and criticism in this country is cheerleading in an empty, run-down stadium long after the crowds have left to go home.” Not only is the critical apparatus something of a fraud, but so are the works that the apparatus has been bedecking with prizes. We’re forewarned but, still, any text that opens with an essay titled “Shackled to a Corpse: The Long, Long Shadow of CanLit” isn’t exactly a confidence booster.
That somber opener is mainly about the inflated reputations of Canada’s Literary Greatest Generation – the likes of Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro and their ilk – and their unwarranted longevity, having worn out their welcome and their talent decades ago, only to totter on into the sunset, still winning all the prizes or occasionally “generously” withdrawing their works from the contest in order to make room for younger and fresher blood. From there, Good moves on “to look at how the careers of two authors – Douglas Coupland and David Adams Richards – have taken shape in opposition to the Establishment and how they have been to some extent deformed by that act of rebellion.” Of late, Good observes, “Coupland has seemed less interested in writing fiction, and I think that’s perhaps best for everyone.” Nonetheless, says Good, “he continues to be a writer to follow, even though the bad in him outweighs the good.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement, eh? Still, it rates as hosannas of praise compared to what Good has to say about Richards, who is “well past giving up on, as he has shown no sign of growth or development, with his best work (which is of significant value) long behind him.” Gee, thanks for that parenthetical crumb of approval, Mr. G.
The following two essays survey (or is it, excoriate?) the workings of the lucrative Giller Prize. Good drills down on the 2006 and 2013 versions of the prize “to show how the system I’ve described works in practice, as well as how the consciousness of the weight and authority of the Establishment, its ‘dead hand,’ continues to have an impact on Canadian fiction to this day.” Much of Good’s attention is directed to how the rotting structures of the prize process have embalmed a particularly unadventurous model of Canadian fiction. When Good gets around to actually describing and discussing the books that have been nominated, I find his accounts surprisingly lively, insightful and, as always, presented with a sharp cutting edge. Mr. Good, for all his pessimism, is a pretty competent and accessible literary critic and, even better, he refuses to give in to such current afflictions as “poptimism” and “softball” reviews.
In the final section, Good enters the groves of academe, a major spawning pit of CanLit, to “turn to an examination of a much-used textbook and a collection of essays on the creation of such anthologies.” And that’s pretty much it, plus Good’s wrap-up piece about the “digital apocalypse” in a shifting culture. Oddly, I’m not much inclined to directly engage with Good’s criticism of Canadian fiction, arguing it out book by book. I’m glad that he’s attached an affidavit that declares, unlike some of his counterparts in the book trade, he’s actually read all the books he discusses (something that poet Ezra Pound first advised long ago in, I think it was, the The Spirit of Romance (1910), citing the oath prescribed for professors at the medieval University of Paris: “I swear to read and to finish reading within the time set by the statutes, the books and parts of books assigned for my lectures.”)
I’m often sympathetic to Good’s dour but precisely targeted judgements. Yes, there’s a problem with the “lyric novel,” a poetical sub-genre of fiction primarily associated with Michael Ondaatje and his multi-prize-winning The English Patient (1992), which traveled the route from best-seller all the way up to an Oscar-crowned movie version. The form includes works such as poet Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces (1996) and perhaps even Yann Martel’s Life of Pi (2001), but this is probably not the place to hash that problem out. I’m perfectly happy to accept Good’s crushing (and rather hilarious) verdict on David Adams Richards without further checking for particulars. And no doubt Good is onto something when he complains that prior to the “creative take-off” of Canadian fiction in the 1960s, the alleged Golden Age of CanLit, “there was little more than the mating call of the loon. Or so we’ve been told.” But I’m not sure that Good’s big picture really hangs together.
I’m not a devout fan of Canadian fiction, nor am I particularly drawn to notions of a national literature, but I’ve read, with pleasure, my share of Canadian writing (both on my own and while serving as the Toronto Globe & Mail’s chief literary critic for a few years in the 1990s, prior to the shrivelling of the paper’s books coverage) and I’ve seldom run into difficulties in finding interesting Canadian-authored books to read. I even exhibited some true patriot fondness by producing a “sampler” chapter discussing several Canadian books I liked in Reading the 21st Century. I think I was trying to make the point that you could find worthwhile writing in almost any given country in any given year. (Just for the record, I’m currently reading Canadian-born writer Rachel Cusk’s Transit (2016). Like many other Canadians, she tends to wander afield – this novel, with its legitimate echoes of Virginia Woolf, is set in London, where Cusk currently resides.)
What I’m more worried about with respect to Alex Good’s book at hand is its sketchiness and lack of comprehensive coherence. Part of the problem is that Revolutions isn’t written as a book, it’s a compilation of essays Good has written about related topics over a number of years. To make matters worse, the volume is technically sloppy: it provides little information on the provenance of the essays, either in terms of when they were written or where they were published. I gather, from hints in the text, that just about everything excepting the introduction was written at least 4 or 5 years ago and, in fact, some of the text has a musty feeling about it.
Just as one example of “storyline” difficulties, Good, as noted above, attempts to dispel the myth that prior to the Golden Age of CanLit, “there was only the cry of the loon.” The belatedness of Canadian modernism (and post-modernism) is an interesting and explainable issue. It would have made sense for Good to write a chapter about an earlier generation of post-World War II Canadian writers — Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callaghan, Mordecai Richler, Margaret Laurence and others — in relation to his complaints about the so-called “Golden Age.” Equally, why not an essay on 21st century Canadian contemporaries whose work he actually likes?
Too much of Good’s account is “insider-baseball” stuff, assuming reader knowledge that probably isn’t there, unless he’s just writing for a very small circle of fellow critics. Nor are matters helped by technical sloppiness: references to titles without identifying the author, quotes that are semi-unsourced, a paucity of standard paraphernalia like notes, bibliographies or indexes.
There’s even a problem with the title, Revolutions. I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean. Good says, “These essays on contemporary Canadian fiction don’t seek to hammer a single thesis, but they do have a theme. That theme is revolution. Art, I believe, is inherently revolutionary.” He means not “in any Freudian or Marxist sense, but rather that artists have a need to respond to the culture they find themselves embedded in, and must define themselves in a tradition.” For the life of me, I can’t figure out how this banal near-tautology connects to anything in the book. By the way, the book’s publisher, Biblioasis, also seems to have a problem with the title. In the publisher’s catalog, the book is called Revolutions: Essays on the Contemporary Canadian Novel, when in fact the sub-title is Essays on Contemporary Canadian Fiction. If nothing else, this minor error underscores Good’s point that in the publishing business, the editors seem to have left the building.
It’s not exactly clear what the linkage is between the thematic about the decline of reading / digital apocalypse, and the one about the state of Canadian fiction and the institutions of CanLit. I mean, they’re both perfectly interesting topics, but it’s just not evident how they relate. Part of the problem is that it’s also unclear who Good is writing for, and what he wants to accomplish with his readership. Faced with a similar audience issue, I wanted to simultaneously warn my readers of an impending cultural crisis and to encourage them to continue to seek out great writing to read as a possible means of averting that crisis. Good’s approach is more likely to send tired-eyed readers to the medicine cabinet for prescription anti-depressants.
Good’s own verge-of-despair often movingly leaks through his text. He says, at one point, “The time for us to have a great literary debate in this country, and in particular a much-needed vigorous critical reappraisal of the last half-century of Canadian fiction, was long ago. It would be pointless bordering on antiquarian to try to start such a conversation up now. Far easier to stick with our national mythology of a Greatest Generation of Canadian writing and to replace informed discussion of the contemporary scene with social networking, gossipy book chat, and manufactured buzz, while letting what passes for scholarship take the form of unread essays on the Construction of Identity in the Post-Whatever.” One wants to ask, Well, if all of the above is true, what are we doing here? I’m not sure Good ever answers that question.
Finally, one last technical complaint. I read Good’s book in an e-edition. It was a mess. No title page; missing items on the contents page, which makes electronic navigation of the book impossibly cumbersome; and all the aforementioned absent aids like references and indexes. I understand that Good, and perhaps his publisher, are not fans of ebooks, but to send out a product this shabby and amateurish is not exactly a reader-friendly gesture in a world desperately seeking readers.
Berlin, April 28, 2017