Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Frum and literature

David Frum makes a familiar argument in several parts:

1) “Literature is a declining presence in our modern society.”

2) “What happens all too often in high school and college literary classes is this: Students are assigned work of very low literary quality. These works are chosen to provide sexual/racial/ethnic diversity.”

3) “Why not treat comic books as literature? After all, that's how we treat Alice Walker!”

Look, I’m a literature professor. It is my job, and also my joy, to spend many of my days celebrating and investigating some of the most wonderful books ever written. I love to argue, as passionately as I can, that some books really are greater — deeper, wiser, more beautiful, more continually rewarding of the reader’s attention — than others. And it’s wonderful that Frum takes the time to give Kafka’s The Trial the praise that eerie masterpiece deserves.

But I can't give full assent to the three claims listed above.

1) What Frum shows — what almost all people who make this kind of argument show — is that literature is a minority taste: Look at how many more hits there are for the Sopranos than for Kafka! But literature has always been a minority taste. If you want to argue that that minority is shrinking, you going to have to acquire some comparative data. You’ll need to define literature, and you need to gather as much information as you can about literacy rates, book sales relative to population, library use, and so on. You’ll need to figure out what time frame you’re talking about: the past thirty years? Seventy-five? Two hundred? You’ll need to get as much historical context as possible, and context from other societies, by reading historians of reading like Robert Darnton and Jonathan Rose. Once you’ve done all that work, you will be entitled to draw some tentative conclusions about whether the reading of literature is declining or not, and, if there is a decline, whether it’s from a well-established norm or from a unique high point.

2) Yes, a lot of crap gets taught because of “political correctness.” But a great deal of major literature has been discovered as a result of paying attention to cultures beyond the West. Harold Pinter never wrote a play worthy to be compared with Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman. I would give up the complete works of John Updike and Philip Roth for Anita Desai’s Clear Light of Day, Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God, and a handful of the gently brilliant comic novels of R. K. Narayan. And yes, I’m serious.

3) I don't know what Frum means by “comic books,” but there are graphic novels that are significant works of art, that need to be reckoned with. Books like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth, and David B.’s Epileptic defy condescension — and indeed, I might give up a good chunk of Updike and Roth for them too.

So three cheers for The Trial, and three cheers for David Frum’s celebration of The Trial. But I don't really know whether literature is declining or not; and I believe that at least some of the changes in literary culture in recent decades have been for the better.

Just wanted to get that off my chest.

(Cross-posted at The American Scene.)