Monday, May 10, 2010
Digital Opiates and Paperback Palsy
Guest Post from one of my students.
By Evan Acuña
They constituted an era filled with tension and tumult. Martin Luther King rose in the arms of the Civil Rights movement, only to later fall at the racist hands of hatred. A questionable battle sought to free the South Vietnamese people, but in the process created an America as divided as the foreign land it supposedly was trying to help. During the 1960’s the United States served as the home stadium for an active and principled youth that wasn’t afraid to get involved and make a scene. Social and political tension, along with the burgeoning Hippie movement, ensured that young, visionary voices were always ready to preach their messages.
Underpinning this youth revolution was a breadth of recent literature that reflected the restless ideals of young American marchers, demonstrators, and dreamers alike. There was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road of 1957; J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye of 1951; William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch of 1959. These books and others represented the pre-1960’s tension that erupted into what was arguably the most explosive decade of America’s history. They were vital components of the visionary zeitgeist that often guided the behaviors of American youth. Since the 1960’s, though, there has been a decline in the importance of this type of literature.
Surely revolutionary writers are still typing furiously for their causes, creating works for active, ardent audiences—but not nearly so many as before. Television, video games, and even the Internet, despite its myriad potential outlets for writers and thinkers, have all worked together to wrest influence from thought-provoking and challenging books. The role of popular literature as a visionary and influential medium has diminished since the 1960’s, its reduced importance stemming from the proliferation of electronic entertainment in American homes as well as from the increased corporate domination of the publishing industry.
From TV to the first video games to the advent of the Internet, electronic entertainment technologies have provided users with something that rich literature never could: instant gratification. This is an idea that children seem to grasp very well. A Game Boy, for instance, is more fun than a coloring book—‘nuff said. And children don’t just play with the Game Boy until they’re old enough to sit calmly and read a book—they play with the Game Boy until they’re old enough to use the Play Station, and then they use the Play Station until they get kicked out of the house or sent away to college (same thing, usually).
The effects of America’s quest for instant gratification have been clear. A quick look at any recent list of best-sellers affirms this. Sexy, sensationalistic thrillers top the charts with regularity. Works by John Grisham and Janet Evanovich typify the literary value found in today’s top sellers. Grisham and Evanocich are by no means poor writers, but their rapid fire releases of new full-length novels suggests that they might be more focused on quantity (read: money) than quality. The type of writing that Grisham and Evanovich create is only exacerbating the problem of literature’s decrease in visionary quality and influence. Grisham’s tales are thrilling to read on a dark night, Evanovich’s equally exciting in a dark bedroom. The two authors, and scores of copycats, are delivering the book world’s best interpretation of the instant gratification drug.
While an overbearing electronic entertainment industry has had a disconcerting impact on the modern bookstore’s inventory, television and its successors have not been the sole causes of current literature’s precarious position within the lives of Americans. The publishing industry has been continuously shifting since before the 1960’s, and the changing publishing climate has been another clear factor of literature’s diminished role in American society. Since before the 1960’s, publishing company ownership has steadily shifted from homegrown, family-run businesses to national conglomerates, and, in the process, the character of the industry has shifted as well.
Traditionally, many of the family-run publishing companies were descendant from old money. They had little need to publish books for profit, and so they often approached their trade more as a philanthropic act than as a business venture. As consolidation took over, though, publishing companies found themselves under the ownership of necessarily shrewd businesspeople. A new formula emerged to determine the worthiness of new books. According to this model, “publishable” now means bankable, marketable, sellable—and few publishers are left that can afford to care about quality. Couple this reality with a shrinking market for new books and it’s easy to see why hot sellers like Grisham and Evanovich have become darlings of the publishing industry.
To understand the falling significance of literature in American society is to understand many key differences between the 1960’s and today. Compare the riotous revolts against the war in Vietnam to the passive indifference with which most Americans regard the war in Iraq. Compare the inspiring words of Dylan singing for the greater good of humanity to the self-centered indulgence of Eminem. Fifty years after the rumblings began, the United States has lost a culture of visionary revolution to a wave of instant gratification. The displacement of inspirational literature by electronic entertainment and a publishing industry plagued by increasing corporate dominance have combined to create a national climate that is unsuitable to the mass appreciation of thought-provoking books, poetry, and prose—and without a population united by the common goals of contemporary literature, music, and other arts, the revolutionary spirit of the 1960’s is likely as burnt-out as many of its founders.