Who or what is really harming literature?

All the hoopla created by Booker judge and TLS Editor Peter Stothard’s untimely comments in The Independent suggesting that book bloggers are harming literature, reminded me that I have yet to post a review of Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, which I finished a short while ago and shall rectify shortly. (now done)

While posting a rant isn’t one of the objectives of this blog, since I’ve been commenting on the issue elsewhere, I decided to do something a little different and turn our eyes away from the culpability of book bloggers for a moment – who if you’ve read anything I’ve written in the last 24 hours you will know I think do a marvellous job – and instead suggest some other groups or individuals who it might also be said are harming literature today.

Voila, the list:

  1. Governments – I’m referring more to the British government whose budget cuts in the culture sector have had a crushing effect on many cultural and literary organisations (and libraries!!) who relied on funding to keep their operations and artists/writers supported. Sadly, either the government doesn’t appreciate the cultural value and importance of the Arts or hopes it will turn itself into a more commercial business model, if it can’t earn a living, either the private sector will save it, or it will cease to exist.
  2. Literacy – there had been a significant increase in the percentage of non-readers, an alarming trend and certainly harmful to all literature however, a recent survey in the US has shown that for the first time in a quarter century, literary reading has increased among American adults.

    A decline in both reading and reading ability was clearly documented in the first generation of teenagers and young adults raised in a society full of videogames, cell phones, iPods, laptops, and other electronic devices.

  3. Technology – the quote above says it all; technology has affected the leisure and entertainment options of children and young people, who might otherwise have picked up a book. However, this cloud may have a silver lining if the same people then hear about books via social networks and get reading on their gadgets. The book industry is going to have to get pretty creative to capture the attention of young people. Bloggers are the first step in that direction, right?
  4. Parents – Yes. Parents. Are we encouraging our kids to read by reading to them, taking them to the library, buying books or engaging in animated storytelling? All kids love being read to or told made-up stories and while they are young, books also assist them to undercover their passions and interests! Not a new problem, but one that can be detrimental to our beloved literature.
  5. Artists and Book Sculptors – Well, really this is an excuse to show you the extraordinary, exquisite, mysterious sculptures created by an unknown sculptor in Edinburgh late last year, which also sets out to prove that sometimes great literature actually needs to be harmed in order to generate support, awareness and appreciation.
  6. Libraries – both a victim and a culprit, the poor old library is being phased out in many cities, but libraries have also been known to be engaged in selling off and destroying the old to make room for the shiny new things that want to steal the limelight!

    Cité du livre Bibliothèque Méjanes Aix-en-Provence

  7. Social Networking – it may be having an adverse effect on some writers as they navigate the fine line between having a public profile to assist with promotion of their titles and the distraction of random communications and information that keeps them from writing. Not surprising that some enterprising company has come up with an app you pay for that restricts your internet access, we can now purchase discipline for the undisciplined!
  8. E-books – so you think e-books are good for literature? I’m not so sure, I think that e-books have turned literature into a much more accessible and easy to purchase commodity, with an associated risk that many people are consuming books and not actually reading them. So good for the writer’s pocket and for the estates of classics and at least the bookshelves aren’t suffering, but are we at risk of becoming collectors rather than readers.
  9. Telephones – I’ve mentioned technology already, but I have to register my concern at lugging my brick of a book, Murakami’s 1Q84 on holiday and a quick glance around the beach suggested I was one the very few doing that old fashioned thing, reading a book. Everyone else was doing the finger tapping dance on their teeny gadgets – alas, the mobile telephone has replaced the beach read, at least in St Tropez this summer!
  10. Steve Jobs & the Apple team – when computer hard drives required an entire office to house them and technology was beige, boring and you had to be a geek to operate it, literature was in no way threatened – now that it’s sleek, sexy and can facilitate a music, film, or other visual experience, a whole new level of entertainment has captured our imaginations, to the detriment of the more passive, noiseless book.
  11. The iGen – the baby boomers are becoming grandparents, the X generation are coping with being older parents and the new generation have been dubbed the iGen. They are going to create and imagine a whole new way of doing things. We don’t yet know what kind of literature they will want to read or create and they will decide which of our contemporary writers become future classics. Perhaps books are going to become more of an interactive experience?

The point being, there are a good many things out there and I am sure you can think up more of them, that could be said to be harming literature. But at least it stimulates a good debate and brings out those who are passionate about reading, writing, reviewing, critiquing.

Ok, back to writing that review then.

33 thoughts on “Who or what is really harming literature?

  1. All good points Claire. I nodded away reading this. i do am wondering with our short lifespan are we able to read everything we amass? Am I at risk of becoming collectors rather than readers? I wanted to buy the new Kindle, and this is going to be one question on top of my head.

    p/s: I lug around 4 paper books for a 2-week holiday!


    • Actually Jo, I don’t think being collectors is so bad, if there is a struggling writer benefiting at the end of it, a new form of cultural subsidy perhaps, the people who appreciate books and buy them to support writer’s they like the sound of, even if they don’t get around to reading them.

      I even, believe that printed works (limited editions) are going to become even more popular so that for some people, great works of literature are going to become more like show-pieces, pretentious it may be, but when something becomes scarce, there will always be a segment of society that wish to preserve it in a quality form.

      You should go for the kindle though, its a complement to the printed book, not a replacement.


      • Claire,
        Put it that way I don’t mind subsidising. I do try not to turn those limited editions into showpiece, it would make feel like a fraud! 🙂 Yes I will get the kindle. Thanks for this Claire, very enlightening.


  2. Interesting post. I don’t think that Peter Stothard has good evidence to support his statement. I dare say he made an elitist comment. People who ignore literature and don’t read are killing literature, but those who take it seriously are making a contribution. I instilled my literary passion in my daughter. She is three years old and loves books. And, yes, we love going to the library, too.


    • You’re so right, I really wonder what those writers from small publishers think (many of whom were nominated for this prize) they surely owe some of their success to word of mouth recommendations, nearly all writers appreciate those passionate about reading and books, no matter what level they read at.
      I also believe there are many excellent initiatives today to help get the non reading into enjoying the experience. That’s so great to hear your daughter loves books, she will love that treasure trove, the library.


  3. Here’s another.. comments by some unfortunate boor who willingly restricts his own perceptions and disses a newer form of human communication.

    Our creativity and curiosity assures this world will not go stagnant. Are we to impose frameworks, we shall have film and printed books? All else need apply to some staid board what gets to render a thumbs up or down vote?

    I’ve seen about every sort of writing criticised. Yet, your trash might be another’s treasure, and therein lies the true beauty of the things we write.

    Well done Claire, bravo.


    • So true Nelle, blogs have brought in a broad spectrum of coverage, we all find our place, our audience, our preferred reads and I or one think our minds are opened further through the blogosphere, than they ever were through the narrower form of literary magazines and even newspapers.


  4. Good piece Claire. I read Peter Stothard’s opinions, and felt that he was very much assuming that we all need guidance from better minds than ours, and that without wise guidance we’d never be able to discriminate, rather patronising, I felt, and I wondered how many blogs he’d had time to read with his full progamme of reading for the Booker prize.
    Much food for thought in your assessments, thank you.


    • It definitely seemed like a defensive knee-jerk response to something and strange given his position as a champion for a list of books likely to be given much space and encouragement from the very people he has offended. I do believe there are many other elements impacting literature, its a pity they weren’t included and given context.


  5. What a heady of cocktail of potentially literature harming things. I was agreeing out loud with them all. The sad states of libraries with there policy of shipping out books to squeeze in even more computers.

    Your last thought though sums it up for me though,Stothard has created a debate which is always a good and binds the readers and the blogging community more closer together.


    • Makes me wonder if that was his intent, I also would love to know what all those writers think, although it’s perhaps a dangerous game for a writer to agree and put down the very audience who are there to champion them, or if not at least to attract new readership, for it is true that even a negative review can attract readership.


      • It’s a fine line I agree, I think in the end any intelligent reader will realise which reviewers best suit their style of book and stick with them. After all if they big up to many mediocre books, they risk their own credibility.


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  7. AMEN to all points, especially points 8, 9, 10, and 11. I feel as though reading book blogs is a new form of book browsing. I discover new book. I compare opinions and learn new things about older books that I’ve already read. Frankly I prefer the more down to earth approach to reviews that book bloggers do than the spoilerish pretentious professional critiques, that don’t always get me to read.


    • Totally agree Didi, book blogs have opened so many doors to new reads, old reads, re-reads, like-minded souls and people who don’t mind us raving on about books, they are certainly the new shop window for me, more so than the bookshop, Amazon or even the review pages. And you are right, the honest, conversational approach creates more action and motivation to actually buy or pick up a book than anything else.


  8. Always the thoughtful writer/reader, with a marvelous 😉 eye for choosing books to feature, you bring a broader perspective to the narrow view suggesting that book blogging may be detrimental to the health of literature. What brings me to your blog time and again is the intelligence and sensibility that underscores your reviews. There are other bloggers I go to for similar reasons. Then there are bloggers who, as I see it, don’t so much review books (with a reasonably critical eye) as respond to them in an ‘I liked it/didn’t like it because . . .’ manner.’ There’s certainly a place for it all in this vast book club in the sky that Cyberspace makes possible. And while I do agree that Peter Stothard’s commentary may be a bit short-sighted, I think what he touches on begs for more discussion.


    • Thank you Deborah, I agree there are many layers of readers and this vast bookclub in the sky as you describe it sorts itself out without intervention as the many styles of blog attract their various readers because they are a right fit, or they push some kind of button in a reader that makes them come back for more. It allows readers to make more informed choices and to share their reading experiences, what was a passive activity has become more intellectually stimulating for the whole range of readers, whether they are participating in the discussion or not.

      Thank you for you own ever thoughtful and thought provoking responses.


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  10. Very good post — and I agree with your assessment. I think the move to a quick-hit status-update world more than anything has decreased peoples’ attention spans. Fewer people want to take the time to be thoughtful, and we’re all a loss for it.

    I will say that I understand Stothard’s comments. I think there is a tendency for too many bloggers to only say good things about books because they don’t want to seem negative. I think that being critical (in the true sense of the word) requires balance and effort. This gets undone by the cheerleading that permeates too many bloggers’ efforts.


  11. Claire, what wonderful food for thought and fodder for debate, presented with grace and intelligence, as always.

    Earlier this week, the US Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, called for the elimination of paper textbooks in K-12 schools within a few years. I have to admit, my heart sank. Perhaps if I were a member of iGen or had children, I would feel differently, but I mourn the loss of the page, of that tactile visual medium that has texture, aroma, a sound all its own (but I celebrate the saving of forests- what’s an old-school liberal to do!).

    As I writer, I do most of my composing on a laptop, but when it comes to edits, when it comes to seeing, feeling, hearing my words as they near the point of being released to the world, I need to hold the pages in my hands, see the changes inked in red.

    As for book bloggers, Guilty As Charged! And proudly so. Being an active participant on Goodreads has opened my heart and mind to so much outstanding literature. I skim “professional” reviews, but actively seek out the thoughts of intelligent, engaged, diverse and well-read amateurs who review for the love of reading, not because it is their day job. And I contribute my reviews in the same spirit.

    XOXO Julie


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