I read with interest this article in Sunday’s Washington Post, in which various academics lament the fact that today’s undergrads don’t seem to have much of a stake in the previous generation’s ideas about literary merit. I would go a step further and note that in every creative writing class I have ever taught, something like half of the students have said they did not read for pleasure. And if the would-be writers (many of whom end up in publishing and thus determine what the coming generations of readers will read) aren’t reading, who’s going to? And what effect does this have on the literature we produce? No wonder we get best-seller lists comprising ten titles by two or three authors. We have very nearly succeeded in turning reading–that most active of cultural activities–into a passive extension of mass media.
Another interesting thing in the article is the complaint on the part of middle-aged professors that today’s students aren’t reading the transgressive, subversive, polemical kind of stuff that middle-aged professors cut their teeth on and still love. There’s nothing like a nostalgic hippie. Guess what, fellas? The reading tastes of English professors have never had much to do with those of the public, or even those of college students…or even those of English majors. Most people on your campus in your post-adolescence weren’t reading that kind of stuff, either. They were reading Harold Robbins and Arthur Hailey and Mario Puzo, like everyone else. Even the English majors.