What you need to know
How to learn to stop worrying and love the literature of our new streaming-centric life.
No, I’m not going to urge you to go read the Odyssey or Pride and Prejudice. Literature is more than just the classics. In fact, if it uses words, values presentation at least as much as content, and can be placed in a tradition, then it’s literature. That includes this very essay.
Also literature: think pieces (traditionally called “polemics”), song lyrics (Bob Dylan did win that Nobel, after all), criticism, reactions and recaps (part of the storied tradition of commentary), and even social media posts, which, depending on the post, can fall under jokes, epistles, anecdotes, commentary, oral literature, flash fiction, or any combination thereof. Twitter threads, for example, are basically oratory — more commonly known as speeches.
The internet is a goldmine of literature, including the multimedia parts of it. A picture is worth a thousand words, but only if it’s properly contextualized — this is one reason lengthy captions often accompany Instagram posts. The same context requirement goes for video, as demonstrated by the flood of deceptively edited clips impugning the Black Lives Matter movement and Antifa.
But while literature is thriving, the institution of literature is moribund. Lyric poetry has undergone a revival on social media, but the humanities teaching posts where established poets make a living are being defunded and downshifted into the gig economy, replacing tenured professors with temporary adjuncts. Outlets for essays and criticism are eviscerated by vulture capitalists. Songwriters make a pittance from streaming compared to live shows (canceled) and physical album sales (dead, unless your name rhymes with Sailor Rift).
And don’t even get me started on the book trade.
So what can we do about this thoroughly depressing state of affairs? A traditional answer might be to boycott outlets that don’t pay writers. But you and I both know that playing the game of the market’s invisible hand is a flawed way to express consumer power. Our capitalist overlords don’t really care what we want, as advertisers and their ilk are quite adept at inciting demand. The track record for economic boycotts is sketchy at best.
The good news is that this is the digital age, where if you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product. We don’t have to boycott something to get the tech giants’ attention. We already have their attention, especially on the internet, where advertising (eyeballs or clicks) is the most common source of income. Being targeted for ads means that those targets follow us wherever we go. All we have to do is go to the good spots.
I hear what you’re thinking: Easier said than done. But here’s the thing: We actually do care about the quality of what we read online. When something goes viral, it’s because we care. It goes viral for the same reason that a book becomes a long-running bestseller: It’s good literature.
This isn’t to say that literature itself is good. Literature uses words, values presentation, and extends a tradition. Nowhere in that definition does literature have to be pleasing, edifying, or even comprehensible. Bad takes go viral and become satire. “WTF” posts go viral because of their absurdism. And disgusting, repulsive, and horrifying pieces go viral because, like reading an Edgar Allan Poe story, we can’t look away.
Literature is worth defending not because it’s good, but because it’s necessary. In the age of digital streaming, we’re inundated with “content,” but our time on Earth is still finite, even when quarantine drags on forever. Unless you’ve given up and just do the streaming equivalent of channel surfing, you probably have a few sources that you regularly check for recommendations, be it a specific critic, a group of friends, or just whatever you see on the front page of Rotten Tomatoes. All of these sources are potential sites of literature; even your friends will try to give convincing reasons for their choices (that’s called “rhetoric”).
You think you go to these trusted sources for information, but information is cheap in the age of the internet. If you really just wanted information, you’d simply go to Wikipedia, or look at the snippet Google gives in its search results. When you click through a specific search result to read what’s on the page, what you’re actually looking for is an experience. A literary experience.
Your trusted sources will let you down about half the time, same as any other source, but you keep going back to them because — perhaps unbeknownst to you — you feel that the way they convey information is engaging. Something about their style, their tone, or the structure of their argument tickles a hard-to-pinpoint spot in your brain. It’s like getting hooked on a Netflix series, but shorter.
What I’m asking you to do is simple. Don’t settle for mere boring information. Survey widely, make note of the sources that tickle your brain, and treat them, not Google, as your regular source of information. The web traffic you waste on Google could go towards supporting that one small indie site that nobody knows about but that puts out irreplaceable work.
Will that save literature? Alas, no. Literature, especially avant-garde literature, will always be fighting a (paradoxically) rearguard action. But elevating the literary quality of your informational reading has a beneficial side effect. It makes you happier. It gets around the middleman to give you a direct literary experience. That’s what you’re looking for when you surf through Netflix, isn’t it? Something that has sharp writing, is well-crafted, and is relatable … wait a minute, that sounds like our definition of literature!
To recap: You read literature to help you find great works of literature. But nowhere in this virtuous cycle is there anything that a person on the street would instinctively point to as “literature.” We’ve finally reached the crux of the issue. The institution of literature is dying because people don’t realize how much of their lives is spent within its realm. It’s dying a spiritual death from lack of attention, like that succulent you got for quarantine but don’t really know how to care for.
Being attuned to the literariness of the literature that we partake of every day will not only make us happier, it will also guide click-based capitalists toward the things that we like. And for people who straddle both sides of the fence, who both consume and produce digital-age literature, this newfound awareness can spur them to put more emphasis on the literary as producers, too.
The traditional “defense of literature” is usually against some newfangled media that supposedly addles our brains, be it the sentimental novel, newspaper, radio, cinema, television, video games, or social media. Literature itself once played this very role, set up as the brain-softening bogeyman to Plato’s philosophy of Ideal Reason. And yet, literature always manages to keep up with the times. It’s usually we who fall behind, bringing up the rear by wringing our hands.
Recognizing this, we can finally see what we’re always defending literature against: ourselves. Don’t be that guy (in the gender-neutral sense). Discard your rigid pessimism and enjoy the cornucopia of literature that digital streaming gives us unprecedented access to.
And if you do want to catch up on your Shakespeare, I’m not going to stop you.
TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)
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