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Arts & Culture

The Rising Tide of Educated Aliteracy

In the age of information overload, discussing books you haven’t read has become a badge of honour—and, for some, a profession

The CBC’s Canada Reads radio program was launched in 2001 with the intention of creating a national book club, a way to “get Canada reading.” And over the years it has enjoyed some success, becoming probably the most prominent platform for the discussion of Canadian books in the country.

In 2014, however, something interesting happened when the program announced a theme: pick the one book that could change the nation. For starters, not one of the five panelists was what might be considered, however loosely, a literary figure. And that’s fine. People like celebrities, so inviting a sports star, a television star, a film star, a former politician, and a rapper made a kind of sense. These are, theoretically, the kind of people who can be counted on to provide articulate and entertaining debate.

But then things got weird. Not only were the five panelists not bookish types, they weren’t even great readers, at least of novels (which is what they were discussing). Wab Kinew got the ball rolling in the prelims by announcing that while he reads “a lot” it was “mainly nonfiction.” I wonder if he was counting the internet. Then Stephen Lewis offered up his own mea culpa: “I don’t read, it’s the scourge of my life, I don’t read. I read reports from morning to night, I’m a philistine around literature.” Despite this confession of ignorance, however, Lewis still admitted to being in “awe” of Margaret Atwood, whose book, The Year of the Flood, he was promoting. Samantha Bee was next to chime in: “Let me tell you something, I’m a mother of three children and I don’t get to read.” No time, I guess. Moms have it tough. Then Olympic sprinter Donovan Bailey let us know something that we had, by now, probably already guessed: “I don’t read, or I don’t read a lot.”

By this point host Jian Ghomeshi was driven to make a joke about the situation: “I’m glad we populated the panel for Canada Reads with a bunch of people who don’t read.” What sorts of arguments, he wondered, would the panelists be making in defense of their picks? “I don’t read, ever, but just let me say this is a good book”?

Many believe we live in a post-literate age, one in which, writer Douglas Glover concludes, “books have become irrelevant.” Others disagree, some vehemently. His point is not, however, one I want to enter into a debate over. I don’t want to beat up on the degraded tastes of the common reader, analyse the impact of the digital revolution on reading habits, or make an appeal for the government to do more to address stubbornly high rates of illiteracy. What I find of most concern and significance is the rise in aliteracy—the growth of a population that can read but simply doesn’t want to.

Now there is nothing new about the fact of mass aliteracy. Writers like Daniel Boorstin, Richard Poirier, and Neil Postman were raising the alarm decades ago. In 1982 Poirier took it as axiomatic that in an affluent, democratic age “people have acquired enormous cultural power, but they do not exercise it by reading. Their cultural power is expressed by their choosing, as they could never have done before, not to read, or at least, not to read Literature.”

It is this exercise of choice that makes our own time different from previous eras of mass illiteracy, when the vast majority of people couldn’t read. The twenty-first century has lowered the bar still further as aliteracy has come out of the shadows, encouraged by its public, sometimes even proud, display—not just among our vulgar celebrity classes and undereducated young people but among the very people (the intellectual gatekeepers, tastemakers, and cultural elite) that previous generations looked to as role models. This “advanced aliteracy” is something new, and it has had damaging effects.

The author of the surprise bestseller How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, Pierre Bayard, is a standard-bearer for today’s highbrow aliterates. Bayard is a college professor of French literature, a position that paradoxically leaves him with “no way to avoid commenting on books that most of the time I haven’t even opened” (or, for that matter, has ever had any desire to open). And this is nothing he feels any shame or anxiety about. Not reading, Bayard believes, is in many cases preferable to reading and may allow for a superior form of literary criticism—one that is more creative and doesn’t run the risk of getting lost in all the messy details of a text. Actual books are thus “rendered hypothetical,” replaced by virtual books in phantom libraries that represent an inner, fantasy scriptorium or shared social consciousness.

Assuming that Bayard’s tongue isn’t stuck too far in his cheek, one can interpret his reasoning as an argument that not reading books can be a cultured activity in itself, a way of expressing one’s faith in and affection for literature. More often, however, top-down aliteracy only expresses weariness, cynicism, and even contempt for the written word.

My first exposure to this type of thinking came, naturally enough, while studying English literature in university. Academics, for no good reason whatsoever, are expected to publish a great deal of stuff that nobody—and I mean nobody—reads. Bayard, referencing David Lodge, is only stating the obvious when he says that most academics don’t read their colleagues’ work. I remember, as a grad student, visiting a professor who had been selected to read the publications of another scholar up for tenure at the same institution. I thought this seemed like a minor inconvenience, having assumed that my acquaintance was already familiar with much of the material since he published in the same area and was a friend of the tenure-seeker. But he was livid. “If they,” the tenure committee that had dropped this unwanted assignment in his lap, “think I’m going to waste any part of my weekend reading all that shit, they can think again!”

Our current system of higher education is in enough trouble without me piling on. The point I want to make here is that we shouldn’t expect much help from the professoriate in stemming the rising tide of educated aliteracy. Only ten years after leaving university, I went back and saw that the reading list for a course I had taken on the eighteenth-century novel had been cut in half. The core texts of the period (Tom Jones, Clarissa, Tristram Shandy) had been dropping like flies. “Why bother making Tom Jones a required text?” one professor responded when I mentioned my concern at all that was being lost. “They [the students] aren’t going to read it anyway.”

It’s hard to argue with thinking like that. Or with the professor of Canadian literature I met in a bookstore around the same time, who, upon my inquiring if he’d read a new Canadian novel I was interested in, responded as though I’d asked if he enjoyed molesting his children.

“I never read anything,” he replied, “unless I’m paid.”

In more recent years, however, theory has come to the rescue of our obviously overworked and underpaid academics and made the disposability of the text more respectable. Enter “distant reading.”

Kathryn Schultz, author of a 2011 piece in the New York Times, sets out to explain: in an age of information overload, with far too many books being published for any one person to get through, our only way of coping is to not read them. One imagines Bayard nodding his head. Stanford University literary scholar Franco Moretti, founder of a new school of computer-generated, quantitative macroanalysis of texts, has it all worked out:

We need distant reading, Moretti argues, because its opposite, close reading, can’t uncover the true scope and nature of literature. Let’s say you pick up a copy of Jude the Obscure, become obsessed with Victorian fiction and somehow manage to make your way through all 200-odd books generally considered part of that canon. Moretti would say: So what? As many as 60,000 other novels were published in 19th-century England—to mention nothing of other times and places. You might know your George Eliot from your George Meredith, but you won’t have learned anything meaningful about literature, because your sample size is absurdly small. Since no feasible amount of reading can fix that, what’s called for is a change not in scale but in strategy. To understand literature, Moretti argues, we must stop reading books.

There now. Wasn’t that easy?

Academic professionalism, however, is only a symptom, and a mostly harmless one at that, of a deeper cultural malaise. In 2008, in an essay in the Globe and Mail, author Russell Smith attacked the shortlist for that year’s Scotiabank Giller Prize on the grounds of its being characterized by “ecstatically lauded, good-for-you Canadian books . . . that you can’t bear to even begin.” This was, he went on to say, an opinion shared by many of his fellow writers—and if this gave “the impression that these Canadian fiction writers don’t have a whole lot of time for the work of their Canadian peers . . . that impression may well be correct.” Smith’s criticism of the shortlist, however, could go no further since he admitted he hadn’t read any of the books on it; indeed, he had no intention of ever reading them, and therefore couldn’t judge them.

Obviously he hadn’t been liberated by Bayard.

A year later it was fellow Globe columnist (and novelist) Leah McLaren’s turn:

It’s award season in book world. Short lists for the Triple Crown of Canadian literature—the Governor-General, the Giller and the Roger’s Writer’s Trust—have all been announced and the jury selections pored over like tea leaves in a mug. Ah, the comforting brew of Canadian literary culture. High in antioxidants, low in caffeine.

Like everyone else, I have followed the coverage and pondered the obvious: When exactly did Douglas Coupland find time to write another novel? Who does Annabel Lyon’s hair? Is Margaret Atwood pissed?

One thing I have not wondered, however, is which of the anointed books to add to my shelf, worthy efforts I’m sure they are. You read that right: This fall, I won’t be reading any of the books that are nominated for Canadian literary prizes. And I don’t feel guilty about it either.

No anxiety here! And McLaren’s friends, like Smith’s, certainly weren’t exerting any peer pressure on her to get with the reading program. She even quotes the opinion of one of them (another shortlist non-reader, one assumes) that the Gillers have thus far only been successful at “calcifying CanLit into a predictable brand.” Which is to say, good-for-you books that you can’t bear to even begin.

And this was before the anointing of The Bishop’s Man and The Sentimentalists as the very best this country has to offer!

Smith and McLaren aren’t the only ones who have taken a principled stand against reading the Giller shortlists, and I am, in fact, in complete agreement with their attitude toward most recent Giller nominees. I wouldn’t have read more than a couple of the books shortlisted from the past several years but for the fact that it was, occasionally, my job. But that’s the point. Some time ago a friend of mine, an author as well as a prolific book reviewer, was asked to compile a list of his Top Ten Books of the Year for a magazine feature. What surprised me about the list when it came out was the fact that I knew my friend held a very low opinion of many of the titles he had included.

So I popped the question: How many of those ten books—and mind you these were his cream of the crop—would he have read if he hadn’t been paid to read them?

His forthright answer: None.

John Metcalf’s concern seems apposite: “It has been borne in on me during the last forty years that it is unusual to find Canadian writers who even read other Canadian writers . . . If the country’s writers do not read each other—an aesthetic and competitive necessity, one would have thought—why should we expect an audience to read us? If writers do not care, why should anyone else?”

What we have here is a pathology we are hearing a lot more about in this openly aliterate age. British novelist and critic Geoff Dyer describes some of its symptoms:

I find it increasingly difficult to read. This year I read fewer books than last year; last year I read fewer than the year before; the year before I read fewer than the year before that. The phenomenon of writer’s block is well known, but what I am suffering from is reader’s block. The condition is creeping rather than chronic, manifesting itself in different ways in different circumstances. On a trip to the Bahamas recently, I regularly stopped myself from reading because whereas I could read a book anywhere, this was the only time I was likely to see sea so turquoise, sand so pink. Somewhat grandly, I call this the Mir syndrome, after the cosmonaut who said that he didn’t read a page of the book he’d taken to the space station because his spare moments were better spent gazing out of the window.

Do we smile or sigh at this? Shouldn’t authors be the kind of people who like to read—maybe not War and Peace (the book Dyer chooses as an example) but something, anything . . . even the in-flight magazine—in their spare time? Dyer, however, is atypical only in his mellow yearning to be the kind of person who still reads. At least he feels the tug of conscience as he turns away from the page to gaze at those fine pink beaches. Not so Philip Roth, who made his real feelings known, at least about reading novels, to an interviewer in 2011:

“I’ve stopped reading fiction. I don’t read it at all. I read other things: history, biography. I don’t have the same interest in fiction that I once did.”

How so?

“I don’t know. I wised up . . . ”

And with those three words he gave me a long look from those fierce eyes and then a significant glance at my notebook, as if to say: that’s what I want you to write down.

“It’s a new attitude,” English professor and critic Mark Bauerlein concludes in The Dumbest Generation (2008), “this brazen disregard of books and reading.” But is it? Or is it just that we live in a more honest age? To be sure, the greater part of the literary production of any period is dross, and so commenting on contemporary writing is necessarily going to involve wading through a lot of muck that the common reader would be well advised to steer clear of. While it’s a dirty job, somebody, in the end, really does have to do it. Alas, these modern aliterates I’ve been talking about—authors, critics, academics, reviewers, editors, agents, prize jurors—are the professionals! That is, eminent literate people who can’t even be paid to read! What, given this culture of cynicism and indifference, this great closing of the literate mind, is the point of trying to instil a passion for Canadian writing among the masses? If the professionals don’t care, as John Metcalf would say, why should anyone else? Shouldn’t they “wise up”: take their cue from the happily aliterate who feast on pop culture’s groaning buffet tables of empty calories and decide that this whole “reading” thing is vastly overrated? Are they wrong in choosing to do other things in their free time, like going to the gym, watching movies, playing videogames, or surfing the internet?

While I can certainly sympathize, at least to some extent, with their decision to forego reading, I think they are wrong to give up on it so completely. Make no mistake: there is some great writing being published in this country, and an argument could be made that it is (miraculously, I think, under the circumstances) getting even better. This is a point worth underlining, as there’s a commonly held misconception that if only our writers wrote better books then things would have never come to such a pass and aliteracy wouldn’t be such a problem. Nonsense. Today’s best writers are as good as, or better, than the writers of any previous period in Canadian literature—superior even, I would argue, to the generation that came of age in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s the culture that has changed. The audience has left the building.

Meanwhile, without readers we have been easily misled, sold a bill of goods: a process assisted by the critical cloaking device I mentioned earlier. Without any guides or responsible source of critical authority we stick with legacy brands and familiar names. We complain about the lack of literary debate in this country without stopping to ask who is going to do the work of reading what it is we’re supposed to be debating—that is, if we assume reading is still necessary for such a conversation.

I think it is. Criticism can’t exist in a vacuum. There has to be a common, shared mental infrastructure to support it. Most of all, it still requires readers.

Such a critical mass doesn’t exist for Canadian fiction, though it does in the field of poetry. In the last few years there have been a number of first-rate, non-academic collections of essays on Canadian poetry published by critics like Zachariah Wells, James Pollock, Jason Guriel, and Michael Lista. I’ll confess I feel more than a bit of envy at all of this activity. While this has been going on, where were all the books dedicated to contemporary Canadian fiction?

I think that part of the explanation for the field being this open is the simple fact that it’s next to impossible to find people willing to read enough contemporary Canadian fiction to be able to comment on it. When I was working on the essays in my book Revolutions I had discussions with a couple of critics who had published fairly extensively in the field of contemporary Canadian fiction. When I mentioned the centrality of well-known figures like Douglas Coupland and David Adams Richards, however, they were dismissive. They didn’t think Coupland and Richards were very important.

They also hadn’t read a word of either author.

It’s hard to overstate how pervasive the problem of aliteracy is among our former literary classes, not just in this country but throughout the English-speaking world. Perhaps a few stray examples I’ve gathered will help give you some idea of where we’re at.

In 2002 Tom Bissell wrote an essay that appeared on the Salon website. It began as follows:

Whether one chooses to admit it or not, every reader has a secret list of writers one is, for whatever reason, incapable of reading. To get it over with, what follows is my own: Toni Morrison, William Faulkner, Henry James, Jane Austen, Samuel Becket . . . already embarrassment keeps me from going on.

For a long time, I was careful to keep this information from falling into the wrong hands—praising Faulkner, comparing work unfavorably with Beckett’s, nodding indulgently at mentions of Morrison. But secrets are nothing if not what we carefully choose to share, and thus I would, if pressed, admit that Morrison, excepting her strong early work, struck me as suffering from a terminal case of allegorical bloat; that Faulkner, perhaps the streakiest writer to have ever lived, seemed to me only intermittently good; that, despite his staggering descriptive gifts, even James’ shorter work left me feeling as though a very large screw indeed were turning into my brain; that Austen made me certain I would never care this much about my own wedding, much less the weddings of people who do not exist; and that not even Beckett’s inarguable brilliance could relieve me of the suspicion that his godless pose was one of effortful heresy.

Shockingly, the truth is that, with the exception of Morrison’s Beloved (a novel I was assigned to read no fewer than six times in college), I have never actually finished a book by any of these writers. In the case of Faulkner and James, I admit, God help me, to having never read more than a dozen sequential pages of their work. For a literate person to make such an admission is, I imagine, distressing to these writers’ many devotees. For a former book editor and fiction writer to make such an admission is, I do not doubt, enough to have me dragged before a literary tribunal and stoned.

What are we to make of this? Bissell takes what amounts to drive-by shots at some big names, but what weight can be given to his opinions—and he has opinions—when he hasn’t read the authors in question? Faulkner is “perhaps the streakiest writer to have ever lived”? This is a judgment based on . . . what? Skimming a dozen pages of one of his books? The slaughtering of sacred cows is a ritual activity I enjoy and usually encourage, but Bissell’s brash aliteracy is depressing. As he notes, he is both an author and editor himself (writing for prestigious journals such as Harper’s and The Virginia Quarterly Review), but he feels quite comfortable in not having read the major authors whose work he insults. He even concludes his essay by saying that he never will. I’m reminded of a passage in the critic (and proud aliterate) Chuck Klosterman’s Killing Yourself to Live where, when a girlfriend starts talking about The Merchant of Venice, he tells us that he has “never read The Merchant of Venice, and I’ll never read it, and I don’t even care what the fuck it’s about.” Indeed, Klosterman secretly suspects that he hates reading: “sometimes it feels like something I’m forever forcing myself to do (and for reasons I don’t understand) . . . Nobody’s paying me to read, you know?” So there.

Attempting to explain what has changed in the current cultural climate to make aliteracy so prevalent among young people like himself, Bissell adverts to the growth in “the average college student’s sense of entitlement”:

Thirty years ago, a student unresponsive to James may have swallowed “Brooksmith” like spinach, afraid of what a public dislike of James might have revealed. Since many students today regard their role as that of a freely discerning consumer, disliking James is as easy as sending back an overdone fillet. I tried, at any rate, to read “Brooksmith” in preparation for this essay. Two pages were enough to give me over to unbidden thoughts about the necessity of cleaning my clothes dryer’s lint trap.

The sense of entitlement presents “the average college student” with a choice, and the choice being made is not to read. Furthermore, the takeaway from Bissell is clear: this means that the average college student has wised up. And this is not just someone from the corporate world speaking. Here is a prominent, educated, literary commentator who admits that he hasn’t read the great books he is shooting down and it doesn’t matter. The entitled college student can still have his or her opinions, opinions which are worth just as much as anyone else’s.

And so for critics like Bissell and Klosterman, reading is an unnecessary and time-consuming annoyance. The image of being punished by a literary tribunal is drollery; the exact opposite is the case. If Bissell had not made such an admission of aliteracy, his essay would never have been published in the first place. Instead of addressing a community of readers, Bissell addresses a community of non-readers, which guarantees him a larger audience.

Now let’s move across the pond and take the British novelist Tom McCarthy. After the runaway success of Remainder (2001), McCarthy became something of a cult figure on the Brit Lit scene well known for making provocative comments on literary matters. Inspired by the manifestoes of various modernist groups, he attacked “bourgeois, liberal, humanist fiction,” especially the kind written by Martin Amis and Ian McEwan.

Which is all well and good (unless, I suppose, you’re Amis or McEwan). The problem is that McCarthy, at least at the time he was making these charges, was reported not to have read either author.

Obviously John Metcalf’s supposition that reading is a “necessity” for authors (or critics, or academics, or anyone else for that matter) was naive. There is no competition or anxiety of influence among the aliterate. But here’s the thing: a progressive cultural dialectic doesn’t work unless one is responding to a position or point of view that is at least partially understood, or understood enough to be creatively misunderstood. You don’t get to skip a stage. And so it’s no surprise at all that a book like McCarthy’s C doesn’t move us a scratch beyond Amis or McEwan, but instead presents us with a flat retread of Pynchonian hijinks and French poststructuralism.

A final example: in 2015 the art critic for the Guardian, Jonathan Jones, wrote a brief piece disparaging the work of the late Terry Pratchett. Here’s how it begins (you will, by now, be familiar with the passive-aggressive voice):

It does not matter to me if Terry Pratchett’s final novel is a worthy epitaph or not, or if he wanted it to be pulped by a steamroller. I have never read a single one of his books and I never plan to. Life’s too short.

No offence, but Pratchett is so low on my list of books to read before I die that I would have to live a million years before getting round to him. I did flick through a book by him in a shop, to see what the fuss is about, but the prose seemed very ordinary.

Jones was savaged for this online, though he had at least one prominent defender in an editor at The Paris Review. In the wake of the outcry over Jones’s article, Dan Piepenbring wrote a thoughtful blog post, “On the Pleasures of Not Reading,” where he offered the opinion that

beneath [Jones’s] hauteur is a useful point, one that much of literary culture, in its glad-handing, is at pains to admit. There are writers we instinctively, permanently dislike: not only will we never read them, we will quietly relish the not-reading, finding in it a pleasure that can occasionally rival reading itself.

Again we see the point made by Bayard and reinforced by many others: not only is the act of not reading nothing to be ashamed of, but it may even be a superior form of intellectual activity. Furthermore, and this is a point worth emphasizing as it marks a ground shift in our critical culture, the opinions one expresses about books one hasn’t read are every bit as valid as those held by someone who has read them. So what’s the point of reading? Life’s too short.

And as for Pratchett, he is dead.

But who, to repeat my earlier question, are we to debate these matters with? One can’t argue with Bissell about Faulkner or James; discuss Amis and McEwan with McCarthy; tell Klosterman he should pick up some Shakespeare; or defend the merits of Pratchett against Jonathan Jones. They’re just not interested. Indeed, they don’t seem to be interested in much of anything aside from airing their own uninformed opinions. This is an attitude characteristic of the internet—where it seems everyone has an opinion to express no matter how little they know about a subject.

All of this uninformed discourse has been profoundly damaging to our literary ecosystem. By abandoning its subject matter, criticism has rendered itself without purpose, value, or meaning. We have created a void, and what has rushed to fill it is either ignorant bloviating or, even worse, the manipulations of self-interested parties, now free to operate without checks or balances. Such hollowness may be comfortable—not reading is easier than reading—but it cannot be sustained. What scares me is that the rot now so much in evidence at the top of the food chain is the result of what have been bottom-up cultural forces. Which means we really have nothing to fall back on as well as no guides left to urge a change of course.

Excerpted from Revolutions: Essays on Contemporary Canadian Fiction. © 2017. Published by Biblioasis. All rights reserved.

Alex Good is the former editor of Canadian Notes and Queries.

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