The NEA's News from Nowhere

Not so long ago, the death of reading would have been celebrated


"Literature reading" is dying, announced the National Endowment for the Arts this month; it's "fading as a meaningful activity." Based on questions posed in the last census, the NEA in "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," notes a precipitous decline in the consumption of fiction, poetry, and plays. The number of Americans reading such "literature" has been declining significantly, from about 57 percent in 1982 to fewer than 47 percent today. While the NEA deplores what it perceives as "a culture at risk," such news must have William Morris grinning in his grave. The "unbooked" world that Morris dreamed about in his 1891 utopia, News from Nowhere, approaches, at least in this one notable detail.

Morris is one of the more intriguing figures of his era. A designer of great talent, he established the Arts & Crafts movement whose furniture is now worth its weight in gold. A writer of considerable creativity (if perhaps not much of a stylist), he invented the modern fantasy genre with such works as The Wood Beyond the World. A political thinker of great energy, he mounted a lifelong cultural critique of capitalist society. He thought true art was impossible under capitalism, and he much preferred the pre-industrial world (hence his interest in fantasy and enchantment, and in traditional craftsmanship). In News from Nowhere, he posits a post-capitalist world where labor provides the gratification assigned, in his lifetime, to art. In Morris' utopia, there's no longer any desire to read fiction because the "bourgeois individualism" it celebrated has been discarded.

Morris, then, hated fiction-reading because it was in the way of the socialist revolution he so ardently desired. As it happens, not many of Morris' intellectual contemporaries cared for his particular kind of utopia: H.G. Wells, for one, lampooned Morris' vision in his 1895 novel, The Time Machine, where the decadent above-ground world of the Eloi is intended in part as a parody of Morris' idea of paradise. But Wells did agree with Morris about one thing: Mass literacy was a problem. If popular literature was an ultimately sociopolitical problem for Morris, it was an intellectual issue for Wells: The demand for reading material by great hordes of the lower classes was generating a tidal wave of bad literature and marginalizing fine culture.

This hostile attitude toward mass literacy was quite common among cultural elites for 200 years. In the 18th century, the flowering of Britain's Grub Street hacks horrified that era's cultural elites. If literature were allowed to develop as a paid-for commodity intended to entertain, they argued, it would spell the end of letters as a means to edify. Pre-commercial "romances" had been bad enough; industrial-era novels were actually a threat. Not only did they waste time that might otherwise be used productively by their working-class readers, they filled their readers' heads with all sorts of cheap, dangerous dreams. In the case of women readers, novels represented a moral threat, too, filling their minds with lascivious ideas.

Patrick Brantlinger's 1998 work, The Reading Lesson, is a valuable study of 19th-century elitist attitudes toward mass literacy. As Brantlinger reminds us, the reading of popular Victorian novels was viewed as "vampiric" and "addictive." Too much reading was an impediment to living; books and the fantasies they inspired ill-prepared their readers for real life.

By the late 19th century, and into the 20th, many Anglophone intellectuals had come to hate the "masses" who by then were dominating cultural life. The critic John Carey has documented this hostility among a generation of British (and Irish) writers, including Wells, W.B. Yeats, and D.H. Lawrence, all of whom fantasized the destruction of this dangerous class. Yeats hoped the masses would all perish in a great war against the better classes; Lawrence wished for their extermination in a great chamber "as big as the Crystal Palace." Indeed, many such authors didn't want a mass readership at all, because it would have threatened their lofty status; the heart of literary modernism involves a balance of writerly "difficulty" intended to dissuade a mass readership, with a penchant for creating popular notoriety. The point was to appeal to the emerging middlebrow public, which was founding its cultural aspirations on the Book-of-the-Month-Club version of the elitist reading list.

This same argument about culture was still going strong well into the post-World War II era, especially in the course of the American "mass culture" debate. Many writers and intellectuals in the U.S.—above all Dwight MacDonald—deplored the commercialized culture that dominated their era, dismissing it as a worthless and demeaning distraction. But as the NEA's report indicates rather definitively, this entire debate appears to be coming to a close.

If there's one aspect of the NEA's report that stands out, it's not the idea that literary reading is good, it's the concession that just about any work of fiction is "literature." This extends to commercial genres as well as it does to so-called "literary fiction." It's reading itself that matters to the NEA, not "culture." The protracted, two-century debate over high and low culture has declined as the middlebrow values that supported that debate have faded, and now it may be over. In other words, we may well have finally dispensed with aristocratic cultural norms and highbrow standards of cultural value. But we're still not finished with William Morris.

Unlike his contemporaries, Morris was right about the uses of culture. Although he was wrong to condemn the reading of novels, at least he did so for the right reasons: The novel (like the bulk of commercially generated cultural artifacts) really was instrumental in the process of Western individuation. The communally minded Morris didn't like that, but all those novel readers did. If their descendants aren't reading as many novels anymore, it is only because they are able to gratify their cultural and aesthetic needs from so many more sources.

Morris would have appreciated that, though he wouldn't have liked it. He wanted a world where labor would be the same thing as art; what developed instead was a world driven by culture and its infinite individuating possibilities. The NEA notwithstanding, there's nothing to lament in that.