The Myth of Cultural Relevance

Will Self is worried about the state of the novel!

So worried, in fact, that he has been talking about it for ten years. The novel is in decline! Literary fiction is being subsumed by “BDDM” (“bi-directional digital media”), and in the process, our brains are changing. Nicholas Carr documented it all, and what we lose is an entire way of thinking and understanding the world.

Thus begins Self’s latest essay in Harper’s Magazine, and I prepare myself for another techno-phobic allegory complete with references to Fahrenheit 451.

But, with a deft turn, Self tosses this worry stone into the ocean, eliminating twenty years of cognoscenti concern for the rise of digital, in deference to its inevitability. And, in this purging of worry, he finds the ability to reflect on some of the benefits that come from the demise of the status of authors.

Here’s the money quote: “If the literary novel was the crucible of a certain sort of self-conception, one of autonomy and individuality, then it was equally the reinforcer of alienation and solopsism.” Basically, we will lose some things as the long-form novel declines, but not *all* of the things we lose are necessarily bad.

And, all at once, my esteem for Self increases by a factor of ten. Because the truth is that there are pros and cons to every form of cultural content; and it is rare that someone with a vested interest in the declining topic is so open about its limitations.

We have a tendency to defend our place in the world, as if the world owed us something for all of the work we have done to create the expertise, the skill, and the work ethic to do the thing that we are good at. But, of course, the world does not owe us any of these things.

In fact, just the opposite. We owe the world to be able to make ourselves relevant and useful, if we want to have a place in it. Or, we can retreat into a Walden-like existence, which may leave us a legacy, but which will not allow us to be part of the conversation.

And, in any case, the whole notion of a unified cultural experience is, at this point, an unreality that is only defined by its relationship to the past. When there were only three TV channels, and TVs had 85% household penetration, we had a shared cultural experience. 100 million people watched the series finale of M*A*S*H*.  By contrast, 30 million people watched Prince Harry marry Meghan Markle.

At this point, the filter bubble has encased each of us. If the history of the writer is to put themselves in the mind of the reader, digital technologies do a way better job – they get into the mind of the consumer so well, they figure out how to best show us we would be interested in picking up the content in the first place; like when Netflix personalizes the artwork promoting shows to us.

This makes us feel simultaneously autonomous and part of a larger community at the same time. Congratulations to Self for recognizing it.