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 With ever increasing onslaught from the internet, electronic media and urban lifestyles, many critics have started voicing their worries about whether Literature, in its written form, is becoming more and more obsolete and  dying. Death pronouncements about Literature have been made several times and they continue to be made whenever writers start forecasting and start expressing anxiety about their irrelevance in the modern times.

A strong pronouncement about the bed-ridden state of literature came from Alvin Kernan (Professor of Humanities at Princeton University) who declared (sic) “ Literature is dead; it is but a piece of useless logwood “. Kernan identified the killer of literature as post-modernism, which symbolizes the extensive revolutions in society and the literary world. In his book The Death of Literature  Kernan talks about the literature’s imminent death, but does not talk about the death of the printed word or the extinction of imaginative writing. He in fact mentioned in an interview, “I don’t see how Shakespeare and Homer and Joyce can die. They’ll be read by sensible people. There may even be some in the university who’ll want to do it.” He meant the essence of “literature” had moved from the “creativity of authors” to a different state of existence, driven by new waves of literary theories like post-modernism and deconstructionism.

Due to post modernism, realism gave way to deconstructionism. The novel was no more considered a pleasurable experience to the reader; deconstructionism considers the reader and the author to be parts of the novel and the reader is expected to fight tooth and nail with the novel to comprehend it.

That really proved to be an intellectually stimulating exercise to the reader; the process also led to multiple interpretations of the same work of literature. Especially in poetry, this led to subjective interpretation dependent purely upon the scope of intellectual and creative landscape of the reader’s mind. Some people even saw this as an expansion of the dimension of joy of reading and a wonderful effect of modern literature.

Post modernism splits the work of writing into several individually examinable pieces, one of which is the writer/author. Post modernism evolved along with the so called “ counter-culture” and “hippism” of the  1960s. It was during that period that the electronic media ( including colour television that hit the society at that time ) started dominating entertainment scenario and the people lost their interest in “realistic” novels and literature and started opting for the “coca-cola” culture. Serious literature began to be studied only in the Universities and the common man had neither the time nor inclination to read Pushkin, Dostoyevsky or Pearl S Buck. The publication of realist novels has been declining throughout the world since then.

The pop culture introduced first in the world of music made its entry into the world of creative art, with Andy Warrhol. Warrhol revolutionized the concept of creative art and the world of creativity was no more the same. Literature was no exception to this invasion of pop culture. But the eighties and nineties witnessed the emergence of several acclaimed literary works spun along new creative concepts like magic realism, biographical novels, ethnic novels etc. Literature seems to be capable of holding itself against all threats of extinction and perhaps would never kick the bucket.

Pure economic logic tells us that there is so much supply of literature in newer and newer forms, there must also be adequate demand for it. But why do people still choose literature as a pastime activity, when the modern world offers so many more tantalizing entertainment options? It is perhaps because of the luxuries which a written literary work offers to its readers – a novel or book is easily portable, costs less, can be used as and when time permits, does not need any special gadgets, can be stored for long periods of time and is not jarring on the senses.

The increased patronage extended by the general public, especially the youth, to the book fairs and increased usage of libraries including mobile and lending libraries lends credence to the belief that the written book has not lost its charm inspite of growth in electronic media and the internet.

The fact that the advent of electronic teachers has not led to the extinction of text books in Western countries stands to support the contention that a book is  more man friendly than any other medium. Though it may be argued by some that the motion pictures are more lively than the written scripts, the spectator is unlikely to absorb all the nuances and aesthetics that may be portrayed in motion pictures. But a written work has to necessarily portray all such nuances in words and the reader inescapably experiences them. In this aspect, there seems to be no medium that can beat the written work of literature. One cannot but agree with the statement, “Obituary to literature is an impossibility”.

Edna O’Brien, in one of her articles, wonders:

“I come out of my reading corner, back to the daily chores and demands, to the schisms and terrors of the world and I look around at my shelves, heaving with books, and wonder if the next occupant will tear them down and the porter’s chair will be assigned to a rubbish dump. I think of George Steiner’s great essay, “The Retreat from the Word”, written in 1961, depicting those islands of privacy and silence, which the reading of a book entails. With a searing eye, he envisaged an altered world, a society in search of easier, bolder distractions and of pleasures less perplexing to the brain. Then I have to ask myself if, in 20 or 30 years, literature will be an essential branch of life. Will it seep into the fabric of social and political thought, will it have its faithful zealots, or will there be a falling away, which Steiner foresaw. In short, is it a dying animal?”

I prefer replying in the negative.

Rajesh Subramanian is based in Chennai. He is a literary critic, translator and the editor of the online literary magazine Modern Literature (www.modernliterature.org).  He can be reached at : thesrajesh@gmail.com / editor@modernliterature.org

 

 


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