What will literary historians think in two hundred years when they read the books that defined our era? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
Which books define our postmodern age 200 years from now depends on two primary factors: the critical assessments of our current literary establishment and on future algorithms that sort through old texts, hunting for patterns of originality and excellence. In a tertiary sense, literary historians may also be influenced by the sorts of books their super-modern culture is reading.
Here are some things future literary historians may say:
"Those people read--a lot."
Indeed, the sheer volume of material published today presents a problem.
According to Bowker, in 2013 about 305,000 book titles were published in the U.S. 83,000 of these titles were adult and juvenile fiction. Self-published books in 2013 numbered an amazing 459,000, up 17 percent from 2012 and an incredible 437 percent from just 2008. Worldwide book publishing figures are dodgy, but by tallying ISBNs, experts guesstimate that 28 million books were published in 2013.
Ironically, it's possible that the majority of today's readers will never even hear about, much less read, those future "age-defining" works.
"The postmodern period was a watershed of literary forms."
Prior to WWII, literature meant paper and proscenium. Today, literature means more than books and plays. Literature is celluloid, radio waves, and pixels. Future literary historians will examine film, serial film (like television and video games), stories broadcast by radio and podcast, comic novels, online mags, and blogs. Historians will analyze quirky genres like the literary blog and the "depressing Facebook confession," in which people hold up printed cards to tell grim stories.
Historians will devote much time to conserving and curating our pixel-based literature, which, ironically, is surprisingly easy to corrupt and lose.
"Postmoderns wrote and consumed books in dozens of categories."
Although it's tricky to speculate about literary quality or longevity based on current trends, it is true that genre fiction is the most popular fiction of our day. One 2015 survey concludes that, among fiction works, Americans today read mystery, romance, science fiction, and fantasy books much more than they read "classic" literature. In fact, today's most lucrative genre is the romance novel, followed by crime and mystery, horror, science fiction and fantasy, and religious.
"Postmoderns were obsessed with dystopias."
Future English professorss may teach courses in "21st Century apocalyptic literature." Our literary obsession began with the Book of Revelation, but future historians will enjoy speculating exactly why readers of our time are so crazy for dystopic, end-of-days literature.
"Increasingly, people read fiction by foreign authors--in English."
Yes, it's true. English speakers are a dominant force in the book publishing world, and we increasingly enjoy books written by foreigners. For example, even though the number of Spanish-speaking people is on the rise, literary translations increased 66%.
This speculation is tricky, too. If books are ever defined by works published on the internet, in 50 years, English language works may no longer dominate if the growing number of Russian, Chinese, and Arabic speakers online is any indication.
"Post-modern readers value social criticism over traditional literary criticism."
Today, the books we value, the "classics" composed by the likes of Shakespeare and Hemingway, were determined by generations of astute and authoritative critics, who, over time, confirmed their predecessors' judgments.
Readers and historians of the future may not receive a body of canonical works to appreciate and analyze. Today, the notion of an objective authority on literary value is foreign, despotic, even outlandish to postmodern readers. Perhaps because there is such a mountain of reading material available, we tend to pull literary judgments from the ether: Amazon reviews, Facebook posts, and tweets.
Writer Cynthia Ozick laments the state of affairs in a 2011 commentary in the National Book Critics Circle blog.
For myself, I hope, as Ozick does, that at least a tiny thread of committed critics will prove that excellence can indeed be quantified. One can hope, and try to keep up by reading our current literary critics: brilliant readers and writers like Dwight Garner and Sam Anderson.
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