Why Johnny and Jane Need the Novel

It’s the kind of summer reading that could spoil your afternoon in the hammock: a newly-released report called “Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America,” from the National Endowment for the Arts.

In 47 pages (PDF) full of enough statistics to make your eyes blur, the NEA confirms what those of us who report on biblio America already have figured out: Books aren’t as popular as they used to be. Distracted by TV, the Internet, video games, or maybe just the rapid pace of contemporary life, the number of book readers has slowly ebbed. In a survey that goes both deep (17,000 adults) and long (20 years), the NEA puts a number on the decline — 7 percent less among consumers 18 and up in the past decade.

In the meantime, literary reading — that is, the consumption of fiction, poetry, or plays — has become the pastime of an ever more exclusive club. As the report points out, educational attainment is the most important factor in literature participation. Yet even among college grads, it seems as if it’s becoming easier to watch “The Apprentice” than read Faulkner — or even John Grisham or Mary Higgins Clark.

For these savvy intellectuals, the popularity of reading literature for pleasure is off a whopping 15 percent from where it was 20 years ago.

But it’s the youth — our future! — who show the steepest slide. Apparently the 18 to 24 group has gone electronic on us, because its leisure-time lit reading has dropped 28 percent.

Still, don’t cry too hard for those in the book trade; save your tears for aspiring novelists, who appear to be out there in record numbers, according to the report, but with less chance than ever of finding an audience.

“Book sales haven’t dropped off as precipitously,” notes Mitch Kaplan, a Miami bookseller and president of the American Booksellers Association, who joined Dana Gioia, a poet and current NEA chairman, when the report was officially unveiled last Thursday in New York City.

Publishers and retailers have backfilled to compensate for fiction’s decline. These days, non-fiction is ascendant — everything from Bob Woodward to memoirs to self-help to religious books, this last category the current tail wagging the publishing dog.

As Kaplan wisely points out, the NEA’s alarm over the state of fiction and poetry reflects its own mission as a supporter of the creative arts. Although booksellers and publishers are rightly concerned about this development, the larger issue for them is to make sure consumers have an appetite for the printed page, no matter what’s on it.

That leaves the job of preserving fiction and poetry’s place in our cultural life to outside forces as yet unidentified.

While making an eloquent argument for the value of literature, Gioia admits that the NEA simply doesn’t have the horsepower to reverse the situation on its own. He’s appealing to educational institutions, corporations, and foundations to pick up the slack. And he argues that given how the survey shows a strong correlation between literary reading and community participation, these institutions have good reason to act.

At last week’s gathering to announce the findings, someone suggested an all-out campaign — one along the lines of the U.S. race to space after Sputnik — to reverse the bookless trend.

For advocates of this point of view, it’s clear that fiction and poetry are merely the canaries in the coal mine. The level of book readers, in particular readers of literature, are a leading indicator of civic health and — as long as we’re talking about Sputnik, let’s be bold here — the future of democracy.

Consider the argument for literature. As a reading experience, fiction and poetry are distinct from non-fiction, even the creative kind in which writers (journalists, even!) incorporate fiction techniques. Ideas and stories that spring from the imagination call on different tools of discernment. They cultivate intellectual qualities that are often underrated in our pragmatic, just-do-it kind of culture.

This helps explain the proliferation of book clubs that focus on fiction, and the valiant efforts of Oprah Winfrey and her many imitators, who have refused to let the ratings scramble get in the way of promoting good novels.

And yet, in spite of these moves, “reading fiction seems to play a much less prominent role in the life of the well-educated yuppie than it did, say, 40 years ago,” Benjamin Schwarz, literary editor for The Atlantic Monthly, concluded ruefully a few months ago.

Likewise, Norman Mailer told us in a recent interview, “Novels are in trouble today. Some people think they’re through — like the five-act play.”

Based on interviews with the managing editor and cultural editor at The New York Times, we wrote a column last January that inflamed many readers because it suggested that the Times‘ top brass dismissed much of contemporary fiction as either poorly written or irrelevant. At the time, we didn’t think that these editors were necessarily wrong. But we did wonder how much their own work as journalists made them (more of the deep bench in non-fiction) less sensitive to the world of creative writing.

From our perspective, the problem with fiction could be traced to both what was being written and what was getting the press. The NEA study confirms the predilection for fiction but doesn’t explain it. We say that, even though media coverage is not the only factor, it’s a big one. That which receives media attention is more likely to be read.

Any book publicist will tell you that it’s easier to get press or broadcast coverage for non-fiction books because they come with pictures and flesh-and-blood characters. Even C-SPAN’s “Book TV” steers clear of fiction.

Which leaves us with the question: Do the media have some responsibility to help keep fiction and poetry alive?

The NEA report suggests we might. For one thing, literary reading continues to be a popular pastime in the United States. In spite of the bad news about reading’s decline, in 2002, only TV watching, movie-going, and exercising attracted significantly more people than reading literary works, according to the NEA. For print media in particular, given its obvious synergy with anybody who likes to read, it would be a mistake to ignore a demographic this large.

Do the media have some responsibility to help keep fiction and poetry alive? Secondly, because the study found that those who read play a more active and involved role in the world around them — as volunteers, sports participants, and attendees at arts events — it would follow that the press should handle literature in the same matter-of-course way that it juggles other obligations.

Finally, covering fiction and poetry is a service to the individual, as well. Although facts are the backbone of media communications, and rightly so, what springs from the imagination is not extraneous to our way of knowing. In a society that puts its reliance on science and technology, we’re just beginning to quantify the value of both kinds of learning. Howard Gardner with his theory of multiple intelligences and Daniel Goleman with his study of the emotions point to the essential role that fiction and poetry can play in our mental functioning.

Invention and ingenuity not only require the ability to see what exists, but also to envision possibilities that have yet to be realized. Think of journalism as the building block for understanding the world. Think of literature as training wheels for the imagination.

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