Monday, September 22, 2014

Monday Commentary: The Contempt of the Elites

Readers: Have you heard of The Future Library?
The Future Library project, conceived by the award-winning young Scottish artist Katie Paterson, began, quietly, this summer, with the planting of a forest of 1,000 trees in Nordmarka, just outside Oslo. It will slowly unfold over the next century. Every year until 2114, one writer will be invited to contribute a new text to the collection, and in 2114, the trees will be cut down to provide the paper for the texts to be printed – and, finally, read.
Granted, time capsules are cool. I have a dim recollection of burying one in elementary school. The thing is, my class selected mementos - like popular toys, favorite books, and newspaper clippings - that were currently meaningful to kids in the 1980's in coastal Connecticut. We didn't try to divorce the capsule completely from our present because the whole point was to show the future who we really were in our particular time and place. So what are we to make of a "library" for which authors will write only for an audience not yet born? What is its purpose -- its genesis?

When this article first appeared on Facebook a few weeks ago, many Huns remarked that such a project would offer no real motivation to write something that was actually good -- and this is true. If your intended audience does not, at the moment, exist, you can project whatever you want onto that audience whether it jives with human nature or not. You can, for example, imagine that these future readers - unlike readers in the barbarian present - will have put aside all religious sentiment and accepted the inevitability of atheism. You can also imagine that said future readers will have abandoned their national ties and embraced one-world governance. The possibilities are basically endless.

And it was here in the thought process that I had my epiphany: The Future Library is, in fact, the apotheosis of recent trends in the literary world.

As many folks have observed, those authors who yearn for the approbation of the cultural elite don't seem to care all that much about connecting with real-life, flesh-and-blood potential readers. First of all, the fiction they produce is calculated to repulse, not to inspire or engender sympathy. They create unlikable characters who move through pointless universes because to do otherwise is to be "simple-minded." They dwell on everything that is ugly and base and deviant because to do otherwise is to fail to write something "profound." When it comes to science fiction and fantasy in particular, they also indiscriminately attack common tropes, declaring them stupid and derivative without recognizing why they exist and why they persist. And overall, they have little respect for the common man's reason for reading, which is to escape the tortures of the ordinary.

Secondly, these status-seeking authors perversely resist anything that broadens access to books and to reading. Back at mid-century, when the paperback book finally put the classics into the hands of longshoremen and construction workers and touched off a miniature cultural renaissance among America's middle and working classes, the elites sneered. And today? Those self-same elites are raging over Amazon's dominance. I don't mean to suggest, of course, that Amazon should be nominated for sainthood. But when writers wax eloquent about the terrible loss of our book stores and the "book store culture" and complain about the "commodification" of their "art" by large internet retailers, that signals to me that they live in very privileged zip codes and have no concept of what it's like to live in, say, rural Appalachia, where the nearest book store may be an hour away.

The common emotion - the overarching theme - that links the above tendencies together is contempt. At bottom, these authors seem to hate the regular people who make up their present-day core reading audience. Those folks, you see, are just too damned hidebound by their traditions and their genre-related expectations, which are uniformly racist, sexist, and every other "-ist" you can name. So why not abandon today's readers entirely and seek out the audience one can invent out of whole cloth in one's own mind?

So yes: It isn't likely that the books written for the Future Library will be appealing to the average reader -- but that is precisely the point.  These authors don't want to attract the average reader. They are writing for themselves and for their like-minded compatriots. And as many have observed, this self-focused approach to creativity actually destroys literature from the inside.


  1. Yow. Good one Stephanie. The whole project just has elitism written all over it.