One cause of death for the novel is the general decline in literacy, specifically in Canada. Despite the power of the novel (and novelist) to become that voice of the everyman – it does us no good if the general population chooses not to read or is unable to read.
It is quite an ironic turn of events. A good author (in light of the previous posts regarding wordsmiths) is one that simplifies communication and serves as an intermediary between elites/complex systems and the realities of life. The good author doesn’t complicate imagination to the point that it is no longer accessible to everyone. Yet, despite this role, general illiteracy is on the rise when the written word should be it’s most accessible ever.
In Canada, a 2006 survey found that approximately 42% of Canadian are semi-illiterate (with higher percentages of illiteracy among middle aged people and immigrants). 14.6% of Canadians are functionally illiterate (yet manage to navigate their lives/workplaces under the radar). There are strong indicators that by 2031 over half of Canadians will have sub-par/below average literacy rates (in comparison to other nations). As many other social indicators express, those who are most literate now will increase in literacy while those who struggle now will only continue to decline.
As this cartoon points out – it’s actually quite funny to pick on people who’re illiterate. You think, “How hard can it be? Get some Dick & Jane books? Get hooked on Phonics? Really?” But the truth is that it is very much a socio-economic issue. Illiteracy rates are extremely high in lower income earners, ethnic minorities, unskilled labourers and seniors. Those people who have had opportunities for education, stable homes, modes of literacy and education are not struggling…they are excelling. There are several negative factors affecting illiteracy…not just the text itself.
This is increasing problematic given the role of the novel – if the everyman is the one who needs to be invested in reading – they must be encouraged towards literacy more so than those who take literacy as a given. The wealthy, educated and potentially elitist are already reading… already writing…already leading. Evolutionarily speaking – it is in their best interest to continue to make our society more complex…favouring those who can excel and are excelling. They may not do this consciously (at least I hope people aren’t that callous) but it is being done through ideas like “bootstrapping”, lack of general education funding (in favour of family tax deductions which tend to benefit higher income earners only), and the protectionism of professionalization (“I earned this degree in order to make my contribution…no amateur will change that.”)
A shift needs to occur in the way in which we encourage literacy in youth, ethnic minorities, senior and low income earners. We need to promote its intrinsic value (as a path to personal growth and self-esteem) but also as a driver of economic growth and personal financial stability. A reader is more likely to have a higher education, better paying job, more upward mobility, find themselves in leadership roles and are more likely to encourage strong literacy skills in their families. Until this begins to happen – we will continue to see the death of the novel.