I generally enjoy Salon.com — they do an especially good job of puncturing certain pop culture icons’ egos, and they really go to town on True Moron Donald Trump, which is always good for a laugh.
But a recent piece — “Can books endure in a 140-character world?” — caught my attention for the obvious reasons (I write books…and tweets, for that matter), then kept that same attention for the worst possible reason:
It’s really, really stupid.
What seems — at first — to be a Millennial’s meditation on the place of the novel in the 21st century instead becomes an excuse for the author to ramble about tweets and wax rhapsodic about a spoken word artist named Beau Sia that she discovered. Sia is, apparently, the Second Coming of literature because “While literature appeals to our intellect, it needs to first bypass the sheer amount of noise that constitutes our daily existence.” And his “twin canons [sic] of anger and sex appeal propel his message clean through the browser window.”
(Wow. Someone’s in love.)
Anyway, I’m not here to take issue with Sia or his work. I don’t know enough about it. But the Salon article singing his praises is just chock-full of comments on literature that I can’t let go unanswered.
Right off the bat, in the second paragraph, we get this gem:
For the uninitiated, a slow-building, 500-page book that is not about vampires has the entertainment appeal of a sackcloth full of cuneiform tablets.
For the uninitiated? Really? We were all uninitiated in the art of reading once. Ideally, one doesn’t begin reading as a thirty-year-old disaffected freelance writer, picking up one’s first “500-page book” at that point. You start as a child, with picture books, with tweetable length text on each page — “I do not like #greeneggsandham; I do not like them, @samiam.”
As with anything else in life, you work your way up to longer works. And fortunately, there are books out there that weigh in at less than 500 pages. Who knew?
Who are these “uninitiated” people, anyway? I imagine they’re people who never learned the love of reading in the first place — more’s the pity for them. Would it be great to grab them by the scruff of the neck and drag them into our world? Sure! But the article offers no suggestions on this, other than advising that books should have strong emotional content and powerful connections to characters.
Gee, thanks for the advice. I never would have thought of that on my own. I’ll get right on that.
The reality of the 21st century is that unaccounted-for blocks of time just don’t exist like they used to, at least for anybody who’s trying to make a living. As the ice caps melt, so does isolation. Quiet reflection is virtually impossible in a world of 7 billion. We spend our leisure seconds catching up with people on sites like Twitter and Facebook. Even email can feel torturously slow. Naturally, this unceasing connection and infotainment deluge change how you process information. Why spend hours trying to “get into” something when you can access the same basic information in a few seconds?
Um, OK. Well, first of all, you can’t “access the same basic information in a few seconds.” Not all the time. It depends, obviously, on what sort of information we’re talking about. “LOL Romney said binders full of women” can be digested immediately, but without the context of, you know, watching the debate, it’s meaningless. You’ve heard the punchline and you can laugh if you like, but you don’t really know the joke.
Twitter itself is hardly wholly (or maybe even mostly) the delivery system for 140-character snippets people think it is. It’s become at least in part a sort of curated list of links to longer, more in-depth content. Trolling my timeline each day, yes, I see people trying (usually too hard) to be oh-so-memorably pithy, but I also see a whole hell of a lot of links to essays, stories, photos, articles, products, and so on.
Twitter isn’t replacing the book — it’s replacing the book cover. It’s become the flap copy, the blurb, the excerpted review quote that gets you to open the damn book in the first place.
And, yes, once you’ve opened the book, you might have to spend a little time getting your bearings. Pobrecito.
The millennials are also out of practice when it comes to sitting down with a book and focusing solely upon it. “Single-tasking” just isn’t in the lexicon.
Oh, boo-fucking-hoo. And yet somehow — somehow — teens and their moms found the energy to plow through the 2000-plus pages of the Twilight novels before vampire books were “a thing.” Somehow — somehow — tweens gritted their teeth and got through the thousands of pages of the Harry Potter series.
“‘Single-tasking’ just isn’t in the lexicon?” Then put it in the fucking lexicon. Jesus Christ.
Every generation seems to think that it is sui generis and brings something heretofore-unknown to the common table of society and culture. When I was turning thirty, we weren’t the Millennials — we were Generation X. And we were disaffected and we were going to break all the rules because fuck the rules, man, and Kurt Cobain and blah blah blah.
And guess what? We still read. Yeah, that single-tasking sure is a drag. Why, when I single-task sometimes I focus on something so much that it transforms my life, leads me to a more enlightened space, and alters my perception of my fellow human beings. What a fucking downer. What a waste of my time.
I guess what baffles me most about the article, though, is that the author seems to sing the praises of the idea of books, but in a wishy-washy fashion:
Although it’s hard to focus in these times, that doesn’t mean that we have to abandon literature; we just need to package it in a new context. Instead of spending five months immersed in Proust, the visual and auditory quality of social media makes it possible to spend five minutes getting your mind blown by a contemporary philosopher. Quality, not quantity, is the key.
OK, so let me get this straight: You want the power, passion, and intellectual heft of a great work of literature, but you don’t want to actually read it. You want it fired directly into your cortex instead. Like “twin canons.” (Sorry, the typo cracks me up. I’m a child.)
Are you kidding me?
Art requires work on the part of the artist. Guess what? It also requires work on the part of the person who consumes it. Yes, you can glance at a van Gogh and get a surface understanding of the work (“Ooh, look — stars.”), or you can actually spend some time thinking about it and mulling it over and examining it, and come away with a deeper understanding. I’m sorry if this is too much work for the Millennial Generation, but it sounds to me like just whining.
As an example, apparently, of how we “should” be producing this easily-digestible, quickly-read literature these days, the author quotes Sia’s work:
it’s been millennia plus plus
since the little boy was taught
a little girl
than part of a politician’s
Again: Um, OK.
Look, that’s all well and good. But it’s nothing new. It’s just laying out facts. There’s no depth to it. And for the author to call the example above an “enlightened view of women” is just hilarious. Saying that men and women are equal and that women exist to be more than a tool for politicians is the very bottom rung of the enlightenment ladder.
Again, I’m not here to judge or criticize Sia — his work is quoted out of context and I don’t know anything about him. If I ever saw him perform, I might even decide he’s a genius. I’m criticizing Salon’s use of his work to make some absurd claims about literature in general.
Does anyone really think we can or should replace the works of, say, Sylvia Plath or Gertrude Stein or Andrea Dworkin with “a little girl/is more/than part of a politician’s/humanizing story”?
I realize that reading Plath or Stein or Dworkin takes longer. Mea culpa.
The biggest problem with the article, though, is that it seems to answer the question of its own headline by saying, “Yes, as long as they evolve.” Which, to put it simply: Duh. Everything has to evolve. A book written today is similar to one written a hundred years ago mostly in that they both involve words. Style, voice, prevailing design trends, electronic media, and more all conspire to make a contemporary book a different beast from one my great-grandfather might have read as a young man coming to America.
“While we’ve captured the craggy visage of human nature in a million status updates, tweets and Spotify lists, it’s time to start looking deeper,” the author says as part of her conclusion.
Really? Some of us have been doing this all along. Congratulations on joining us.