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Steiner, George. The ephemeral genre and the end of literature. In New
     Perspectives Quarterly Fall 1996, v13, n4, p46(4). 

OXFORD - I imagine many of you will already have seen it, so I        
apologize. The current issue of that key journal of comparative       
papyrology of the Romanian Academy has an enormously interesting      
fragment, recently deciphered. It appears to be a conversation from   
5th century BC Corinth about the first public readings of the Iliad   
and the Odyssey It is quite clear from the conversation that these    
are judged to have no future whatsoever. The issue is whether to      
waste expensive sheep skin - and a great many sheep - on              
transcription when the story is so manifestly too long, too           
repetitive, full of endless formulas, with that rosy-fingered dawn    
every 10 lines, so full of dull patches and with such a messy ending. 
Is Odysseus going to stay at home, or is he leaving? No one can       
really make it out. It was a very brave effort, but destined for      
The point is obvious. When did literature have a future? Probably     
never. What we know as literature has had a very, very short run.     
Scholars say we can start with St. Augustine's famous observation of  
his master and teacher, St. Ambrose, in the courtyard in Milan.       
Augustine says: "This is the first man in the West who could read     
without moving his lips." A man reading in silence, having a          
relationship to a text which is more or less that of a modern act of  
reading. This sense of a private and personal relationship to the     
text, of remembrance and return, and of text engendering text, breaks 
down around 1914 - the beginning of the catastrophe of our culture in 
the West.                                                             
Today, we need to address these themes again for two reasons:         
technology and talent. Gutenberg was not a fundamental revolution. It 
extended the life of the written word. In the 80 years following      
Gutenberg, there were more illuminated manuscripts produced and       
commissioned than in the previous century. It was not a revolution of 
the kind we may now be experiencing. What will virtual reality mean   
for the imagination, for the habits of narrative and imagining of its 
practitioners? It is not only virtual reality. My colleagues in the   
Cambridge engineering department tell me that they are very close to  
a "small-scale, portable, total display" computer - meaning that you  
will carry with you or have on your desk or by your bed, for bedtime  
reading, this small and versatile screen. It will be online to the    
libraries of the world; the 14 million books of the Library of        
Congress will be at your fingertips and it will be clearer, easier to 
carry, infinitely more responsive to your interests and needs than    
any book. Then, we are truly in a new world.                          
But it takes two. There can be no literature without readers. Readers 
shape literature. Literature shapes readers and has done so since the 
beginning of the notion of literacy. So if readers change altogether, 
as they will with the new possibilities, what they are reading will   
change also, however ancient it is. A CD-ROM presentation of Homer,   
now available, is completely different from the papyrus version, the  
print version, the comic book version. They all have a metaphysic of  
their own in terms of narrative, pace, excitement, stimulus.          
>From my boyhood I remember the smell of books, immensely different,   
the different kinds of savor, the paper, the print. Books are complex 
phenomena. The way we hold them. Where we store them. The way we can  
return to them. The paperback is a revolution of its own, as was the  
folio, the quarto, the duodecimo. Books, and the libraries in which   
they were kept, shaped much of what we think of as literature,        
history and philosophy. If the book is to be replaced by electronic   
means, many of them as yet unimagined, if it is to become an archive  
of remembrance, an archaeology of dead love, then literature itself   
will change very profoundly.                                          
Marxism taught us a brilliant, simple observation (the big thoughts   
are so simple and yet one does not have them]): that there is no      
chamber music before chambers. That is to say, what you and I know as 
chamber music - particularly the quartet, the dominant form of high   
music - could only occur under very specific spatial, economic and    
sociological conditions. If there are no more private spaces for      
chamber music, no new chamber music will be commissioned or written;  
and that vast musical literature will have to find, as it does now,   
an essentially museum character. It will be the historical            
reproduction of conditions which are no longer immediate or natural   
to performer and listener. This will also become true of literature   
and the book.                                                         
PRODIGALITY AND PLETHORA                                              
Let me move from technology to talent. We do not know why it is, but  
in any given historical moment, the amount of creative talent is not  
infinite. There are phenomena here which we do not understand. Thank  
God there is something for us not to understand] Why should certain   
periods produce a floreat of great writers and others be barren for   
long periods? Why should great literatures - Portuguese, Spanish,     
Italian are cases in point - know two or three high moments of        
concentrated force? What determines, on a distribution curve, the     
cluster of talent in a given moment and what that talent wants to do? 
Very roughly - and these figures, of course, are always open to       
challenge - the latest evidence we have on IQ curves or any           
comparable measure (to be treated with care, of course) is that over  
80 percent of the top of the curve today are in the sciences. Less    
than 20 percent are doing anything we could identify as the           
humanities at the top end of the curve - top in intelligence, will,   
energy, ambition. If I had lived in Florence in the quattrocento I    
would, from time to time, have begged breakfast off a painter.        
Instead, I have tried all my life to be among scientists because      
today that is where the joy is, that is where the hope is, the        
energy, the sense of world upon world opening up.                     
There are fewer and fewer prerequisites to studying the humanities.   
But in today's Cambridge, in today's MIT, in today's Princeton or,    
until recently still, in Moscow, the entrance exams in mathematics    
and physics for the first-year student now include what was           
classified as post-doctoral research only 15 years ago. That is your  
accelerando. That is the measure of what is being asked of the young  
and what they are able to supply.                                     
There is no law which says that great literature gets produced in any 
given time or that a language will renew its poetic and creative      
energies. There are periods of tiredness and exhaustion in certain    
great literatures. Probably fewer people are at the top end of        
excellence today in the production of literary artistic works. Does   
this mean that less is being produced? No. We have a paradox of       
prodigality and plethora. More books are being published and          
remaindered and pulped very rapidly. There is a huge amount being     
produced; very little of it seems to be of commanding stature. Talent 
is going into the competing media of television, film and their       
allied arts. Again and again there will crackle off our screen a      
piece of dialogue, a confrontation, a scene, where you say - "My God, 
that is better than any novel I have read in a long time." It is more 
insightful, it is better written, it is sharper.                      
Film is already in a condition where it can proudly speak of its      
classics, of classics which have changed perception, which have       
changed imagining, which have altered our sense of what a narrative   
is - of how you tell a story. It is not the same thing as in the      
novel. It can resemble the novel, and it is fascinating to watch the  
interaction between classic fiction and television.                   
The commissioning of a book is now often done with a view to its      
production in other media. The calculation of the print run is almost 
unimportant compared to the hope of its acquisition for television or 
film rights which, in turn, presses on the structure of the written   
text. There are masters of this form who write knowing that if the    
television or cinema production is a great success, people will       
return to the book. It is a creative boomerang of the most            
interesting kind. There are even cases where the book has been        
commissioned after the film or the television version. The book is no 
longer the pretext, it is the post-text of its distribution.          
MEDIA MINDS                                                           
None of us can measure the quantum of intelligence, of imagining      
going into the media. It is prodigious - even the quantum of          
intelligence that can go into a great advertising campaign. The       
difference between poetry and jingles is difficult to distinguish.    
There are advertising people who can write one-liners of which        
Restoration comedy would have been proud - you can compare the skill, 
the caricature skill of a human situation exploding into an           
unforgettable bon mot or repartee. Imagination, fun, energy, even     
serious political and social comment often see in the book a form     
that is too slow, when in other media they can get through            
immediately on a vast scale to a great public and to the shapers of   
political opinion.                                                    
But can "literature" be preserved? A very, very difficult question.   
Some years ago, you remember, a number of young publishers began      
publishing film scripts. It did not work out well. That does not mean 
it will not. Certain great television artists, Dennis Potter and      
others, have hoped that their works would be preserved in some        
literary form so that people could read with the play or film.        
There is an oral dimension as well. This became clear to me on a      
recent visit to Harvard University. Casablanca was being shown for    
the millionth time. There was a queue outside of students who had     
seen it 10 or 15 times. At a certain point, about 10 minutes from the 
end, hands shot up and they switched off the sound and the students   
got up, crossed their arms, and recited in chorus the last 10         
minutes, which are quite complex. I was yelling with them: "Arrest    
the usual suspects." These are students who, if you said to them,     
"Would you please learn a poem by heart," would blench with dismay;   
but they see no difficulty whatsoever in learning the polyphonic, six 
or eight voices of those last 10 minutes.                             
This suggests a tenacity in the oral form. Poetry has an immense      
future - limitless, I think. Russian poetry survived orally and then  
in readings to 10 and 20 thousand - Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Andre        
Voznesensky. Also Allen Ginsberg. Poetry always has behind it the     
probability of the oral, of being spoken together and learnt by heart 
if you love it. We are in a period of great poets and many, many are  
to come; they will work with music and drama, with choreography,      
forms as yet unimagined, which go back to the origins of poetry in    
ancient Greece so far as we can make them out.                        
Poetry means every form of drama, and I would like to be around for   
it. Television drama, amateur drama, audience participation. The      
world of drama for children seems, at the moment, almost boundless.   
The theater in the largest sense - the art of the human body - is     
opening up. The elimination of the human body from so much of high    
literature is a brief phenomenon which took place roughly between     
Christianity's triumph in late Hellenism and the academic, mandarin,  
high bourgeois cultures at the beginning of this century. It is no    
longer so. The body is reasserting its presence at every range of the 
culture. Language is, after all, a bodily function, deeply and        
Hegel said it so clearly. The novel is inseparable from the triumph   
of the middle classes, their habits of leisure, of privacy, the space 
for reading, the time for reading; the novel philosophically is a     
narrative in a large, rich, stable, social context, even if its own   
particular narrative is one of chaos, revolution or disorder. The way 
George Lukacs, the greatest of Marxist critics, put it was: "No novel 
ends unhappily." That is not a stupid statement. What he referred to  
was the fact that after you have read a novel, you can go back to it; 
there is always a window on the future, on the story continuing, and  
it is in essence a middle-class story.                                
NOVELS AT THE MARGIN                                                  
It is no accident that the industrial revolution, the French          
revolution, occurred in the great age of the novel. It is almost      
axiomatic that today the great novels are coming from the far rim,    
from India, from the Caribbean, from Latin America - from countries   
which are in an earlier stage of bourgeois culture, in a rougher,     
more problematic form.                                                
We are getting very tired in our novel writing; that makes perfect    
sense, there is nothing apocalyptic about it. Genres rise, genres     
fall, the epic, the verse epic, the formal verse tragedy, all have    
great moments, then they ebb. Novels will continue to be written for  
some time, but increasingly the search is on for hybrid forms, what   
we call fact/fiction. This alerts us to something important. What     
novel can today compete with the best of reportage, the best of       
immediate narrative? Not only the media, but also journalism in the   
high and legitimate sense, the masters of the immediate whom we can   
read every day.                                                       
James Joyce was certain that Finnegans Wake would be the end of the   
novel. It is a very deliberate attempt, marvelously arrogant, to say: 
"Not after this, that is it. In Ulysses I had once more done the      
totality, once more held the world in one grasp, now Finnegans Wake   
is the chaos of the night," and when told it was unreadable he said,  
"Of course, that is the point, then you have understood. This is      
meant to be the epilogue." There are still excellent novels after     
Finnegans Wake. But my guess is that nothing at the moment is more    
artificial, in some ways more a gamble against reality, than a first  
novel, and I think many publishers know this.                         
We have a very exciting time ahead, when literature itself will have  
to re-examine what literacy is. Who is literate today? There are      
children who are finding "beautiful" solutions to problems on their   
computers, on their holographic screens.                              
I meet one of these children; I am told he can neither read nor       
write, or barely; he resents any attempt to pull him away from the    
screen and make him read. I lose my temper and shout, "You are        
illiterate?" and the child says, "You are illiterate" because,        
indeed, I cannot follow what he is doing. If you have watched some of 
these children, their fingers are like those of a great piano         
virtuoso. I cannot put this intelligently - their fingers are         
thinking and creating. The way the fingers move is the way a musician 
with a motif, or the sketch of a motif or a bar relation, comes back  
to it through his fingers to re-examine its possibilities, to correct 
it. And the child says I am illiterate. Dialogue de sourds. We stare  
at each other.                                                        
DEATH OF IMMORTALITY                                                  
And what next? Who is going to be literate? Who will define basic     
literacy? It is a very frightening period. That is what makes it so   
exciting and rewarding. Underlying it may be a slow, glacial shift in 
Western culture's attitude toward death. The way we think of death,   
the way we experience it, imagine it; the way we turn our             
consciousness toward it. Literature, as we have known it, springs out 
of a wild and magnificent piece of arrogance, old as Pindar, Horace   
and Ovid. Exegi aere perennius - what I have written will outlive     
time. Stronger than bronze, less breakable than marble, this poem.    
Pindar was the first man on record to say that his poem will be sung  
when the city which commissioned it has ceased to exist. Literature's 
immense boast against death. Even the greatest poet, I dare venture,  
would be profoundly embarrassed to be quoted saying such a thing      
Something enormous is happening, due in part to the barbarism of this 
century, perhaps due to DNA, perhaps due to fundamental changes in    
longevity, in cellular biology, in the conception of what it is to    
have children. We cannot phrase it with any confidence, but it will   
profoundly affect the great classical vainglory of literature - I am  
stronger than death] I can speak about death in poetry, drama, the    
novel, because I have overcome it; I am more or less permanent.       
That is no longer available. A quite different order of imagining is  
beginning to arise, and it may be that when we look back on this time 
we will suddenly see that the very great artists, in the sense of     
changing our views - of what is art, what is human identity - are not 
the ones we usually name but rather exasperating, surrealist, jokers. 
Marcel Duchamp. If I call this pisoir a great work of art and sign    
it, who are you to disprove that? Or, even more so, the artist Jean   
Tinguely, who built immense structures which he then set on fire,     
saying: "I want this to be ephemeral. I want it to have happened only 
That is the contrary of literature as we have known it, literature    
which always says: "I want to be returned to over and over and over." 
This does not mean that the new work will be any less exciting. It    
does not mean that it will be any less inventive. It just means that  
to be a publisher in the next century is going to be a very chancy    
PUBLISHED THIS YEAR.                                                  
COPYRIGHT 1996 Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions