The disappearing writer

Nov. 5, 2014, 9:47 p.m.

In the last decade, serious writers have come to face an uncomfortable circumstance in modern culture: Contemporary literature is hardly read or even considered outside of professional literary life. There are exceptions, but for the most part, serious contemporary writers have no significance in American culture.

There was a time, I suspect, when having a Pulitzer Prize-winning author would have excited a campus. This does not hold true today. Only last year, Stanford’s Adam Johnson won the esteemed award with his novel the “The Orphan Master’s Son.” However, on his own campus, allegedly containing the nation’s most educated and intellectually curious individuals, Johnson’s triumph passed with less attention than a preseason football win. If the Pulitzer Prize is a measure of quality, and surely it is, Johnson wrote arguably the best novel in 2013. But did anyone care? Care enough to read the book?

The English department celebrated Johnson, but outside of his specialty, the author remained more or less unnoticed on his own campus. The sales and checkout figures of the novel for the campus library and bookstore hardly suggested a high interest. If you are reading this in a dining hall, look up: Do you think you could assemble a list of five living writers that the majority of the dining hall would recognize? The list would likely falter after J.K. Rowling and Stephen King.

Change the topic to professional athletes, actors, DJs or rappers and you would finish your meal before the list was exhausted. More interesting, make the topic five dead writers and nobody would struggle either. My point is simple: The contemporary writer faces an alarming level of anonymity in the culture, an almost unprecedented trend since the onset of print culture.

But curiously, have writers ever been more qualified? There are more literary awards, fellowships and writing programs than ever before. One rarely sees a book jacket that does not list these qualifications at length. In fact, many “About the Author” sections consist almost entirely of awards, degrees and journal publication histories. Author bios are so consistent and comprehensive in listing these qualifications that it feels like they are compensating for something.

The “About the Author” section of a dead writer is decidedly different: It lists schooling, military service, political involvement and perhaps participation in literary movements. In comparison, the contemporary writer’s bio seems like a justification that the writer is qualified to write. The list of achievements and credentials reads more like a job resume than a biography. And sadly, this may be the case.

In a culture that does not care about its literature, how are writers winning their bread? Simply put, they teach other writers. Today, the profession “writer” is equivalent to “university professor.” The university is a sort of critical condition ward where a breed of serious writers that otherwise would long be extinct subsists under the life support of tenure.

Due to this unique job market, writers write specifically to win attention in universities and secure a job. The result is a decidedly inward direction of literature. Instead of writing for the masses, authors write for small, specialized niches within university English departments. As a consequence, writers have lost cultural currency outside of the university.

Inside the university, writers will claim contemporary literature is healthy and list at length promising new talent in the field. However, these writers are salaried to read and keep current with contemporary literature. It is their job to show excitement for the field. The writers they would list would be complete strangers to anyone who is not heavily invested in serious contemporary literature as a career or aspiring career — that is to say, anyone outside of a university. When serious literature requires an audience that is literally paid to read it, something is seriously wrong.

Writers today are not untalented; they just occupy a pitiful position in modern culture. Once, writers were admired heroes and great movers of change. Generations were defined by their writers. The 1920s became the Lost Generation under the pens of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, but who will be on this list for the new millennium? Will there even be a list?

I do not intend to come off as condemning when really, I am just concerned and curious. How do people who are or intend to become serious writers deal with shrinking interest and readership? Have they disproved the trend, or would they rather not think about it? Does living in the sequestration of a university cause removal from cultural reality? Isn’t being in tune with the culture an essential duty of a serious writer? Or is that one more romantic image of a writer that is long gone? I have only one real answer: The role of a writer has decidedly changed over the last 30 years and the role of the reader has almost vanished.

Mike F. Gioia is a senior majoring in English and can be contacted at mgioia ‘at’

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