Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Guest Post: Deirdra McAfee on the Next Decade in Book Culture

By Deirdra McAfee

As we wind down the “aughts” decade,  the NBCC seeks the best guest posts about the future of book culture, including essays,interviews and free-range opining. The topic: How do you see book culture evolving over the next decade?  Deirdra McAfee, an NBCC member based in Richmond, Virginia, responds:

Unless we seize the opportunity as critics, I see book culture devolving into entertainment for the herd. When Kanye West says he's “not a fan of books. I would never want a book's autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life,” and says it as part of his book tour, and when Sarah Palin's drivel and rage appear between covers as if she had actually ever had a thought that could be expressed in written English, they illustrate the scope of the problem.

The teaching of literature, art, and music in high schools, which are the seedbed for art's audience, have been under siege for the last ten years at least—poetry goes almost untaught, except in a superficial way, for example (as I know, having been from time to time a high-school English teacher in all kinds of schools). Reading is work, and reading complex and challenging writing also trains the mind in observation and analysis.  Work, observation, and analysis are tremendously useful in daily life, crucial to law and medicine as well as to the academy generally, and to history and science particularly. But these skills, learned easily and enjoyably in the study of literature, music, and art, are not—because they are invisible in today's utilitarian world—realized or valued.

A culture that idolizes physical skill (sports of all kinds) and has no use for intellectual skill (the smart or knowledgeable stigmatized as nerds), that places physical passion above all possible other passions, except perhaps that for winning, is not one that believes books are important.  Which also affects the education of young writers, preparing them merely to speak to audiences like themselves, not to scale the literary heights, to be highly original, or to remind the culture, as literature often has, of matters deeper than the daily.

The high level of discrimination that education in the arts produces is much rarer in young people today—plenty of studies document the difficulty of analysis for them. That high level of discrimination, a cultivated appreciation that comes with lots of reading or looking or practicing, is part of what we have to offer as critics, but we have been diffident in proclaiming our ability. In a utilitarian world, we offer quality-control and value-assessment, things that such a world also prizes, even when it doesn't acknowledge the importance of the things we can appraise.


Two other developments, the culture wars in the academy, and an immense generation gap, further complicate the future of books, and perhaps doom literature as we have understood it in previous eras. When every text is equal and all express the culture and its limitations and pressures, when the lost books by overlooked writers, whether good or bad, are also part of education (since texts defy evaluation and analysis about merit, because merit doesn't exist), and when publishers and newspapers seek frantically to cater to the young and unformed, who are by and large unsophisticated about reading, much less literature, because of all the difficulties noted above, literature in the largest sense—the close and compassionate inspection of moral, emotional, and spiritual aspects of character and situation, whether as fiction or nonfiction—becomes a much more fragile enterprise.


This generation gap presents itself as a sharp, unapologetic, and surprising (though usually unacknowledged and unspoken) enmity, and a vigorous rejection of experience and education, partly caused by the absence of cherished adults in young people's lives, and partly caused by the insecurity young people feel—they who have received awards merely for participation—when confronted with the wider knowledge and deeper understanding available only with time and with attention to the inner life.


I am pessimistic in the near term, because the nation is so fragmented politically and philosophically that education, the work of every great nation, has been neglected and scorned, and because cynicism, the easiest pose of youth, and limitation, the reality for most young people growing up in the last twenty years, a limitation of expectations, of adult attention, of education, of emotional nourishment, and of imagination, has straitened our national understanding, and more importantly, our national conversation. I am optimistic, however, in the long term, because today's young people must acquire experience and judgment, that is what youth leads into, and the inner life that suffering, and even succeeding, nourishes, may yet make them into people who seek insight rather than pastime, and who want depth rather than meaningless activity from the so-called content they so-called consume.