Thursday, January 22, 2009

Elitism and Reading

A few weeks ago, the National Endowment for the Arts in America released a study entitled "Reading on The Rise." The last reading survey, released in 2002 was entitled "Reading at Risk."

Some of the results of the survey, with a sample size roughly 20 times that of the average media poll and balanced by the Census Bureau to represent current U.S. population, are as follows:

1. Literary reading among adults rose 3.5 percent in the last six years.
2. More than half of the U.S. population did literary reading in 2008.

What is the cause of this increase? Some suggestions that have been made are:

The Harry Potter effect inflates the number
Retired Baby Boomers have more time to read
National Endowment of the Arts Chair Dana Gioia wanted to go out with a bang

The critical response I want to comment on is the one made by David L. Ulin, Book editor of the Los Angeles Times in an op ed piece two weeks ago. Ulin argued that the Endowment's definition of "literary reading" as "novels, short stories, plays, and poems" was "elitist" because it assumed that literary reading was better than any other kind of reading. Ulin cites a recent essay in Nation by William Deresiewicz, which claims that this definition plays into the tendency of critics and scholars to see themselves as an embattled cultural elite.

Ulin also points out how reading rates go up according to level of education, with 68.1% of college graduates identifying themselves as readers, while only 39.1% of high school graduates and 18.5% of those who never went to high school identify themselves as readers. The fact that 55.7% of whites meet NEA's criteria as literary readers, while 42.6% of African Americans and 31.9% of Latinos meet the criteria suggests to Ulin a "disturbing subtext--that a certain kind of reader makes a better grade of citizen--literary eugenics, in other words."

That seems to me to be going too far, but I would like to hear what my readers think of this argument.

How does the short story play into this? The Endowment survey made no distinction between readers of novels and readers of short stories, but did note that reading of poetry and drama fell; thus the total increase is due to the reading of prose fiction.

Once in American literary and cultural history, the short story was a very popular form, so popular in fact that many critics lamented the fact that too many people were reading easy O. Henry type short stories. From the twenties up through the fifties, stories appeared in numerous American popular magazines and were widely read. Now only a few "elite" magazines publish short stories; you can count them on one hand.

So, to use Ulin's terms, if it is elitist to be a reader of prose fiction, it may be more elitist to be a reader of the short story. We know that many, many more novels are published than collections of short stories.

Literary Critics may now feel that with the election of Obama, a writer himself, the culture wars in America will shift. Several critics in last Sunday's special issue of the Book Review section of the Los Angeles Times were delighted that an honest-to-God writer would be in the White House. One noted that Obama had liked the novel Gilead and had called the prose "shimmering," pleased that an American President would even use the word "shimmering" to describe language.

Throughout my teaching career, I have been tarred with both the red and the blue brush in the cultural wars. Many of my students used to drop my class after the first meeting when they heard my southern accent and assumed I must be an ignorant red neck. Some dropped it later, calling me elitist, when I insisted on literary quality rather than political content in the stories we read.

My most infamous encounter with this janus-faced accusation was two summers ago at an International Short Story Conference in Lisbon. I was on a panel with Francine Prose, Bharati Mukherjee, and others and made a short presentation about the importance of literary quality rather than political correctness in the short story, when Amira Baraka (aka Leroi Jones) stood up and stalked out. When he made his presentation later, he accused me of being a right-wing reactionary.

Ana Castillo, who was in the audience, later in her blog called me "a stupid white guy [who] sat arrogantly in the front of a hall and single handedly dismissed so-called 'minority' perspectives."

She also said:

"I was at first surprised and soon offended by Charles May's off-handed dismissal of the attempt at literary diversity in univ. curriculums. "Can't we just move on?" He said at one point. Unfortunately, May himself was lost in the Reaganite years when white men felt they were under attack because young professors were bringing in new voices to the sacred canon."

Well, I did not "dismiss minority perspectives," but I do not wish to defend myself here. If anyone wants a copy of the presentation, I can send it via email. I just want to raise the issue of reading as an elitist activity.

Is it possible to be both a right wing reactionary and a left wing elitist at the same time to want literary quality rather than political rhetoric in prose fiction?


Rolf said...

Charles, I do not envy this fight you have had to make. I grieve for it, in fact, and you know enough about me to know I have at least some familiarity with battle. I’m na├»ve about this sort of fight in a lot of ways. But I understand hatred. It treads on the ice it keeps frozen over the others. It thaws, and one fears drowning with them.

Writer’s have it easier than critics. We can just write. I’m not sure the short story will ever come back to anything the way it was in our culture. What I know for certain, though, there’s a difference between thumping your chest and touching another’s heart. And if the heart isn’t touched, no thumbed chest lasts longer than its echo or the ache in the ribs.

People will be able to fake it for awhile to make it last. But if it isn’t the real deal, it ends when the ice thaws.

Charlene said...

Hi Charles,

I’ll venture into the discussion with a few thoughts on the NEA report, Ulin, and literature.

The NEA’s primary mission is to support excellence in the arts, not necessarily literacy, even though the report is titled, “Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy.” The title is a bit misleading, especially since the percentage of adults who read literature in 2008 is still below the percentage that read in 1992. Ulin makes some good points in his op ed, and he can do it because, as he points out, the report correlates its findings to a broader context, such as “reading is an important indicator of various positive individual and social behavior patterns.” I think Ulin’s comment on reading elitism is a reaction to the tone of the report, which he calls more self-congratulatory than persuasive. And he proves it by taking the same NEA data and coming up with an opposing narrative argument—suggesting that “reading is a talisman of class.” (As a former marketing writer, I am continually amazed how numbers can be rearranged and crunched to support whatever the writer--or marketing/development director—wants to say).

You also ask if it’s elitist to want literary quality rather than political content in prose fiction. Surely not in a short story literature class. But I wonder if the terms “literacy” and “literature” have become so entangled over the years, sort of like in the NEA report, in our quest to promote literacy in schools. Starting in elementary school, students are (hopefully) provided accessible and relevant stories so they will be engaged. A good thing. They arrive in a college literature class, though, and expect the same. This doesn’t strike me as a huge problem in a mid-size college or university. In many cases, a number of English classes are offered that target different interests, whether it be political, cultural, or other points of entry for studying literature. But what if only one or two classes are offered? In my own case, I was fortunate that I had options when I was a re-entry student who was bumped from an upper-division Shakespeare class down into a remedial English writing comp. class. I chose a comp. section that focused on women and fiction. That semester, my world changed as I read short stories by Grace Paley, Margaret Drabble, and others. The stories were of the highest literary merit, but the characters were also accessible to me. What I thought about literature changed. It became personal. It was about women like me.

Rambling onward, Charlene

Becky said...

Oh my. "Stupid"? sitting "arrogantly"? How does one sit arrogantly, anyway?
Let's just say that you are a "right-wing reactionary." Does that mean your argument is unreasonable?
Why storm out of the presentation?(My Appreciation for Literature class will be reading Baraka in a couple weeks). Why not stay, and ask questions, clarify, qualify? Castillo gives the classic strawman argument, rather than seriously engage the question.
But I wonder, May, what do you think about trying to include minority voices of high literary content in a course syllabus (I mean consciously seeking those voices out)? I'm thinking of Charlene's response, that her women and fiction class made fiction "personal" for her for the first time. I want my students to be discerning readers, and I want them to see that literature is written by and about them. I guess, I want to crack the door open a bit. But I never want to compromise literary quality. I ask these questions because I struggle with them myself.
Oh, and I would like a copy of that presentation, if you don't mind.