Monday, January 12, 2009

Lit Reading Rising + Robinson at Inauguration + Burris-Franken + Weekend American Canceled

Reading at RiskI've flagged and flogged the NEA's 2002 Reading at Risk study so many times (yes, I know it has flaws) that I considered carrying a copy with me on my phone (it's on my computer in .pdf form) to show to people whenever I started talking about it. According to Motoko Rich's piece in today's New York Times, "Fiction Reading Increases for Adults," however, it might be time for all writers of imaginative work and publishers to turn grimaces, at least for a moment, into smiles. As Rich notes:

After years of bemoaning the decline of a literary culture in the United States, the National Endowment for the Arts says in a report that it now believes a quarter-century of precipitous decline in fiction reading has reversed.
The report, “Reading on the Rise: A New Chapter in American Literacy,” being released Monday, is based on data from “The Survey of Public Participation in the Arts” conducted by the United States Census Bureau in 2008. Among its chief findings is that for the first time since 1982, when the bureau began collecting such data, the proportion of adults 18 and older who said they had read at least one novel, short story, poem or play in the previous 12 months has risen.

The news comes as the publishing industry struggles with declining sales amid a generally difficult economy.

The report also finds that while readership isn't as high as in 1982 or 1992, it has increased among all groups, including the one that saw the steepest decline, 18-24 year olds. Other findings include: readership has surged the most among latinos, whites have the highest percentage of readers as defined in the survey, the reading of poetry and drama didn't increase as much as fiction, and reading outside of assigned material for school or work has declined slightly. As with the 2002 report, Rich notes, there are skeptics who question the methodology, which did not separate out the quantity of reading material beyond the baseline or the works read (Rich contrasts Proust and Nora Roberts and online fanfic); nor is it clear what sparked the discernible rise, though Dana Gioia, the NEA's head, suggests that community-based reading efforts (city-wide reading programs), Oprah Winfrey's and other book clubs, NEA projects targeting reading, popular series like the Harry Potter and Twilight books, and librarians (love them!), teachers, and others may all be playing a key role in encouraging reading. The article suggests that reading may also be an economical alternative during our current period of financial crisis, and as anyone who's checked for used books online knows, and writers will certain lament, you can often find some pretty good titles, especially hardcovered remained copies, for anywhere between $1-5. Whether Kindles and other new technologies are having an effect hasn't been accounted for yet.

Whether this is a sustainable trend is unclear. In the article, Elizabeth Birr Moie, an education professor at the University of Michigan, stated that this report was only a "blip," and that other studies had shown trends in both directions. The piece reminded me, though, that this quarter, when I asked my introductory fiction writing students on the first day of class to name their favorite books, almost all of them mentioned contemporary works of literary fiction or creative nonfiction--Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Safekeeping, Sabbath's Theater, Cloud Atlas, Atonement, Disgrace, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, etc.--whereas in some recent years, I have had some students, never a large number but notable, who, though they were very eager to write fiction, said they couldn't name anything, listed a movie instead of a book, offered up works that were probably required class reading (I have assigned at least two of the books above myself), or proffered the Harry Potter series. So perhaps I am witnessing this shift as well, which would be a very good thing. Now, how to keep the trendline moving so that this is more than a blip, and also how to get more people reading more poetry and watching and reading more plays, are some of the next steps.

Speaking of the "new austerity" among the major publishers, here's Rich's account of a vanishing world.

And speaking of new literature, is anyone you know writing one of these?


So we learned today that out gay Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson, from New Hampshire, will offer a prayer at the kickoff inaugural event at the Lincoln Memorial on Sunday. (H/t to Audiologo for this link.) Whoop-dee-do. Lest you assume that this was a response to the extensive criticism of Barack Obama's selection of Rick Warren, the Prop 8-supporting con man whose stupid, hateful statements and beliefs have been well documented, an Obama "official" team wants you to know that no, it wasn't a reaction the "skeptics." It was already in the works, see, because Robinson had been advising Obama and offering useful counsel, blah blah blah. Well, I'm all for inclusivity, trying to get back on the right track, and so on. But why is Warren still involved with the inauguration next Tuesday? BTW, it made me think of Melissa Harris-Lacewell's article, and consider whether or not they might have done an even better thing by picking an out queer female and/or person of color, like, oh, say Rev. Wanda Floyd, the pastor of Imani MCC of Durham, North Carolina? (She has a piece in the anthology Spirited: Affirming the Soul and Black/Gay Identity, G. Winston James and Lisa C. Moore, Eds., Redbone Press, 2007). underline the fact that the LGBTQ community is diverse and growing more so every day.

Meanwhile, in the race for the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee (is there a single woman running?), in addition to Mr. "Magic Negro," there's Ohio's very own Crazy Negro, Ken Blackwell, who apparently is on pope Benedict XVI Ratzinger's tip not just ideologically, but practically as well. A smaller, withered GOP drawn from an increasingly narrow stratum of this country? Sounds great, guys, keep it up!


This has probably been noted elsewhere, but if the Democrats in the Senate hope to pass really progressive legislation, they will be in the best position to do so if they seat Roland Burris, who is probably on the farther end of the liberal-progressive spectrum (except on same-sex marriage), and Al Franken, who appears to have won. And, if Governor David Paterson appoints Caroline Kennedy, or at least someone along similar ideological lines, the Senate will then have an increased core of left-leaning and left-centrist members, like Bernie Sanders, Teddy Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, Sherrod Brown, and John Kerry, on to moderate Democrats like Claire McCaskill, Jim Webb and Mark Warner, who could be persuaded to sign on to more daring legislation, especially on the economic front, than would be possible otherwise. I was thinking of this as I've been reading about the back-and-forth over the new stimulus, and the criticisms, by leading economists such as George Stiglitz and Paul Krugman, that while Obama has properly and impressively diagnosed the problem, his response appears to be a bit too tepid and deferential to Republican aims. (Yes, I know, he is aiming to be post-partisan, etc.). More liberal-progressive membership, however, could help tilt the balance of argumentation and votes.

I don't know what's going to happen with Burris, especially now that the Illinois House has impeached Blago, or with Franken, though. Burris has sent his lawyers to Washington, where the Senate's counsel are deliberating on his eligibility, while Franken's request to be certified and seated was rejected today. In both cases, the GOP will be energized; Burris won't be viewed as legitimate because of his link to Blago, while Franken sends the right-wing into apoplexy. Short term for long(er) term pain?


I was very sorry to learn yesterday that Weekend America, one of my favorite public radio shows, is being canceled, in part as a result of the current economic crisis. One of the highlights of each show was hearing Desiree Cooper, a poet, fiction writer, highly regarded journalist, and fellow CC'er, deliver stories. One of her recent pieces that I particularly liked was part of her "Inside Blackness" series; in it she interviewed another "Cooper," author and journalist Helene Cooper, whose ancestors left the South in the mid-19th century and headed to Liberia. I'll let J's Theater readers check it out, and do look through their archives in general if you've missed this show over the years. I'll certainly miss it.


  1. I was discussing the state of the publishing business with Redbone's Lisa Moore this weekend, and we were wondering who was going to be at Book Expo in NYC this May/June -- I doubt they'll cancel but its not going to be the catered reception and free galley-passing love fest of recent years.

    PS: Just like The X Files' Fox Mulder, 'I want to believe' that Gene Robinson was chosen BEFORE Warren -- but why are we just hearing about this now? And shouldn't The Bishop be doing the Inaugural, not a 'Pastor'? Sigh....

  2. I'm not buying the Robinson tale, no matter how prettily they wrap it. In terms of the Book Expo, I am also curious about how that's going to turn out. I've never been to one, so is it too late to register? Do I need to have a book for sale? Let me get (back) to writing! ;-)

  3. John, I don't buy the pretty-fied Robinson story either, and I agree with you that this was a lost opportunity to have an eloquent QOC religious leader address the nation as well as the difficulty some folks have with imagining a POC can be both queer and POC. Don't even get me started on that ridiculous Advocate cover, or the African American voting on Prop. 8.

    The Japanese cell-phone literature craze is fascinating, and sounds similar to the "urban lit" phenomenon here in the US including the troubled and sometimes disdainful response from the literary establishment. Except here in the US it's not almost exclusively female terrain, and the situation is complicated by African American authors not being a part of the literary establishment in substantive numbers, but the fear of the ascendant popularity of this popular form obscuring the work of writers working in recognized literary forms seems parallel. Personally, I can hardly send simple txt messages, I can't imagine writing a 300 page novel in that format! I didn't know about Desiree Cooper's work on Weekend America, and now after listening to a few shows I'm kinda peeved, with this cancellation and that of NPRs News & Notes with Farai Chideya. Maybe it's short-sighted on my part, since Weekend America doesn't just focus on people of color, but this reminds me of the mid-90s when the NEA was gutted and the first programming and personnel terminations also reduced the representation of people of color, both also had been the last to be implemented/hired (i.e.:"last hired, first fired").

  4. Audiologo, I hadn't really thought of the cell phone novel craze in relation to the urban lit phenomenon, but it's a potent association. You're so right about the continuing anxiety that surrounds it. Do you think urban cell phone novel/poetry would get any attention until it attracted some higher profile or non-POC authors? LOL I was sorry to hear about Chideya's show being canceled, though I'm not such a fan of hers. I think she can be too facile at times, but I do think she and the show shouldn't have been on the cutting block first. You're so right about the NEA gutting/cutting....