That the Nobel Prize in Literature just went to a celebrity folk singer whose heyday has long since passed has been lauded by Bob Dylan lovers, mocked by literary critics, and mourned by some writers.
The online publication Electric Literature warned its readers that its headline about the prize was not a joke, knowing that hearts would be broken. But the Nobel Prize committee may have picked up on something that is already plaguing the literary world: The next generation of readers isn’t that into reading.
In the US, the vast majority of Americans are still reading books, or at least starting them (finishing them is another story). But books appear to be losing their luster among young people. A survey of studies by Common Sense Media found that American teenagers are reading less for pleasure. As literary critic David Denby noted about teenage reading habits in the New Yorker, “reading anything serious has become a chore, like doing the laundry or prepping a meal for a kid brother. Or, if it’s not a chore, it’s just an activity, like swimming or shopping, an activity like any other. It’s not something that runs through the rest of their lives.”
That a songwriter snatched up a coveted prize devoted to book writers added salt to the wound for writers. “You wouldn’t give the literary prize to an economist or a political saint. You shouldn’t give it to Bob Dylan,” wrote Slate critic Stephen Metcalf. “The distinctive thing about literature is that it involves reading silently to oneself. Silence and solitude are inextricably a part of reading, and reading is the exclusive vehicle for literature.”
Writers on Twitter lamented losing the spotlight.
The ascendance of light reads has similarly irked literary gurus and their protégés. A scathing rant by an MFA instructor about the decline of thoughtful writing among his students led to a firestorm of tweets, open letters, and blog posts last year. “I’ve heard many MFA instructors bitch about the same irritants: aspiring writers who treat the work like therapy, people with nothing to say, intellectual posturing, deadline-fueled neuroses and, above all, students who seem uninterested in reading, or only interested in reading other debut novels as a form of coldblooded market research,” one writer noted in a response on Salon.
For some, rejecting reading altogether has become a point of pride. As Kanye West famously said before publishing a book of his own, “Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and so self-absorbed. I am not a fan of books…I am a proud non-reader of books.”