The Washington Times offers a bleak assessment of literary culture on the US campuses:
According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the best-selling titles on college campuses are mostly about hunky vampires or Barack Obama. Recently, Meyer and the president held six of the 10 top spots. In January, the most subversive book on the college bestseller list was “Our Dumb World,” a collection of gags from the Onion. The top title that month was “The Tales of Beedle the Bard” by J.K. Rowling. College kids’ favorite nonfiction book was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” about what makes successful individuals. And the only title that stakes a claim as a real novel for adults was Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” the choice of a million splendid book clubs.
Here we have a generation of young adults away from home for the first time, free to enjoy the most experimental period of their lives, yet they’re choosing books like 13-year-old girls — or their parents. The only specter haunting the groves of American academe seems to be suburban contentment.
Where are the Germaine Greers, the Jerry Rubins, the Hunter Thompsons, the Richard Brautigans — those challenging, annoying, offensive, sometimes silly, always polemic authors whom young people used to adore to their parents’ dismay? Hoffman’s manual of disruption and discontent — “Steal This Book” — sold more than a quarter of a million copies when it appeared in 1971 and then jumped onto the paperback bestseller list. Even in the conservative 1950s, when Hemingway’s plane went down in Uganda, students wore black armbands till news came that the bad-boy novelist had survived. Could any author of fiction that has not inspired a set of Happy Meal toys elicit such collegiate mourning today? Could a radical book that speaks to young people ever rise up again if — to rip-off LSD aficionado Timothy Leary — they’ve turned on the computer, tuned in the iPod and dropped out of serious literature?
Nicholas DiSabatino, a senior English major at Kent State, is co-editor of the university’s literary magazine, Luna Negra. As a campus tour guide, he used to point out where the National Guard shot students during the May 1970 riot. But the only activism he can recall lately involved anti-abortion protesters and some old men passing out Gideon Bibles. “People think we’re really liberal,” he says, “but we’re really very moderate.” Submissions to the lit mag so far this year are mostly poetry and some memoirs about parents. “The one book that I know everyone has read,” he says, “is ‘I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.’ ” So, no uprising unless the bars close early.
This is not a peculiarly American phenomenon. Try to think of some titles that produced an oh-my-god-I-must-read-this-book-and-have-an-opinion buzz in Australia recently. Carpentaria? Perhaps, but only amongst a very narrow proportion of the population. Dead Europe? Maybe. But to be more definite, you need to go back a decade or so to books like The Hand that Signed the Paper or The First Stone.
Not coincidentally, The First Stone was non-fiction and the The Hand that Signed the Paper was read like non-fiction — that is, the debate revolved around its relationship to history and truth. That’s because, I think, literature no longer appeals as a kind of secular religion and has instead become a specialised interest. There’s still undergraduates passionate about the novel but only to the extent that there’s undergraduates passionate about astronomy. No-one claims that poetry will save the world, in a way they might have done in the first half of the century.
Which is connected to a second point, this time about politics. The Garner/Demidenko debates were about literature but they were also political. A resurgence of passion about books depends upon a resurgence of passion about politics. It’s not an argument made often enough, and yet it’s so obvious that the Washington Times article invokes it almost accidentally, moving from an assessment of campus literary culture to an assessment of campus political culture without missing a beat.
It’s not that literature and politics are the same. Of course they are not. A novel and a pamphlet offer very different ways of thinking about the world. Yet they both rest on the idea that thinking about the world matters. Which is why you’re much more likely to find an engaged literary culture during a period of political upturn.
Incidentally, it does seem like Israel’s attack on Gaza has rekindled the US student movement, to some degree at least.