Lorin Stein, the third intrepid soul to attempt filling George Plimpton's Gucci cleats at Paris Review, has written a few comments for Ta-Nehisi Coate's blog at Atlantic Monthly, which are interesting, and worth the time of anyone concerned with the state of literature these days. Especially instructive, I thought, was his take on what literature means—or can mean, when it is not unnecessarily exclusionary—to a pretty broad spectrum of people:
"...For what it's worth, I have also been one of the people who say they don't like stories or poems. It wasn't actually true when I said it. (I suspect it's not true in general.) What annoys me is the idea that I should like a story or a poem, just because somebody took the trouble to write it. We are indeed competing for limited airspace. With apologies to Ezra Pound, a story or poem needs to be at least as involving as an expose by David Grann, as tough-minded as a comment by Hendrik Hertzberg. Which is to say, it must if possible be even better written.
"Literary writing (or, if you prefer, imaginitive writing) has certain advantages of its own, none of them weakened one bit by technology. It can often be funnier than other kinds of prose. It can deal more humanly with sex. It can say shameful things about family life—not by treating them as scandals but, on the contrary, by showing that they're normal. More sins are confessed more deeply, through the screens of verse and make-believe, than you will ever find on a talk show or reality TV. Literature gives the best accounts of intimacy. Lena McFarland is right—you may not learn stuff you didn't know from a work of fiction. But there can be great comfort in seeing the troubles of daily life put into words of power and beauty.
"And as David Foster Wallace observed, literature has a way of making you feel less alone. TV doesn't do that. It entertains and entertains, but there is a part of you it gives the silent treatment. In my experience, even the Web can you leave you feeling lonelier, once you turn off the computer. Fiction and poetry connect you, or they can, to something bigger and quieter and more lasting than the day you had at work. The question of posterity is fascinating. Some writers hope to live on, through their words, after death. Some write for the present day. Either way, they take us out of the moment and out of our smallest selves."
Over the past several years, I've participated in a number of discussions bemoaning the status of poetry and fiction among the sensibilities of the Great Unwashed; there is no doubt that many numbers of people, whose counterparts from other eras read (and purchased!) poetry and fiction as a matter of course, no longer do. One theory receiving lots of play is that people are becoming dumber, and, because of technology, there are too many interests competing for the attention of the narrowing few who can get it—"it" being, of course, the complexities of modern poetry. Another explanation, and something I think anyone writing today should ask themselves, is how much of this is self-imposed? Seems to me the literary community in some ways resembles Tony Hendra, explaining Spinal Tap's shrinking audience. No, the appeal of poetry isn't waning—God, no—the audience is simply becoming more selective.