Foot Notes : Symphonic Literature – Why?

Human innovation is a self-fulfilling prophecy. People use what they find as a basis for more. Culture is no exception to this phenomenon. To paraphrase the words of John Mchale’s The Future of Art and Mass Culture: ‘Future patterns of culture are likely to be designed more heterogeneously…be directed more toward the plurality of tastes and preferences…taste groups overlap horizontally…in a mesh of interrelated cultural networks.’ These words are from the 1970s, decades prior to the Internet entrenching itself as the funnel through which all culture flows, but the concept is reality now. And the more connected we are, the more communicative we are, the less boundaries surrounding modes of expression need to be respected.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, new movies were released online rather than in theaters. It was a necessary adjustment, for clinging to empty buildings and non-existent revenue makes no fiscal sense, but even without being forced the change was likely on its way. To again quote McHale, ‘…where past societies have tended to be dominated exclusively by one calculus or measure for social or cultural work, such measures could become more diversified in the future.’ Theaters made sense until people had sixty-inch screens and surround sound at home. As those became common so too did accessibility to already made movies, first through VHS, then DVD, then Netflix and all the other streaming services. Why would people continue to pay for and travel to an experience more cheaply and easily had at home? Most wouldn’t, leading to jacked-up concession prices that, in addition to failing to cover the overhead of the operation, are a slap in the face of sentimentalists like me still supporting the theaters. But if love doesn’t fill the seats it won’t pay the bills; in fact, it has negative monetary value. While clinging to what is already obsolete any potential benefit from change is lost.

Movies, while not fully committed to their future in homes, have industry behind them that’s begun to adapt. But the subject of this essay, literature? It has not evolved. Not over the course of the pandemic – not since the advent of ebooks, themselves not much of a change. Why not though? What right do writers have to rest on laurels? Reading happens all over the world, moreso now than ever before in history, yet little has been done to capitalize on that fact for literature’s sake. More than from the luddites screaming about ink and paper, creative writing, literature, suffers from an attachment to tradition. There is a debilitating belief in the sanctity of the form; there is no reason to consider novels the apex of creative writing yet they’ve been the standard for over a century and a half. The time to go forward is now. We are in McHale’s future where, ‘In order to create, appreciate, and participate in one form (of culture) you need not forgo a whole range of others. There is no inherent value contradiction in enjoying both a comic strip and a symphony.’

Nothing is above change. Nothing is sacred. People are not born with a love of reading; it is discovered in the recesses of books that speak to individuals on a personal level. People are not born with a love of literature; it, like other art forms, must evolve alongside the public whose opinion it is created to express. Classics will always be such, but the more distance between them and now – a gap that is ever-widening – the more Shakespeare they become than in line with the common mind. For while those plays were written for people, they were the people of yesterday, not today. 

In my opinion, literature is on its way to irrelevancy. It’s a sailboat that’s been taking on water so long there’s no use scooping it out; no other medium tried, and they’re operating fine, thriving beneath the metatextual sea. Literature needs to be like them, effectively swimming through it all, not uselessly clinging to tradition, fighting to stay above. Symphonic literature is my idea of a submarine. Spontaneous prose and nouveau roman writing are others. Given that the latter two are established and have been suffocated out by traditional form, and the former is a creation of an obscure self-publishing writer (me), there needs to be more than this for literature to survive. More writers need to acknowledge what’s long been scribbled on the wall – it’s time to start innovating in our creations, or else literature will die.

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