Trivial Pursuit

A friend who lives overseas said in a recent letter:

I had the distinct displeasure of perusing five issues of Azimov’s Science Fiction. Not one story in all of them looked appealing. The genre seems to have become mannerised to the point that it excludes all but the most die-hard fan — a gratuitous niche genre practiced purely for its own sake.  I’ve become increasingly intolerant of literature wherein deracination and alienation from community are — unlike say in Poe or Hawthorne: signs of crisis or neurosis — merely taken for granted as completely normal. The old authors knew that isolation probably doesn’t conduce to happiness. Clarke and Bradbury wrote science fiction that was easily enjoyed by any general reader. I suppose the modern stuff just reflects the same disease in all the arts: specialization.

I responded that everything now is analyzed in excruciating detail. A reflection of this are the mandatory special features on DVDs, that often take up more time than the actual film. Trivia is taken to a level of forced profundity (almost dogma) while what is really profound (like dogma) is reduced to trivia.

We have “art for art’s sake” in which a work of literature is disconnected from other points of reference outside it. The result is not greater creativity, but the fragmentation of literary expression into obsessions with the mundane and the perverse, both a reflection of intellectual sloth. There is no over-arching purpose to inspire writers or to rescue them from their own limitations. As a result even genres like science fiction fail in their modest goal of light entertainment due to the self-referential quality of the arts which renders them more and more an exercise in tedious exhibitionism.

Yet the problem of literary hobbyism and hyper-specialization is not new. In the Renaissance it became the fashion to produce highly contrived and recondite imitations of ancient authors. It’s clear that some writers took things too far. I found Samuel Johnson addressing this same concern in his biography of English poet Gilbert West:

His “Imitations of Spenser” are very successfully performed…. But such compositions are not to be reckoned among the great achievements of intellect, because their effect is local and temporary; they appeal not to reason or passion, but to memory, and presuppose an accidental or artificial state of mind.

Any writer will indulge in a bit of niche writing just for fun and such pieces are good student exercises. The problem is not with literary specialization per se, but the fact that it has afflicted and cramped entire genres, while literary generalization — based on the assumptions of a shared Western liberal arts tradition — is increasingly rare. What is the result? Modern literary snobs do not possess Gilbert West’s modest talents, but they will eventually share his obscurity.

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