The Death of Literatureby Alvin Kernan
Pub. Date: 09/10/1992
Publisher: Yale University Press
Literature has passed through a crisis of confidence in recent decades-a radical questioning of its traditional values and its importance to humanity. In this witty and eloquent book, a distinguished professor of humanities looks at some of the agents that have contributed to literature's demise and ponders whether its vitality can be restored in the changing circumstances of late twentieth-century culture.
Other critics, such as E. D. Hirsch and Allan Bloom, have also explored the growing cultural illiteracy of modern society. Alvin Kernan probes deeper, relating the death of literature to potent forces in our postindustrial world-most obviously, the technological revolution that is rapidly transforming a print to an electronic culture, replacing the authority of the written word with the authority of television, film, and computer screens. The turn taken by literary criticism itself, in deconstructing traditional literature and declaring it void of meaning in itself, and in focusing on what are described as its ideological biases against women and nonwhites, has speeded the disintegration. Recent legal debates about copyright, plagiarism, and political patronage of the arts have exposed the greed and self-interest at work under the old romantic images of the imaginative creative artist and the work of art as a perfect, unchanging icon.
Kernan describes a number of the crossroads where literature and society have met and literature has failed to stand up. He discusses the high comedy of the obscenity trial in England against Lady Chatterley's Lover, in which the British literary establishment vainly tried to define literature. He takes alarmed looks at such agents of literary disintegration as schools where children who watch television eight hours a day can't read, decisions about who chooses and defines the words included in dictionaries, faculty fights about the establishment of new departments and categories of study, and courtrooms where criminals try to profit from bestselling books about their crimes.
According to Kernan, traditional literature is ceasing to be legitimate or useful in these changed social surroundings. What is needed, he says, if it is any longer possible in electronic culture, is a conception of literature that fits in some positive way with the new ethos of post-industrialism, plausibly claiming a place of importance both to individual lives and to society as a whole for the best kind of writing.
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Even though this book strikes out at every possible enemy that can provide an explanation for the decline in influence of traditional English literature, it does contain some useful information and makes some thought-provoking points. For instance, Kernan points out that English literature departments did not exist until the early days of the twentieth century. (p. 34). Twentieth century authors like Kafka, Joyce, Eliot, etc. were taught so as to challenge the complacent minds of middle-class students. However, being taught in college conferred on these works a status (p. 60) that made them guides for behavior rather than stimulation for discussion. Students unquestioningly accepted the negative attitudes in these authors (p. 61) and the dark view of life they offered. When the view became even darker and completely irrational and self-destructive in the late twentieth century, the authority conferred by their being taught in college still swayed the students. What to do about all this is something that eludes Kernan. He needs information which he, as a retired English professor from Princeton, does not have. He continues the traditional antipathy to all other fields, particularly the physical and social sciences. For instance, Kernan equates the relativity of Relativity Theory with the relativity of cultural anthropology (p. 80-81), even citing ¿uncertainty and probability¿ as marks of this relativity! One consequence of this is Kernan¿s grouping reader-response theories among the bad guys. ¿Reader-response or reception aesthetics drain the autonomous work of art of its meaning by relocating the meaning-making power to the eyes of the beholders.¿ (p. 76) This statement presupposes that a work can have no meaning unless it has the same meaning for every reader, certainly a debatable, not to say dubious point. So, his book continues to the end as a kind of lament. He has no solutions to offer. And indeed, turning back the clock to the mindless Traditionalism of the past is no more a solution than continuing the mindless iconoclasm and interest-group politicking of the present. For a book that is able to deal with these problems (because the author is not a traditionalist and has a knowledge of other fields), see A Book Worth Reading. Still, Kernan scores some points against the iconoclasts which could occasion useful debate, but it is unlikely that they will ever read his book.