Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Reaping what they have sown

From The Rising Tide of Educated Aliteracy by Alex Good. Good is making several points but the key couple are:
1) A seemingly increasing percentage of people are fully capable of reading but elect not to do so.

2) This aliteracy is more and more presented and trumpeted among the literary crowd.
I object to Good's focus on literary fiction as the metric of reading. I believe that all sustained reading is beneficial - literature, mass market fiction, non-fiction, poetry, etc.

Good tries to explain why this might be happening but I think fails to convey a credible explanation.

I suspect there are several currents intermingling here. Publishers have become larger, and in some ways, more sophisticated. They are eager to find the needle in the haystack which is the next best-selling author. To that end, they publish greater numbers of new titles each year from an ever-broadening array of authors. Good argues that quality of writing is increasing over time. Perhaps, but I am dubious. When the pool of writers becomes larger because the publishers are spreading their net ever wider, the probability that the average quality remains the same or improves is low. If I randomly assemble a basketball team from just NBA players, the result may not be the best, but it is assured of being good. But if I broaden the recruitment to all athletes or all people, the probability that the resulting team will be good id low. If I assemble a cannon of books randomly from all writers rather than simply the best writers, then it almost assuredly will be of lesser value.

The result of more sophisticated publishers publishing more authors from among a wider array of writers is great for inclusivity but poor for quality. An incidental consequence is that there has to be greater marketing (never good for pursuit of truth or credibility), more events, more reviews, more prizes, etc.. All of which reduces the credibility of the entire endeavor. If there is a single literary prize whose outcome is in some recognizable way related to adjudged quality, then people will pay attention and read the, say, ten candidates for such a prize. If there are a hundred prizes with no recognizable relationship to quality, then many fewer people will read the 1,000 candidates.

A second current is that postmodernism has exercised its corrupting influence in the arena of literary thinkers. The idea of multiculturalism and, more insidiously, the idea that all works are equally good tends to obviate the need of literary judgment.

If you cannot make reasoned qualitative judgments, then why exactly is it worthwhile to read the book in the first place?

Jacobin postmodernism has also squelched the credibility of the cultural elite through self-imposed censorship. When critics have to couch their judgments based on the race, sex, orientation, class or religion of the reader, then it undermines the credibility and utility of universal criticism.

Though Good does not raise the issue, I suspect an element of the story is the loss of confidence that there should be a received body of shared cultural knowledge. Not everyone needs or should be made to read all the works of Shakespeare but it behooves the individual personally to have some working awareness of the more consequential ones. This idea of shared culture as a predicate to personal success was advanced by E.D. Hirsch back in the early eighties with Cultural Literacy. I subscribe to it but most bien pensant do not.

Postmodernist, every-book-a-winner, identity politics saturated, multiculturalistically bankrupted judgmentalism, a lowering of standards, an increase in emotionalistic thinking and judgment, a surfeit of supply (both in terms of authors and of critics) combined with a reduction in demand, and an increase in coercive class virtue signaling (read this or you are a cretin) - all these are likely contributors to the increase in trumpeted aliteracy. The postmodernist Jacobins are hoisted on their own petards.

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