Coming into this century, it was widely predicted that literature as we know it was in its death throes. Books were on the way out. The novel of the 21st century would be delivered in electronic form to our desktops. Publishers would have to adapt or go the way of the dinosaurs. Then in 1997, a phoenix arose out of the still-warm ashes of Literature that struck the prophets dumb: Harry Potter.
A few short years hence, with global marketing drawing on all its mighty power to pump the massively ballooning Potter phenomenon with enough hot air to send it to dizzy stratospheric heights where no novel sales figures had gone before, with kids around the globe donning lenseless round specs, waving wands and dressing in witches’ hats and black cloaks, camping out in front of the bookstores of the world awaiting the much publicised countdown to the release of the next Potter tome, I think we can safely declare the novel saved from oblivion for a while yet.
Whatever your assessment of J.K. Rowlings’ work – I made clear in my previous post where I stand – the viral spread of Harry Potter has reclaimed the novel for a generation of kids who were shaping as the most unread in modern history. Suddenly, in a dramatic turnaround that no one saw coming and that most would have deemed impossible, especially in the age of Playstation, the Ipod, plasma tv and movie mega-productions pulsating with CGI magic, reading books is cool!
A question mark hangs like a spectre over the sustainability of the novel for the Potter generation. I suspect that very many diminutive owners of the Potter books have them exhibited like trophies on their bedroom bookshelves, largely unread. Peer pressure surely has been one of the main drivers of the Potter phenomenon. I might be wrong – I hope I am.
Nevertheless, the improbable resurgence of the novel among today’s young, just as it seemed destined for the museums of cultural history, recalls the resurrection of poetry in the 1980s and 90s. What resurrection, you say?
The Beat poets of the 1950s – Ginsberg, Ferringhetti etc – were the last to constitute a poetry movement that infiltrated popular culture in any sort of meaningful way, and in passing the baton of hip youth art to the rock and roll generation in the 60s, it seemed that poetry as a genre the masses could relate to was to live a secondary existence within songs, delivered inside the walls of the city in a musical Trojan horse. But like weeds pushing up through cracks in city pavements, poetry would not die, and in the 80s it found a soil of substance in rap.
Unlike rock/pop, rap is street poetry first and music second. Love it or hate it, it is poetry in the only form popularly digestible today. And it is pretty damned big.
Like the novel, poetry is an enduring form. Just as the cultural milieu was looking utterly inhospitable, both forms found a way through.
Now that the Net is a little more mature, we are wiser about the limitations of electronic media. Concentration spans shrink in cyberspace; reading any textual piece of length on a monitor becomes quickly tiring and tedious. Regardless of cost-efficiency factors, regardless of developments in monitor resolution or format, my view is that it will be far, far into the future, if at all, that e-novels will replace their hard copy counterparts.
But regardless of the delivery format, what is the future of the novel? Is Harry Potter just a fad, merely a marketing triumph, a temporary stay of execution for the genre as a popular form? Or are we seeing the dawn of a new literary age, with the unlikeliest of generations forging the way ahead?
The prevalence of suburban book clubs indicates strong grassroots support of the novel, regardless of the Potter phenomenon.
Evidently, this has not been lost on the programmers at ABC TV, who have seen fit to run a second season of First Tuesday Book Club – usually worth tuning in, if only for a perve at the irritating but intriguing porcelain contrarian, Marieke Hardy.
And what of rap? Is it here to stay, or is it, as I suspect, sown with the seeds of its own destruction by its very nature as an alternative voice for a disaffected generation of urban underprivileged who will reject it as they embraced it, once it completes its crossover to the mainstream? Has it come about as far as it can go (in which case news of its decline is already scrawled on the subway walls of the near future)? And if so, does this finally mean the end of poetry as a genre outside the halls of academe – a dreadful fate surely akin to mummification?
Who knows? The questions will go on, and my bet is that answers will follow, rearing up out of the most improbable places, confounding those who would be prophets. This, I propose and trust, is a story without end.