The great cliché of contemporary literary culture is that literature is dying. Paradoxically, there’s a hot genre in this reputedly arid landscape—what I call “post-apocalyptic nonfiction”: books about literary culture that assume it’s already all over, that the end is upon us, that books are now just so much cockroach fodder. Two recent books—vastly different in tone, in subject, and in relative optimism—agree on two key points: that literature and literary studies have lost their audiences, and that the internet is the protagonist in this melodrama. But where one sees the internet merely as a destroyer, the other sees it also as a source of unexpected salvation.
Richard J. Lane’s The Big Humanities, the more optimistic of the two, concedes that English departments are in a bad way: underfunded, short of students, full of professors playing “private language games that the general public cannot understand.” But if the digital age bears some of the blame, it also holds the promise of revitalization. Lane presents the standard case for the digital humanities (DH). By adopting the methods of high-tech fields—lab work, quantitative methodologies, “big data”—English profs can get back to asking the sorts of big questions that will re-engage the alienated “general public.” Much of the book is spent reviewing projects Lane sees as especially promising: Matthew Jockers’ computational “distant reading” of thousands of novels, Transcribe Bentham’s crowd-sourcing model, a “social edition” of the Devonshire Manuscript that lets anyone be an editor. But Lane’s case is not convincing. He includes a Tweet from the Devonshire Manuscript team as evidence of public outreach—but with three retweets and one like, the Tweet suggests the public’s response is an emphatic “no, thanks.” The Big Humanities itself won’t connect with the broad audiences it desires for DH. Its jarring disjointedness—its many bumpy jumps from high theory to highly technical discussions of LaQuAT and XML—shows just how much more work is needed to bring scientific and literary discourses together for an academic readership, not to mention a popular one. A more likely audience for The Big Humanities is university administrators, who will surely respond to Lane’s concluding image of literary departments as akin to tech start-ups, which must heed “feedback from the marketplace” and “pivot” accordingly. But can a literature department really save itself with the methods of Silicon Valley? Aren’t those the tools of the enemy?
Alex Good’s Revolutions would answer this question with a hearty “yes.” Hewing to the conventions of “post-apocalyptic nonfiction,” Good identifies a large cast of culprits in literature’s demise. Literature professors are among the vilest: overpaid gatekeepers who can’t write but get angry when no one reads them. In Good’s account, professors are drawn to “distant reading” only because they’re too lazy to read themselves, and want computers to do it for them. His takedown of academics and their newfound fondness for computers is entertaining and often on target. But he can’t be trusted on his greatest villain of all, the internet. Much of Revolutions is concerned with analysis of “the CanLit establishment,” which Good attacks as essentially conservative. He derides David Adams Richards as “Canada’s greatest nineteenth-century novelist” and luridly laments the “gerontocracy” of Atwood and Ondaatje, a “corpse” to which the younger generation is “shackled.” Yet when it comes to digital culture, it’s Good who comes across as geriatric. His repeated attacks on “the internet” as “crap” reveal an inability to distinguish a medium from a genre. “The internet” is not one thing but a purveyor of everything: lots of crap, sure, but also many kinds of dazzlingly “literary” work in forms that often exceed that label. One advantage professors have over journalists like Good is contact with young people. And let me tell you: young people would laugh Good out of the room. If asked, they’d tell him to engage with online literary culture before bashing it—to stop looking for the literary impulse in books only, but also to seek it out in the unclassifiable digital productions that proliferate online, especially those still feebly called “video games” (a dirty word in Revolutions). Their advice to Good would mirror Good’s advice to literature professors: stop being so conservative and lazy, open your eyes—and read.