The OF Blog: Dubravka Ugresic on the state of literature today

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dubravka Ugresic on the state of literature today

Her Karaoke Culture is proving to be a memorable, quotable book:

It is unfortunate that today, thirty years later, Danojlić is a half-forgotten author, and that his novel, together with the time and context in which it was written, is completely forgotten.  Criticism has changed.  Today no one dares set out the differences between master and amateur, between good and bad literature.  Publishers don't want to get involved; they are almost guaranteed to lose money on a good writer, and make money on a bad one.  Critics hold their fire, scared of being accused of elitism.  Critics have had the rug pulled out from under them in any case.  No longer bound by ethics or competence, they don't even know what they're supposed to talk about anymore.  University literature departments don't set out the differences – literature has turned into cultural studies in any case.  Literary theorists have little to say on the subject – literary theory is on its deathbed, and the offshoot that tried to establish "aesthetic" values long in the grave.  Critics writing for daily newspapers don't set out the differences – they're poorly paid, and literature doesn't get much column space in newspapers full-stop.  Literary magazines are so few as to be of no use, and when and where they do exist, they are so expensive that bookshops don't want to stock them.  Tracy Emin's bratty retort – What if I am illiterate?  I still have the right to a voice! – is the revolutionary slogan of a new literary age.  The only thing that reminds us that literature was once a complex system with in-built institutions – of appraisal, classification, and hierarchy, a system that incorporated literary history, literary theory, literary criticism, schools of literary thought, literary genres, genders, and epochs – are the blurbs that try and place works of contemporary literature alongside the greats of the canon.  Vladimir Nabokov is the most blurbable of names.  But if so many contemporary books and their authors are Nabokov-like, it just means that literature has become karaoke-like. 

So much of this rings true, based on personal experience as much as some observations of trends related to the pop culture and book markets.  It has always amused me when some irate readers call what I write "elitist," because I know better.  I know that what I write is a pale shadow of the richness of commentary that used to be prevalent in book reviews a century ago.  In a world of the culturally blind, the one-eyed shall be king?  I don't know about that, but there is that sense that something vital is lacking in our cultures today.

And now on to read her comments on fan fiction.  This might get interesting.


Mihai A. said...

It so close to the truth that it hurts. Culture today is often mistaken to popularity and it is not only true for literature, but all that means culture. It is also true that we live in a society that it is consuming and demanding and that is I believe the reasons for this change. An unfortunate change, but a change nonetheless. I also think that literary criticism could not have stayed as it was some time ago. Things evolve and although I do not like all the changes the new society brought I can't deny that there are values to be found. I just have to follow my own instinct and beliefs and not go after the steps imposed by general demand. I managed to filer those blurbs, I actually think that I stopped reading them a while back. Too many authors are like those who made their name already. Too many of the authors I like for quite a while recommend 30 or 40 books a year, although there seems to be no common ground between them.
It is an excellent quote and a valuable opinion, but I believe that it needs filtered too. After all, not all of the modern culture is karaoke like, there are great things to be found too. We just have to look more closely for them.

Anonymous said...

It's always hard to not be suspicious when someone maligns the "culture studies" aspect of literature.

That said, in a sense I do agree with the quote. Literature can have standards, and be a field in its own right.

But is it something fundamentally important to society at large, or a cool hobby for some of us to pursue? (I'm admittedly biased towards the latter.)

What I wonder about is efficacy of literature and what its purpose is. Can a terribly written comic with a 2-D gay character who gets beaten up and disappears afterward be MORE effective/educational than a prize winning novel?

Is the cultural gutter, as some might see it, the peanut butter around the medicine?

-Sciborg2 aka Saajan Patel

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