I recently bought “The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books” co-edited by C. Max Magee, creator/editor of The Millions. I really thought it looked promising since there is very little serious writing on this particular contemporary issue. Unfortunately, I have read the first six (very short) essays in the anthology and it is an overwhelming disappointment.
I should have guessed at the impending trick of fortune however, simply after reading the title: Already the editors conflate “books” and “novels,” thus ignoring (or perhaps more passively, not realizing) the very important distinction to be made between the future of the novel and the future of books in the digital age.
Since I did not immediately realize the problem with the title, the page count to essay ratio should have set off a hazard warning. The anthology is a mere 165 pages, the last 9 used for miscellany; and there are 27 essays. So many of the essays are only a few pages long — certainly not long enough to analyze anything, and in only a few cases, barely long enough to even make a decent point.
But I did not see the signs, or at least did not read them properly, and so had the great misfortune of reading the fifth essay by Clancy Martin (pp. 15-19) and feeling the consequent disgust therewith. In his short five page “essay” he relates his personal evolution from a teenager who attempted to read the entire Western canon, beginning with The Odessey, to a college professor who praises a “they” who “decided to stop books.” In his explanation he says that the students were just pretending to have read the books and he was just pretending to remember them and
[so], professor-wise, the end of books was a painless solution to an “Emperor’s New Clothes” scenario that I felt was otherwise bound to result in my humiliation sooner or later, as I was, after all, the emperor in question, even though I had become very deft at deferring pointed questions from the occasional student who had done the reading to hapless innocents among the class.
He later confesses that he would only spend about 20 minutes “between emails” preparing for a lecture. So there’s point of disgust #1: If I wasn’t already disheartened by the state of post-secondary education, well, Mr. Martin, you are the reason why college isn’t worth the debt incurred.
Next, he throws poetry under the bus — namely that of Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams — and says
It was the poets who killed the books, if we want to tell the truth about it. Take this top-forty number: “The apparition of these faces int he crowd; / Petals on a wet, black bough.” Now, really. Right up there with things depending on red wheelbarrows in the rain. I mean, what are you supposed to do with that? It’s a honest question. … All sarasm aside, when this is the finest fruit of our most celebrated writers, I’m with the book-killers.
And this guy’s supposed to be a professor? It is not books that he is railing against, but literature. Point of disgust #2: How dare you whine about opacity of literature. But then this diatribe flows neatly into his last paragraph where he expounds upon the virtue of “the new paradigm, folks: viewing, not reading.” He continues to declare that
Hell, non-human animal don’t read, but they view, and they seem a whole lot happier than we do… Truth is I read my computer screen and my iPhone all day long. Or viewed them, I should say. … There’s no end to what one might read, so a plan like I once had of holding the canon in my head is like planning to swim across the Pacific; why not rather have fun simply splashing in the waves? It’s called surfing the web. You stay on the surface. When you’re under the wave, it’s because you’ve fallen off the board.
This man is philosophy professor — a professor of philosophy! It is a shame that he ends the essay with the above point because I would be very interested in an explanation of how, as a philosopher, he can “stay on the surface” of things, let alone what the consequences would be if humanity would decide to follow his advice and “have fun simply splashing in the waves.” Point of disgust #3: The completely and unabashedly inconsiderate views he affirms.
It is quite a shame that such an essay was published. It has certainly sucked the last of my enthusiasm for the anthology. At least there’s no way it could get worse.