Philip Roth recently died. During his long career as a novelist, he won every major award for his work except the Nobel Prize, and he is considered one of the preeminent writers of the late 20th century. However, with all due respect to Mr. Roth’ life and career, I don’t believe very many people outside of the rarified literary salons of the Boston-Washington corridor or a handful of PhD programs elsewhere actually read many of his novels—and he is an apt symbol for the wrong turn our cultural elites took in the post-WW II period.
In order to quickly illustrate my point and avoid a protracted explanation, please allow me to quote directly from Mr. Roth’s obituary in The New York Times: “His creations include Alexander Portnoy, a teenager so libidinous he has sex with both his baseball mitt and the family dinner, and David Kepesh, a professor who turns into an exquisitely sensitive 155-pound female breast.”
How could he have failed to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, you might well ask….
The literary novel—which was once, a long time ago now, built around characters wrestling with weighty matters of personal or social morality—has surrendered its purpose and lost its way. Our prevailing creative norm—in not only novels but movies and television as well—is now to sanctimoniously celebrate the triumphs of individuals over those family, foes, or institutions that fail to allow them to live just as they please. For an audience apparently content to be reassured that anyone who might pass moral judgment is simply hateful, this is somehow sufficient to make a story. Hence, there are generations of readers who, for reasons surpassing all understanding, find it entertaining that Holden Caulfield, the teenaged narrator of A Catcher in the Rye, calls every adult he meets a “phony”. When I had to inflict this novel on my own high school students, I sometimes wondered why this was considered a good use of instructional time, but keener minds than mine had long before determined this was a literary classic worthy of their attention.
The dramatic tension inherent in parsing issues of right and wrong (concepts utterly alien to much of our culture today) once gave the novel its power and cultural significance. Today these are reduced to a predictable polemic pitting the pure-hearted protagonists against an oppressive society that fails to properly recognize their uniqueness and sensitivity. It is little wonder that so much of our artistic output is now snark, pastiche, meta-fiction, satire—or comic book superheroes. To simply and seriously discuss the many complexities of morals or values today is to be hopelessly old-fashioned and overly judgmental.
Imagine our literary classics rewritten for our tolerant—and tech-savvy—modern world. Prince Hamlet today would be furiously and ineffectually tweeting about what a jerk his stepfather was, Ophelia would simply sext with Hamlet behind her father’s back, and Queen Gertrude would be busily working on her next palace podcast about her wonderful remarriage and her own journey of personal self-discovery. Given that all choices are now equally valid and correct, there would be no need for dramatic resolution. Everyone could simply do what they pleased, secure in the knowledge that their individual choices were unassailable, and we could sit back and enjoy the farce inherent in blowhards like Polonius futilely attempting to rein them all in. Ha-ha-ha.
Individual wants and needs are, of course, important; I am not advocating for a world run according to a hive mind mentality that neglects the critical importance of individuals within a larger community or society. However, there comes a point when a single-minded emphasis on individual wonderfulness becomes an empty intellectual exercise because it eventually will exclude any notions of shared duty or self-sacrifice for the common good—which, inconveniently enough, are necessary for a functioning and healthy society.
Adolescent self-satisfaction is, sad to say, now our predominant cultural characteristic, and just as any teenager typically does, we get awfully surly when someone points out that our selfish self-focus might be negatively affecting others. As much as we might want to sit in our rooms and just ignore all those other pesky people in our lives who somehow seem not to understand the importance of our needs, we do sometimes have to acknowledge the needs of others. It sucks, I know, but that’s what adulthood is all about. I might be ruining someone’s day by pointing this out, but a country composed of preening and self-involved individualists can cause as much damage to its citizens and their overall well-being as the most oppressive totalitarian state.
Please allow me to offer another related radical suggestion: That which is outré is not necessarily interesting or worthwhile. Circus “freak shows”, a blessedly discarded component of our entertainment culture, at one time offered viewers a chance to gawk at the physically afflicted. Sadly, we have not progressed much beyond this. Our late 20th and early 21st century cultural and artistic life has become overly enamored with the notion that examining characters and ideas occupying the fringes of our society will reveal heretofore untold truths about ourselves, an approach that, like the circus freak show, offers titillation but no illumination.
Which brings me back to modern literature, which has managed to write itself into irrelevance by mistaking the bizarre and obscure for the profound and life affirming. There is a reason that so many still love the plays of William Shakespeare, find life lessons in the Iliad and Odyssey, revel in the novels and short stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald, or continue to lose themselves in the adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional creation, Sherlock Holmes. These works have survived the test of time because they engage with our minds and souls rather than attempting to shock and repel the average reader. Even those characters who are less than admirable are presented as fully formed—but deeply flawed—human beings rather than two dimensional caricatures of corruption and dysfunction.
If you want people to read your books and—perhaps more importantly—you want your work to be part of our daily cultural dialogue, it might be worth giving your readers a reason to continue to turn the page. Setting up straw men and knocking them down might be satisfying on some simplistic level, but it will only rarely sustain reader interest over the long term because there is no recognition of the difficulties that even the most seemingly insignificant life choices entail. Having your main character furiously masturbate into a piece of liver his family will later consume will shock us—but there is no knowledge or insight to be gained beyond this.
Spiritually and morally bankrupt cultures often privilege the sensational over the conversational. Good authors realize this. The “two minute hates” in George Orwell’s 1984 existed in a fictional culture devoid of humanity. The “feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World were mass entertainment that stimulated rather than engaged their emotionally empty audiences. Our own two minute hates and feelies—now brought to us by our major literary publishers as well as cable television and the internet—are signs of how spiritually and morally bankrupt our culture has become, and we need to seriously discuss just how we can move literature and entertainment back in a direction that can again engage a mass audience in a broader discussion of the values that inform our lives.