In this final post (earlier posts are here, here, and here) about the Ralston Saul essay in “22 Provocative Canadian: In the Spirit of Bob Edwards”, the focus turns to what Saul suggests is the current idealized wordsmith: the novelist.
This seems a bit counter-intuitive because of the state of modern literature in North American (extremely low literacy and poor reading habits) and the pulp aspects of modern literature (where unless you happen to be one of the 20 big name novels that Oprah likes you will not be widely read). Ralston Saul contends that:
“The novelist preached reason but was himself dependent upon common sense, constantly balancing intellect with emotion. He served our imagination through his devotion to clarity and universality. Those wordsmiths who in some way served established power almost always preached complexity and the obscurity of superior language.”
This is powerful summary of what the role of a novelist in today’s culture. They can either be a person who “is dependent on common sense” and “serves our imagination” or someone who “preach(es) complexity” and “serves established power”.
This is an acutely helpful summary of type of relationship that a novelist can have with culture. As alluded to in a previous post, the wordsmith is not inherently positioned as anti-establishment and prophet. He or she must choose that posture in relation to their craft. If they choose to be “disconnected with the general population and are embroiled in professionalization of their craft that promises wealth, prestige, relevance and exclusivity” then they are incapable of providing balance and serving the imagination of the population. They become subservient to other aims and goals.
Ralston Saul marks how the development of wordsmiths as culture catalysts began in 14CE when colloquial dialects was married with proper Latin (Dante, Chaucer). Then two centuries later came the widespread writing of poetry, plays, and essays (Shakespeare). Followed roughly two centuries later with the popularity of novels and novellas into everyday life (Cervantes, Voltaire, Dickens). The dominance of the novel is still evident in our culture today but it doesn’t take a literary historian to notice that the novel is diminishing in our digital and social media culture.
While the novel still carries the potential to enliven our imagination and serve as a catalyst for cultural change we have to be attentive to the face that there are two primary “attacks” on the novel: i) the disconnection of the novelist/wordsmith as a cultural agent; ii) the deterioration of the substantive written word as the preferred method of cultural transmission.
We’ve already touched on the disconnection of the wordsmith as cultural agent (there needs to be growing appetite amongst writers to choose this role and not exclusively pursue self-satisfying motivations but to recognize the communal role of the writer within culture).
In my opinion, the deterioration of the written word has been caused by general illiteracy in education, the massive amounts of digital media that we saturate our lives with (television, games, videos), the pace of our culture not leaving productive time to invest in reading, the turn in publishing towards the “lowest common denominator approach” to choosing which novels are promoted and printed, and the myth that only writers write (spurred on by drive for professionalism by authors). Following this post I’ll continue with thoughts on each of these deteriorating factors in modern communication and literature.