From The New York Review of Books:
“In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me a word of advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.” Thus begins F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a novel that many regard as one of the finest literary works of the twentieth century. It’s certainly one of the most popular. The words are uttered by Nick Carraway, the narrator, through whom the entire story is told. His father’s advice is to refrain from judging people because not everyone has had the advantages he has had. But what of those who had all the same advantages and then some, the people who make up Carraway’s milieu in the novel? Carraway proceeds to condemn them, though perhaps pulling his punches when it comes to the eponymous hero.
No effort at putting Fitzgerald’s novel on screen has ever been entirely successful, certainly not in terms of fidelity to his vision. The medium of film has a major obstacle to overcome if it is to provide a faithful rendering of a first-person novel, such as the The Great Gatsby: in general, film cameras show everything in the third person, not from the vantage point of a particular character but from a stance separated from any consciousness.
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What I’m getting at with all this detail is that there’s a basic difference between fiction grounded in the interiority of characters, on the one hand, and film and TV, on the other. Novels do interiority and the drama of the mind infinitely better than TV and film do.
The imminent death of the novel has been announced every year for as long as I can remember.
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In 2009, the American novelist Philip Roth predicted that within twenty-five years the readership of novels would amount to a cult. “I think people will always be reading them,” he said in an interview, “but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range.”
Roth’s prognosis has some data behind it. While the publishing industry might be thriving, buoyed up by cookbooks, self-help manuals and all manner of non-fiction, fiction sales have fallen by 23 percent over the past five years. In most industries, this would raise alarm bells.
Good evidence-based research explaining why fiction sales have fallen so much seems to be lacking, but this hasn’t stopped speculation. The attention spans of readers, it’s said, is now trained for tweets, Facebook posts, and information in bitesize morsels. Roth suggested as much in his interview. “To read a novel requires a certain kind of concentration, focus, devotion to the reading,” he said. “If you read a novel in more than two weeks, you don’t read the novel really. So I think that that kind of concentration, and focus, and attentiveness, is hard to come by.”
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Television today appears to be capable of delivering many of the rewards novels might offer. There’s some research suggesting that reading fiction improves our capacity to empathize with others whose lives are very different from our own. Even on this score, television can claim some success. Who would deny that The Sopranos has inculcated in viewers a strange empathy for the New Jersey mobster or that Breaking Bad has inspired warmth toward a drug-dealing chemistry teacher?
And if television can reach a wider audience than novels ever did, isn’t the goal of broadening empathy better served by those superbly well-written TV dramas?
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[T]here may be deeper cultural trends that have led to the decline of novels. In a paper published in 2014 in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly, researchers found that winning a famous literary prize seems to be followed by a steep fall in the quality ratings of a book on the online book review site Goodreads, a limb of the Amazon behemoth. This happened after Julian Barnes won the 2011 Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending. The researchers speculate that what might be happening is that winning a famous prize draws in a great many readers who would otherwise not consider the book, many of whom have no other reason for expecting to like the book. Some of these readers might not even be habitual readers of fiction.
Amazon and Goodreads ratings, and numerous online book-reviewing sites, have all contributed to and reflected the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste. But such democratization is not intrinsically a good thing.
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A writer—I think it was the novelist Claire Messud, but don’t quote me—suggested that the literary critic should aspire to be able to say of a novel that “this is a great book even though I didn’t like it.” The implication is that there is much more to what makes a book great and worth reading than merely one’s visceral reaction of liking it or not.
Link to the rest at The New York Review of Books
PG suggests “the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste” has been happening for a very long time (perhaps more slowly in Britain and even more slowly on BBC Radio 4, where the OP originated).
However, “the democratization of the arbitration of literary taste” has certainly not been common everywhere in the world.
Under the general direction of Joseph Stalin, the arbitration of literary taste lacked quite a bit of democratization. For example, per Wikipedia, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was allowed to publish only one work in the Soviet Union, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), in the periodical Novy Mir. After this he had to publish in the West, most notably Cancer Ward (1968), August 1914 (1971), and The Gulag Archipelago (1973). Solzhenitsyn was awarded the 1970 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature”.
The State Committee for Publishing, (Goskomizdat to its fans) was an enthusiastic arbiter of literary taste in Soviet Russia. PG is not certain whether the literary critics employed by Goskomizdat were ever known to say, “This is a great book even though I didn’t like it” or if their visceral reaction to a book played any role in deciding which author was referred to the Checka or not.
When it comes to deciding what books are available for people to read at reasonable prices, PG is pretty much a First Amendment fundamentalist. If one agrees with a particular literary critic or critics employed by large media corporations in general, (Hallelujah, sister!) let literary criticism thrive. If one prefers synthesizing the opinions of those sharing their thoughts on Goodreads, consulting book reviews in the maw of Amazon itself or (gasp) checking star ratings, illustre stelle vobis.
PG suggests arbitration and literary taste make poor bedfellows. But he could be fundamentally wrong.