Optimizing Society for Culture
A response to Simon K Jones
“[W]hen there’s an infinite amount of content, does any of it have any actual worth?” This poignant question comes from Simon K Jones’ essay, Post-scarcity entertainment What to do when nothing really matters? The amount of content available today is practically endless, yet few would argue that we are living in a great cultural moment. The best seller lists throw up endless light entertainment while literary fiction produces a steady stream of lauded writers that no one outside the niche ever reads or hears of. Nothing truly stands out. Nothing seems poised to endure (though many will argue passionately for the immortality of some personal favorite). Nothing can even hold the attention of the moment for more than a season.
Why not? I suspect that for all its abundance, contemporary culture simply does not produce the right conditions for the development of outstanding literature.
Stories are built out of stories. For a mere string of words to bring images and emotions from the mind, it must rely on the images and emotions already attached to words and phrases in the reader’s memory and combine and juxtapose them to create something fresh and striking. (This is what I mean by the title of this newsletter, Stories All the Way Down.) But this relies absolutely on the attachment between words, images, and emotions that the reader shares with the writer.
Consider how many images, how many distinct and particular stories, rush into the mind simply at the mention of the name of certain cities: Paris, Rome, Berlin, Moscow, London, Hollywood. Not every city name does the same thing. You are not going to get the same rush of stories, images, or emotions from the mention of Moncton, New Brunswick; Peterborough, Ontario; Michelstadt, Germany; or Ephraim, Utah. But the associations that most of my readers probably have with Paris, Rome, and the others, though widely shared, are not universal. They belong to a particular culture, and those references will not have the same power for a reader who has not the same associations with those names.
A culture is shared stories, and the products of that culture depend on the recognition of those shared stories. These stories are so engrained that we rarely even notice the complexity and richness of the references we are making or receiving. They just have their effect on us, in the moment, as we read. This is actually vital to their effect, because if we had to pause to analyze them, all of their emotional and evocative power would be lost. Reading every story would be like reading an annotated text from a distant culture where you had to spend more time in the footnotes than the text just to decode the references and understand what was going on.
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Stories achieve their richness of texture and depth of emotion from the juxtaposition of the stories and images they evoke. The ability to evoke these things quickly is important, so that one association does not fade from the mind before the next story or image is juxtaposed to it. This requires an audience that is familiar with the underlying stories, so that the associated images and emotions can be evoked simply and rapidly. Without a broad base of shared stories, these effects are harder to produce.
There are universals of human experience, of course, things which will resonate with any reader, of any language or culture, at least those of a sufficient age to have witnessed or lived the common things of life. A skillful writer can do a lot with just these basics. They are the bread and butter of the craft. But to do more, to go higher, to focus more precisely, one needs more. (Not to mention the difficulty that there is no bright line in any of our minds that divides the universal from the particular in our experience and stories. Most of us have no idea what is common and what is not.)
The richest literary experiences require an instant response to the stories and images that the author invokes, and that means that such works require an audience of sufficient size with a shared history and stock of stories and experiences to receive the full effect of every element of the story and its telling.
It is similar, I believe, in music and visual art. They too have their stories and motifs and their associated images and emotions. It requires a well trained ear to hear all that is going on in a complex piece of music, and a well trained eye to see everything that is going on in a great painting. Art does not stand alone. It is built on a specific culture, a specific history, a specific set of shared stories.
But art is not entirely insular either. All the periods of great fecundity in the arts were periods in which the culture that produced them was subject to significant outside influences, new ideas, new challenges. They often followed wars and revolutions or periods of great disruption or exposure to new experiences and images.
It follows that, like the conditions for growing grapes to make great wine, a certain very specific climate is required. Today we invest in art in ways no civilization has before. We may complain that government arts funding is limited, but when else in history has there been government arts funding? We may complain that the teaching of art in the schools is limited, but when have there been more MFA programs or MFA graduates? When have we had more people writing, painting, and making music? If it were about numbers or money, we should be creating art, music, and literature that would make the greats of the past pale into insignificance.
And we’re not. How can we, with all our resources and our numbers, not be better at this? We certainly produce a lot of stuff, and briefly celebrate one writer after another. Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts, but nothing sticks.
Maybe the problem, as Jones suggests, is abundance itself. "No matter what you're into, there is probably something out there for you," Jones writes. But that may be the problem. No matter what you are into, there is more of that something out there than you can consume in a lifetime. This is what the big publishers set out to achieve these days, to establish narrow niches and to fill them with a steady stream of similar content. This may not produce blockbusters, but it makes for easy sales. But it’s not just the majors. Online sites like Wattpad and self publishing systems like Amazon KDP ensure an infinite supply of whatever it is that tickles your fancy.
This encourages readers to be narrow. The great virtue of the limited supply of any one genre (which most of us experienced half a century ago) is that it forces the voracious reader to read widely. I spent the second half of my childhood in a small town in Nova Scotia. It had one small library and one small bookstore. My father’s bookshelves provided a wider range of fiction than either of these institutions. The opportunity to read narrowly simply didn’t exist. If I did fall in love with a particular author, it could be a multi-year project to track down all of their books, and the hunt, through libraries and bookstores, and second-hand bookstores in rare visits to the big city of Halifax, led to all sorts of other discoveries. I had no choice but to read broadly, a habit that has never left me. When I finish one book, I don’t want something the same. I want something different.
I have rhapsodized before, and doubtless will again, about one of my most prized possessions, the anthology, The Best of Both Worlds, by Georgess McHargue. This anthology does a masterful job of exposing children to the work of adult writers in a way that is accessible and yet still stretching. I can’t imagine anything like it being published today. It would, on the one hand, be considered far too broad, touching as it does on almost every genre, and at the same time far too narrow, since it draws only from the English literary tradition (including America and Canada). It is in that anthology that I found many of the writers who are my favorites to this day, and it shaped me as a reader and as a writer more than any other book I have read.
But how many people will read with that kind of breadth today when there is an infinite supply of their particular favorite sub-sub-genre instantly available at the push of a button?
The consequences of this abundance for culture can be devastating. Language is stories and the number of stories that we have in common is diminishing all the time as people become more and more specialized in their tastes and experiences. With fewer and fewer shared reference points, we have less to say to each other and fewer shared words and images with which to express it.
This in turn narrows the creator's pallet. Without the ability to assume shared stories or shared concepts, we can do less and less by implication, quotation, reference, symbol, or image. Our vocabulary and shared history becomes confined to the narrow niches we inhabit. And there is less and less unexplored ground within these narrow niches so we become less and less original as well.
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In artistic terms, we have entered a period of toxic abundance. We need to reestablish the habit of broad common reading in order to create an audience with sufficient breadth of experience and vocabulary to appreciate a richer creation.
Of course, it will be pointed out that The Best of Both Worlds may have been ideal for me, a white English-born Canadian, but a child of a different culture or ethnicity would not have found themselves or their stories in its pages. And that is absolutely true. And in the Web’s infinite bounty of stories today, they could find themselves and their stories in abundance.
If that were the only function of culture, if it were merely a mirror in which one seeks to see ones own reflection, that would be all well and good. We can now all find ourselves in stories, no matter how large or small the group we belong to, no matter how short or long its traditions go back.
But culture is not only about the things that subdivide us into groups. It is also about the common experience of being human. And the highest achievements in expressing that experience are rare and occur in particular periods of cultural richness. They should be the common heritage of all humanity. And yet there is a problem, because they are themselves the product of a particular time and place and they assume the shared stories and images of that time and place. They are simply not as accessible to some people as to others.
This is the conundrum: the more any group has in common, the richer culture they can build, but the harder it is for outsiders to enter and participate or feel at home. This is just inherent in what a culture is and how it works. Unlike with material goods, where you can use a Robin Hood policy of taking from the rich and giving to the poor, with culture, taking from the rich does not yield anything to give to the poor. It just leaves everyone poor.
The interesting question is, what degree of commonality is optimal for the greatest flowering of culture? Some balance between internal commonality of ideas and experiences and the entrance of new ideas from outside is clearly necessary. But more is not necessarily better. Too many external ideas at once can kill a culture, drowning it in an avalanche of new stories and images. On the other hand, with too few external influences a culture will stagnate. It needs the capacity to add to itself while remaining itself, and that can be a difficult balance to achieve, especially for a small culture. The size of the group is certainly going to matter too. Too large a group and it will lose commonality. Too small a group and it will lack diversity.
The Best of Both Worlds provides a breadth of stories all drawn from a common tradition. Someone who reads only one sub-sub-genre would never be exposed to the fullness of that tradition, so the anthology’s diversity of genres and writers is salutary. And yet, the fact that they all draw from the same tradition, the same shared set of stories and images, is essential to their individual effectiveness. They are related as much as they are distinct.
European culture is an interesting case study here. There is a definite pan-European culture whose roots we can see in Roman law, Greek philosophy, and Judeo-Christian religion. But each nation has its own distinct culture as well, so that there is a distinct French, German, Spanish, Italian, Greek, etc. literary, artistic, and musical culture. And within those countries there are distinct regional folk cultures. There are certain pan-cultural icons (Aristotle, the Bible, Dante, Mozart, Bach, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Cervantes, etc.) that are common property of all the national and regional cultures, but each builds on top of them in various ways. Each of them was influenced and enriched by imports from each other and from around the world. An Englishman who moves to Italy, therefore, will have some cultural touchpoints with his new surroundings, but will not be fully part of the culture. A Japanese moving to Italy will have far less in common.
My point is, if you want a flourishing and productive culture, you have to have the conditions that are conducive to cultural development. You need the right degree of commonality, the right degree of pan-cultural sharing, and the right degree of outside influence.
I don’t think these things are the whole prescription. I take very seriously Josef Piper’s thesis in Leisure: The Basis of Culture, that high cultural achievement requires leisure, perhaps both in the artist and the reader. And we are not today a culture of leisure. Indeed, the first thing an aspiring writer is told these days is that they must work, work, work. But if there are other factors at play, I can’t see how one can hope to develop a thriving high culture without the right mix of commonality, sharing, and external influence.
It’s not like we don’t dedicate time and resources to the production of culture. Considering the time and money we spend, we should be churning out culture by the ton, just as we expertly churn out so many commodities and services with unmatched speed and quality. But in culture this abundance of resources does not produce a superior product.
You would rather be treated by the least accomplished graduate of a third world medical school today than by the finest doctor of the 19th century, and the difference isn't even close. This is because modern medical schools transfer a sound body of knowledge and methods of practice that have been honed and proven over the years so that todays doctors are incomparably better informed and better trained and better regulated than their 19th century counterparts.
On the other hand, not one MFA program in the history of MFA programs has turned out a writer of the caliber of a Dickens, a Dumas, a Conrad, a Kipling, a Waugh, or a Steinbeck (and I could add many more names to that list without diminishing my point). The modern approach of research, standardization, training, and regulation has worked brilliantly in many fields, but not in the arts. At minimum its effect is neutral. A good case could be made that it is destructive.
I'm not sure if you can actually optimize a society for the production of culture, or if you just have to accept that it happens in some times and some places and not in others. Perhaps it is like making fine wine. There are only a limited number of terroirs where soil and weather and the shape of the land are conducive to wine cultivation. So too, there are only a limited number of cultural terroirs across time and geography that are conducive to the development of high culture. And places once fertile may turn arid, while new fertile terrain may emerge or be discovered almost anywhere, just as winemaking has found fertile new ground in Australia, Chile, and South Africa.
We will probably never seek to optimize society for the development of culture. I don’t know that I would support such an effort if it were proposed. But if we decide to optimize for commerce, or for equity, or for anything else, we can't expect that any of those choices will be neutral for culture. That's just not how it works. Of course, there are all kinds of powerful arguments for optimizing for commerce or for equity, or for several other things before optimizing for culture. It is hard to make an argument that culture should be our highest priority or that we should subordinate every other aim to creating the perfect conditions for cultural flowering. Really, the only counter argument to this is that when culture falls apart, there is a tendency for everything else to fall apart as well.
This stuff is hard.
Certainly there is little that the individual reader or writer can do about this, no matter how they feel about it or where their priorities might lie. Still, there is an undoubtable virtue to reading broadly, and readers and writers alike should do what they can to encourage it.
My very modest attempt to encourage it are my novels, The Wistful and the Good and the soon-to-be-released Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight. Neither one seems to fit into any of the current narrow genre tracks. But in the cause of reading widely, give them a glance. And if you like them, please write a review. We are slaves to the algorithms these days, and the algorithms demand to be fed with reviews. We must live in this world, alas, until we can build a better one.