Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Was Norman Mailer Right?

(Warning: Boring ramble ahead!)

Yesterday I heard an old interview with Mailer on Terry Gross. Among other things, he expressed the worry that one day people will mostly quit reading novels -- that fiction reading will go the way of poetry reading and become a rare and slightly obscure activity. People might say, he predicted, "I think I'll read a novel this year."


I have two thoughts about this. First is that poetry in its strictest sense -- slim volumes of highly concentrated language, meant to be read silently, alone -- has never been wildly popular. It goes through cycles of relative popularity and obscurity, and we're definitely in a down period right now. But our appetite for verse has remained strong. People are still powerfully moved by songs lyrics, prayers, rap, and so on. Poetry is just one branch of a still-vigorous tree. Saying that poetry is dead because sales of chapbooks are low is like saying visual art is dead because no one goes to galleries. Poetry constantly shape and appearance and particular appeal, but it all comes from the same place.

And I think that our appetite for fiction and narrative is equally unsatiable. It'll get longer, shorter, maybe more visual, and we'll get it from electronic boxes or holograms or whatever, but it won't go away. When and if it changes form, it will be because we needed it to. Publishing may collapse, bookstores may vanish, but the pleasures of narrative are so intense and universal and have been with us for so long that I feel certain they will be with us forever.

But maybe Mailer meant something very particular: that reading long narratives divided into chapters, printed on paper, and sold in airports is doomed as a popular activity. Eh, maybe. In this sense, I'm maybe more pessimistic than Mailer: I think it's done as a popular activity. Publishing a book means very little anymore; writers get the big bucks, and the big attention, when their books are made into movies. Mailer was one of the last American writers who was also an extremely famous public figure.

But so what? It would be a mistake for writers second guess the culture and start churning out what they perceive the public wants in order to try and save the popular place of literature. That's the quickest way to doom the novel I can think of.

1 comment:

richard said...

You noted that Mailer was "one of the last American writers who was also an extremely famous public figure." While you're right, and while Mailer could be a terrific writer, it's also true that his fame was distinct from the quality of his writing as such, no? Appearances on the David Frost show and so on had more to do with his fame than did his knack for a well-turned written phrase.

And for similarly non-literary reasons, there are famous writers now: Frantzen and Frey for their Oprah dust-ups, for example, which Mailer would have recognized as successful advertisements (though the experiences were both unintended and excruciating for each man).

Besides, the majority of writers have never made much money from writing itself. Think of Victorian giant Anthony Trollope, banging away on the Barsetshire chronicles while working at the Post Office; Orwell as a BBC propagandist during WW2; god knows how many journalists.

However ... yeah, the excitement around literature is mostly around what gets called "genre fiction." A complicated story, that, but in there somewhere is either the death or rebirth of the novel as an aesthetic object.