Some people suggest that reading, and especially reading literature, is out of style and will gradually become obsolete. After all, you can find any information you need on the Internet. Graphic novels and celebrity memoirs are the order of the day. Reading literature—whether poetry, fiction, plays, biographies or critical essays—is no longer something many people do. For pleasure, they watch TV and movies, or play video games. For business and learning, they consult Google or Wikipedia.
A recently published book by Marjorie Garber entitled “Use and Abuse of Literature” argues that literature does something no other medium can do: “The absence of answers or determinate meanings” is exactly the set of “qualities that make a passage or a work literary.”
Literary works have no single meaning. More probably, they have many interpretations. They leave readers with questions and moral quandaries; they don’t impart facts or moral truths so much as they educate us to question the world and our place in it. They make us more human.
And so, says reviewer Seth Lerer, of the San Francisco Chronicle, “Why read? In the end, the answer to the question is as complex and compelling as “why live?”
Then there’s that other question: “Why write?”
The answer is not to make something for readers to read. There’s already a surfeit of books.
Reading about the contemporary publishing of books can drive a hopeful writer into a deep, deep depression. Publishing companies are going broke. Thousands of people are self-publishing, the vast majority of them with memoirs and how-to books. Unfortunately, many of those how-to books are writing manuals. The how-to’s and— for those with more money and the right connections—the writing workshops for the MFA degree, have bred hundreds of thousands of would-be authors, says Jessa Crispin, an editor and blogger (Bookslut.com).
The deluge of writers is not new. The widespread publication of them is. There have always been the hobbyists, the men and women who scribble their life stories for the benefit of their children or grandchildren, the poems hidden in the bottom drawer, the screenplay the banker works on before bed. Tell someone in a bar that you’re a writer and within seconds they’re tellling you an idea for a novel they’ve been mulling over and asking you for tips. Telling stories, constructing narratives out of the chaos of our lives, fantasizing about what could be—they’re all in our blood. Putting it down on paper is an act of optimism. It’s willful, and it helps us make sense of things.
The difference is that now whatever you can scribble on paper or type on your computer, you might as well publish as a book. What was once fantasy—becoming a published writer—now can be a reality. Sorta. You and your book have to face the [resulting] din and most likely will get lost in it. All that respect, glory, and laurels you expected would greet you in your new life as a writer is still in the realm of the fantastic. You’re met instead with silence, just of a different sort.
The how-to books and the MFA’s, says Crispin, have become an industry with an eager clientele.
When things are so uncertain—and the publishing industry is nothing but uncertain these days—people look for someone to tell them what to do. Those taking their money probably aren’t going to do much to question their motives, or clue them into all the other ways to go about things. Certainly not when excising all their adjectives, replacing their libraries of novels with guides, writing their memoirs or maybe a vampire trilogy, and submitting to agents seems like such a sensible, tried-and-true-pathway to becoming a writer. Whatever that may be.
The answer to the question “Why read?” is clear. The answer to the question, “Why write?” is less certain. Ambiguous. Indeterminate. Almost like literature itself. Like life itself.