Thursday, July 22, 2010

Literature in the United States is Not Dead

Fiction is dead. The New Yorker inbreeds, repeats and exercises futility. Poetry in America is puerile. Best-seller prose has overtaken prose stylists. Everyone is reading vampire or zombie novels. The classics are being castrated and recast in bastardized sci-fi.

We've heard all of these arguments. We hear them every day. Especially in the media itself. And while there is truth to some of this, we simply cannot believe that fiction and poetry in America is dying or on the way out. Even with's strongarm, loss-leader buying practices and the wave of elitist e-readers for sale.

What we are seeing now is a repeat of the argument that has plagued the music industry for years. It was an argument that started in the music industry when the compact disc was introduced to replace vinyl. Consumers felt ambushed, artists felt a loss of control. Music seemed poised to die. Yet, it survived. So much so that between 2007 and 2008 vinyl record sales jumped from 988,000 to 1.88 million units. With the influx of digital piracy and file sharing the music industry again lamented its downfall and rightly so. However, a precursory glance at new music releases over the past month will show any casual listener that good music, damn good music, in America is alive and well. As much pressure as the industry faces artists still want to create and young, hungry musicians are still fighting to be heard. They are genre-bending music, while creating new markets for people to discover their music in. It could be argued that there is no better time to be a fan of music than now.

Likewise for literature. might be single-handedly trying to strongarm and sink the publishing industry, but small presses keep popping up and surviving. And while Anis Shivani will caustically argue that the “Best American Poetry” series has “been on a downward slope,” Alan Kaufman's brilliant anthology, “The Outlaw Bible of America Poetry” shows that poetry in this country is still full of as much spit, bone and napalm as it ever was. Poetry, like some of the best literature in this country, is currently thriving with the small presses. Steven Huff's work on FootHills Publishing, Laure-Anne Bosselaar's work with Copper Canyon, the poetry out with Coffee House Press or Archipelago Books, or any of the handfuls of chapbooks and folios being hand-sewn and printed in the United States indicate that poetry is alive and well and being well-crafted on the margins. Certainly, we'd love to see poetry being sold high above the potboilers on the New York Times Book Review's lists, but we know that it wont. But it's more than comforting to know that it is out there, alive and burning.

The hits that the publishing industry has taken over the past few years have only forced good literature to find new homes. While the major publishers still print and support great writing, their ability to hold and keep great writers en masse has diminished. So great writing, like poetry, has found smaller homes, different networks. It doesn't take much to find great writing in America. A quick recommendation from your independent bookseller will usually put you in the right place. Otherwise, a glance at any of the literary magazines in print would serve as a good guide. If that doesn't work, go into a bookstore and look at the spines of the books, find a publisher you have never heard of and buy the book on a whim. And while the merits of MFA programs can be and will be hotly debated there is without a doubt some excellent, emotionally powerful and intellectually stimulating dramatic fiction being produced in them. Whether it sees print or not. For what matters there is that people care enough about the craft at all to want to study it from the inside out.

Speaking of literary magazines: if we all were to subscribe to just two of them there would be a literary renaissance in this country. Think about that.

Literature is not dead in this country. It is alive, well and being produced at a fantastic rate. What it needs is a buying public that is willing to look for it in places it is not accustomed to and to buy it from places they haven't in years. What it needs is more debate like the controversy the New Yorker caused with its selection of great writers under forty. That article for all its flaws got people talking and making alternate lists, exposing the true literary scene, New Yorker magazine and otherwise, in America in all of its guises for the public.

Mostly though, what literature in the United States needs are more middle school and high school English teachers to teach students that there are great stories out there. To teach them that literature is meant to move you first and be analyzed second—or third, or fourth but never first. Those teachers need to emphasize the simple beauty of a well told story, not character charts or multiple choice exams. More importantly, literature in the United States needs parents to support those teachers and the writers in this country by turning the television off and then buying their child a book instead of a cell phone.

Essay by: William Hastings