Literary culture

One thing Barry Eisler caught about Scott Turow's ignorant and nonsensical little rant is that Turow uses a phrase that was used in that equally ignorant and nonsensical New York Times op-ed piece. The phrase cropped up again (talking point!) in this more-recent anti-Amazon rant.

The phrase? Literary culture.

I am, to put it mildly, a culture vulture--my idea of a good time is to visit a museum or see a show or read a book. One of the things that I miss the most about NYC is all the culture: Despite the fact that it's a very expensive place to live, the advertising and fashion industries are headquartered there, meaning that visual artists who aren't big names can still find paying jobs. Theater, while hardly a normal industry, attracts and employs a lot of talent. The arts are hugely important to the local economy--the museums and shows attract a ton of tourists.

Culture is everywhere: There is street theater and pay-what-you-can museums and public art installations. Even purely commercial operations, like stores, rely on artists: They have beautiful window displays in winter and huge floral exhibits in spring (and people fly across the globe to shop in them).

Where I live now, there's certainly culture, but I feel like it's less accessible. It's shut away. With a few exceptions, you have to go to it, it doesn't come to you--you usually can't stumble upon it serendipitously, which is one of the great joys of public art. 

Not coincidentally, some of the cultural institutions here are incredibly snooty--I never saw anyone grab their pearls and gasp because someone dared bring a child into an art museum!!! in NYC, but I've certainly seen it here. (And yes, I know the Frick doesn't allow children. That is because it is a historical home filled with breakable antiques, OK?)

Just as the snootiness stems from the unavailability of culture, snootiness causes culture to become unavailable: I don't know where the pearl-grabbers think the next generation of art lovers and supporters is going to come from if children aren't allowed to see museum-quality art. This applies to a lot of things--our tax money subsidizes the production of junk food. Make junk food cheap and good food expensive, and whaddya know? You get a lot of unhealthy people who don't know what cheese actually tastes like, because food that tastes good and is good for you is only for rich snobs.

Snootiness is equally pernicious when it comes to literature. To generalize broadly, I feel like Americans have this idea that well-written or classic literature is just snooty--you read Shakespeare because you have to or to prove to other people that you're the type of person who reads Shakespeare, not because he's a really good writer. A friend of mine grew up in Barbados, and she was really surprised to hear that people here often think Shakespeare is something you have to force yourself to read--apparently the way they teach it in Barbados is, "Here's a really awesome story! Yeah, you have to work a little because of the language, but it's totally worth it! Shakespeare rocks!" Which he does: Hamlet, first and foremost, is as entertaining as hell--there's bodies dropping everywhere.

(This perception that fine literature is necessarily snooty can result in hilarity. I know a woman who got into big trouble in high school for writing a paper on homoerotic themes in a story by William Faulkner. Her English teacher was shocked--absolutely shocked!--that someone would suggest that William Faulkner, a man who wrote repeatedly about interracial sex back when that was something really taboo and who once wrote an entire novel about a woman being raped with a corn cob, might touch on deviant sexuality!)

So in my opinion, if you're really interested in creating a literary culture, you have to make it easy for people to read. This is why I like libraries. It is also why I like e-books. You also have to make it easy for people to write, which is another reason why I like e-books.

Literary culture is not you and your buddies being taken care of while the price of books goes ever-higher and the number of people who read them goes ever-lower. It is people reading. They may not read what you like, in which case you could try to influence their opinions by reviewing books, and then other people would disagree with you, and you could have debates over it that degenerate into bitter feuds just like in the good old days of the Algonquin Round Table. But if people aren't reading to begin with, literary culture hasn't a prayer.