Ask publishers and booksellers the world over, and they’d tell you sales are down when it comes to literature. Readers aren’t warming up to fiction any longer, especially of the highbrow and classic variety. Whatever little is read is of the classroom syllabus variety, with Nobel and Booker winners losing out to popular blockbusters. While the optimist might view this as a passing trend, the verdict of the pessimist is dire: the literary novel is dying if not already dead.
Yet not too long ago, literature was considered the epitome of creative expression, literary talent a password to success in a variety of pursuits. Those who read widely and wrote well were deemed to be mentally superior; world leaders quoted classics, some of them even penned the odd book or two.
Sociologists are quick to point out a dozen reasons why literature has lost its shine. With the audiovisual format outperforming all its rivals, attention spans shrinking even among the literate, and the gratification of the internet, the reading habit has plummeted to its lowest level ever. The surge of information appears to have drowned the space for imagination and evocation that are the main fortes of literature. Why read a novel, spend that much effort in figuring out the plot and getting into the characters, when you can see it all effortlessly, presented on a platter by a hardworking film crew? After all, literature is rewarding only when the reader allows her/himself to dream and dreaming, most certainly, is effort-sensitive.
Might there be a different explanation altogether for the decline in interest towards literature?
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Storytelling has been central to literature’s pull through the ages. Our love for literature stems from our thirst for stories, from the desire to step away from our own skin into someone else’s and vicariously experience other lives. From time immemorial, we humans have been driven by curiosity towards the unfamiliar, and literature has satiated that urge. As the youngest of the written forms, novels have risen to the challenge of transporting our minds, riding high on the crest of plausible characters that evoke a rich array of emotions, to leave us richer in comprehending the human condition.
As long as literature did all of the above, we loved reading books. But with novels veering off course, it isn’t surprising that readers are fast losing interest. One can make a strong case that decline in readership has as much to do with the weakening of the story element in contemporary literature as it has to do with other undeniably complex social factors. The highbrow novel these days is preoccupied with the social sciences — sociology, anthropology, psychology, for instance — than spinning a damn good yarn. It spends a great deal of effort delineating the context within which characters play out their roles, blurring the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. The reader is burdened with social commentary and thinly disguised ideology masquerading as plot. The real plot — that unique weave of a startling premise, twists and turns, unexpected resolutions and soul-churning finale — has all but disappeared from the palette of the litterateur. The art of story-making has given up its place to explicit analysis and pontification in extreme cases. Devoid of its most attractive ingredient, literature is fast turning into a bland offering.
Think about your favourite novel and you’ll remember the story it told. I can, without taxing my memory unduly, rattle off the plot of David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Narcissus and Goldmund, The Great Gatsby, Brothers Karamazov, The Mahabharata, and many more. In engrossing us with a tale they took us beyond the tale.
There are several dangers of a declining literary readership. What does one read instead of literature? Self-help books don’t offer much aid in navigating the tricky currents of life. Neither do weighty treatises on current affairs, no matter how topical they sound. Nothing prepares the mind to deal with the vagaries of existence as much a grand literary novel does, taking the reader out of her/himself in order to instill a deep self-knowledge. It is as purgatory as deep meditation, and just as salutary.
Read for pleasure, but that pleasure will magically transform into a thing of great substance.
The author of six acclaimed novels including The Miniaturist and Kalkatta. The Endgame, his latest, was published in January 2020 by Picador India