Today, novels are a wholesome alternative to modern vices. But long before television and video games, novels were the new and scary form of entertainment. They were accused of corrupting the youth, of planting dangerous ideas into the heads of housewives, and of distracting everyone from more serious, important books. In this episode, we explore the roots of anti-novel hysteria, and explore what impact it really did have on us. (And if you’re looking for a good novel, check out my novel, Mr. Nice Guy!)
Jason Feifer: I am really excited about this sponsor, because it is a podcast that I have enjoyed listening to for years. It is called the a16z Podcast, and if you're interested in the future or innovation, or the impact of technology on our world, then you will be interested in what this show has to say. The a16z Podcast is produced by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and I will tell you I have had the pleasure of working with a bunch of partners there over the years and they are smart. The a16z Podcast brings you direct, undiluted expert views from the front lines of the tech industry, not just from their partners, but all kinds of experts all around the world. Its goal is to help you make sense of what's coming, where we've been, and where we're going. And the show does that through carefully curated, nuanced, high insight-per-minute conversations with business leaders and entrepreneurs, top industry and academic experts as well as up and coming fresh voices and book authors who you will hear there before they go on other podcasts.
Jason Feifer: The a16z Podcast dives into complicated subjects but manages to keep it both in-depth and accessible, which I'm sure it's why the show is regularly in the top 10 on various podcast charts and cited in countless best-of lists. Subscribe to the a16z Podcast wherever you get your podcasts if you want to stay on top of tech and the future.
Jason Feifer: This is Pessimists Archive. I'm Jason Feifer. I don't know what you're going to think of me after I tell you this, but it's time to come clean. I have done something that has been accused of harming children's minds and making women go infertile. I have done something that in the words of an 1877 edition of the Montreal Daily Witness "cannot fail to injure, debase and destroy." I have done something that is described in the 1790 book Memoirs of the Bloomergrove Family have "poisoned the mind and corrupted the morals of many a promising youth and prevented others from improving their minds in useful knowledge." I am guilty, folks. Guilty of it all. And I have a co-conspirator. Meet my wife, Jen Miller.
Jen Miller: I had no idea the kind of damage we were doing when we began.
Jason Feifer: Neither did I, Jen. I know it's scary, but do you want to admit what we've done?
Jen Miller: I suppose we must. We wrote a novel.
Jason Feifer: We wrote a novel. Oh, and I can I tell you about it? It's so fun. It's called Mr. Nice Guy, and it's a romantic comedy about two people who each week sleep together and then critically review each other's performance in a magazine. It's new, fun, we'd love for you to pick it up. But not that long ago, a book like this would have been seen as genuinely dangerous. Something worth resisting and sounding the alarm over. I mean, to give you a feel for just how people spoke about this dangerous novel, here is a 1931 piece called Too Much Reading Is Harmful, which we found in the St. Petersburg Times. The article begins with a little dialogue between two people, so Jen and I are just going to play the characters here, and seriously, every word is straight from this 1931 piece. Okay, here we go.
Jen Miller: There's Claire with a book. Always reading. I never saw such a child for a book.
Jason Feifer: Didn't she want to go to the party? I thought every child in town was there. They're going to to see the picture. They were all simply wild with excitement. Isn't she well, or what?
Jen Miller: You just can't separate her from a book. She would rather read that do anything else. I try to get her to play with others, but she says that they are too silly, that their games are childish. They don't have any interest for her. She would rather stay home and read a good book.
Jason Feifer: Too bad.
Jason Feifer: And scene. The piece then drops the dialogue and goes straight into lecturing, and offers some advice on how to save these children from the dangerous book trap. It says, again, word for word here.
Jen Miller: Withdraw all encouragement relating to the reading of books. Reduce the number available. Act so as to make reading inconvenient except for the set time. Do this not by direct means, but by making it impossible to read because of other engagements, such as attending a movie, shopping, doing an errand, a household duty, entertaining, and being entertained. Guests in the house should be one good way out. There are many ways of using the time profitably.
Jason Feifer: Anything, anything. Feed them, distract them, give them a knife and have them murder someone. Anything but read a novel.
Jason Feifer: This piece was written by a guy named Angelo Patri, which, I wonder if... Just Googling here, I want to see if I can find anything... Oh, he was an educator, and there's actually a school in the Bronx named after him today. How about that.
Voice Clip (School): Angelo Patri.
Voice Clip (Jason Feifer): Hi.
Voice Clip (School): Hello?
Voice Clip (Jason Feifer): Hi.
Voice Clip (School): Hi.
Voice Clip (Jason Feifer): I have a really random question. Do the students at Angelo Patri read novels?
Voice Clip (School): Read novels? I know they read a lot of books. I'm pretty sure they read novels also.
Jason Feifer: Long live Angelo Patri, whose name remains and whose ideas are forgotten. But seriously, what the hell was going on with people like Angelo Patri? On this episode of Pessimists Archive, we are going to find out. Because in our modern time, of course we see the novel as nourishment. It's the gold standard of entertainment. We want our children reading books, we fear for the decline of them, we rally around our remaining local bookstores and shake our fists and say that the internet and TV have stolen too many readers away from the novel. But at one point, the novel itself was the enemy. Why? And will Mr. Nice Guy, the novel I wrote with my wife, corrupt your minds in the way like Angelo Patri feared?
Jen Miller: All I wanted to do was write a fun story.
Jason Feifer: I know, Jen. I know. But in the process, you may have destroyed us all. We will explore everything in the next chapter of this episode, right after this word from our sponsor.
Jason Feifer: I am really excited about this sponsor, because it is a podcast that I have enjoyed listening to for years. It is called the a16z Podcast, and if you're interested in the future or innovation, or the impact of technology on our world, then you will be interested in what this show has to say. The a16z Podcast is produced by Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and I will tell you I have had the pleasure of working with a bunch of partners there over the years and they are smart. The a16z Podcast brings you direct undiluted expert views from the front lines of the tech industry, not just from their partners, but all kinds of experts all around the world. Its goal is to help you make sense of what's coming, where we've been, and where we're going. And the show does that through carefully curated, nuanced, high insight-per-minute conversations with business leaders and entrepreneurs, top industry and academic experts as well as up and coming fresh voices and book authors who you will hear there before they go on other podcasts.
Jason Feifer: The a16z Podcast dives into complicated subjects but manages to keep it both in-depth and accessible, which I'm sure it's why the show is regularly in the top 10 on various podcast charts and cited in countless best-of lists. Subscribe to the a16z Podcast wherever you get your podcasts if you want to stay on top of tech and the future.
Jason Feifer: As you all know, I'm a big supported of new technology. It's what drives me to make this show. But I have to admit I am just as annoyed by blind optimism as I am by blind pessimism. When new technology comes along, I want to know what's it really for. Let's not just say it will make major changes, let's talk about the major changes. Which is why I really love our sponsor for this episode, the AI Element, a new podcast from the company Element AI, that talks about what AI can actually do for business. And according to the show's host, Alex Shee, that answer is broad ranging.
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Jason Feifer: Remember his voice, by the way, because you'll be hearing it later in the episode. And on AI Element, he interviews influencers across industries to talk about how businesses must adapt to AI, what an AI strategy looks like in practice, how it's transforming industries like cybersecurity, insurance, retail manufacturing and more, and how it's being used for good. Check it out and get some real AI talk. You can find the AI Element Podcast on iTunes or wherever you get podcasts, or at elementai.com/podcast.
Jason Feifer: All right, we're back. Before getting into the novel itself, I wanted to know, is there some kind of fundamental opposition, like something that's broader than the novel, some kind of deep down original sin of pessimism that opposition to the novel just happened to grow out of? Because it just seems so random, right? The novel? And as it turns out, there's a famous bit of ancient Greek philosophy that would seem to answer this question. It's in a book called the Phaedrus, by the Greek philosopher Plato, and it was written in about 370 B.C. And so you get a sense of it here, this is a dialogue, so it's just a conversation between two characters, and in this case, or at least in this scene, it's Socrates as a character, speaking to another character who is a big advocate for writing. And then, in the Phaedrus, the character of Socrates drops this bomb.
Socrates: This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learner's soul, because they will not use their memories. They will trust to the external written characters, and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid, not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth. They will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing. They will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing. They will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
Jason Feifer: That is juicy stuff, isn't it? Plato, the author, seems to be saying writing and reading is bad, because we'll start relying upon it and then we'll stop memorizing stuff, and memorizing stuff is more important, which just seems so crazy. I mean, first of all, to be anti-writing and to write about being anti-writing? To be a writer writing anti-writing writing? Look, it reminds me of when the music composer John Philip Sousa claimed that once people had record players in their homes, they'd never sing to their children. I mean, come on folks.
Jason Feifer: This section of the Phaedrus is mocked across the internet. You can find endless references to it and posts about it on amateur philosophy blogs. But don't get too excited. There's a problem.
Susan Meyer: Yeah, this is a really famous part of the Phaedrus, and like lots of famous texts, it gets referred to more often that it gets actually read.
Jason Feifer: Yes, that's right. The piece of writing that's supposedly against writing is not actually being read by the people who want to defend writing. Now, that was Susan Sauvé Meyer, a professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in Greek and Roman philosophy, and she says that Plato is very misunderstood here. To him, memory is more than just the concept of remembering stuff. He's talking about understanding something. He's thinking of it in a really technical way. He's saying that you can't just read something and think you fully understand it. Don't confuse reading with knowing. Which is true, of course. All you need to do is argue politics with someone who just got fired up over a few tweets and you know that reading and knowing are not the same thing.
Jason Feifer: So that is not our original sin of pessimism. Opposition to the novel did not come out of opposition to writing. However, we may have been on the right path, because Plato had something else to say that would turn out to be very relevant to the novel.
Susan Meyer: Plato had lots of his own suspicions and worries about fiction. He's also notorious for being a critic of Homer and Hesiod and all of these poets who are depicting mythological stories, things he thinks couldn't possibly be true, and they give portraits of great warriors and political leaders, which he thinks are giving the wrong idea of what's great and good in human behavior in society. So this is seen both in The Republic, and he comes back to this in his last dialogues, The Laws, which were really important for the state to control the kinds of stories that are told, and even the media in which they are presented.
Jason Feifer: Fiction is dangerous. That's what Plato thought. And he wouldn't be the last to think it. This is a version of something we will hear over and over again. Plato saw fiction as manipulative. It plays on our emotions, it draws us in at a gut level, and once we're captured, we can be controlled. The fiction writer can lead us wherever he or she wants to go, and that, Plato believed, was a power that couldn't be granted to just anyone. Now, to be clear, he wasn't seeing anyone produce a novel in the form that we know of it now, but that was coming. So very quick and compressed history of the novel here.
Jason Feifer: As best we know, for most of human history, the stories that were told were in some way foundational. They were tales that explained our religions or histories or leaders or our world. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, is considered perhaps the oldest work of great literature, having been written around 2,100 B.C. But it's about an ancient king who really did live. And so, while the story itself contains all sort of mythological stuff, there's a goddess, and a sacred tree and so on, it's clearly meant to, in some way, explain the world and its surroundings. These stories stood for something real, even if they themselves weren't. Then, not long after Plato died in the Hellenistic period of ancient Greece, writers started doing something different.
Thomas Pavel: What they call the Hellenistic novels in the first couple of centuries, they were invented. They were invented stories. You were not supposed to believe, "Look what happened to the hero of my country." You were supposed to, "Oh, these two young people who fell in love with each other, they're both beautiful and chaste, and so and so."
Jason Feifer: This is Thomas Pavel, a professor at the University of Chicago, who studied and teaches the history of the novel. And so, let's talk for a second about these very early novels. One of Thomas' favorites is known as the Ethiopian Story, and it was written by a writer named Heliodorus. It's a complicated love story set in Africa, with the lovers encountering all sorts of physical and political obstacles. And this thing represents something new in writing, something fresh and liberating. It moves around the world for centuries, inspiring other writers, the French, Italian, Spanish. But for all this time, the work of Heliodorus and the other novels it spawned were always seen as lesser than. They were these weird offshoot of the books teachers taught. And of course, those books, the ones that teachers usually taught, they contained the information that society thought was important to pass along. So books like Heliodorus's became contraband.
Thomas Pavel: This French playwright, Jean Racine, 17th century, very successful playwright, went to one of these schools at that time. And his teacher caught him reading Heliodorus under the table in Greek. He was a good student, he knew Greek. So he confiscated, he took it away. He said, "You cannot read stuff under the table!" At that time, it was still expensive. So poor Racine, he was 13 or 14, saves money from the money his parents sent him for food and everything, and managed to buy a second copy and read it under the table. And the teacher caught him the second time and took it a way from him and Racine answered, "You can take it. By now, I know it by heart."
Jason Feifer: There is your 17th century version of kids texting each other under the desk. They were busily memorizing the wrong Greek novel. But by the time of that anecdote in the 17th century, something else really interesting is happening with novels. They've become more widespread, and many authors are experimenting with them. And adults are gathering to read novels together in groups. In fact, the novels of the time were written with that in mind.
Thomas Pavel: They had weekly meetings reading a few chapters of this novel, imitations of Heliodorus, for instance, which were thousands of pages long. And they read a few chapters every week, a little bit like the TV series.
Jason Feifer: It was a book club, basically. The original book club, and for an original purpose. Not everyone could read a the time, so these groups would gather and the literate among them would read the book aloud, just little bits at a time, and then they'd sit and discuss. And so novels of the time were written for this kind of consumption. They were long and dense because they were designed to be parceled out over time.
Thomas Pavel: Not more than 20, 30, 40 pages at once.
Jason Feifer: And when I heard this, I thought, "Oh my god." Today, we're teaching literature all wrong. I mean, think about your own educational experience. At some point, and many points, I'm sure, you were in grade school or college and assigned to read some excessively long, impossibly dense book from hundreds of years ago. And you had to read it all in a week and it made you just hate the book. And now we know, don't hate the book. The book isn't the problem. The book was never meant to be read like that.
Jason Feifer: Like you're asking a kid to focus on this old text and read it in a way that it was not intended to be read.
Thomas Pavel: Right, right. It is a mistake. I know. As a teacher, I know exactly what you mean. So I'm sorry to tell the truth, even if this will put me in prison. But very often, I select with these incredibly long novels, the most important, the most relevant, I think, for the kids too, concentrate on what is best and not hate it.
Jason Feifer: That is true humanitarian work right there. I mean, it's like you don't give someone a pound of cheese and tell them to eat in an hour. No. Cheese is delicious but not like that. You get a bunch of people together and you parcel that thing out.
Jason Feifer: Anyway, those 17th century book clubs were largely centered around high class novels, featuring people doing high class things. But the novel was taking on some different forms as well, often for people's private consumption. There was the picaresque novel, for example, which would feature a scrappy lower-class hero who doesn't necessarily break the law but definitely breaks the rules. Now, okay, in the span of just a few minutes here, I realize that we have jumped from the Hellenistic period to the 17th century, and obviously a lot happened between then, different exploration of writing, different means of distribution, Gutenberg came along and by the 16th century, Europe was flooded with his printing press and that radically changed the way information, including books, could be created. But things really changed, and our story of resistance to the novel really picks up steam in the late 18th century, because that's when technology takes another very important leap forward.
Catherine Golden: Suddenly, paper is becoming cheaper and the printing is more common, and there's a proliferation of novels, 20 to 30,000 are published in the Victorian period.
Jason Feifer:This is Catherine Golden, professor of English and Tisch Chair of Arts and Letters at Skidmore College, and author of a number of relevant books here, including her most recent, called Serials to Graphic Novels: The Evolution of the Victorian Illustrated Book. And because publishing is suddenly affordable for the masses in the Victorian area, they are seeing new forms of novels appear seemingly out of nowhere. For example, you've got this genre that pops up called Newgate fiction, which romanticizes criminals. Oh, scary and dangerous criminals. And so, of course the experts of the day just go nuts, but not any old kind of nuts, they go four categories of nuts, at least as it relates to women reading novels, because they really, really didn't want women reading novels. And these four categories of nuts are a really excellent guide to the mindset of the time and how novels set off people's alarm bells. So it's really useful to go through them all.
Catherine Golden: I'm going to say that I, in my research, would put reasons against women's reading into four categories and then are combination arguments, but there's the biological argument, and then one I'm calling a medical argument, which is related, a trope of consumption and addiction, and also the moral argument.
Jason Feifer: Let's restate those. Biological, medical, addiction and moral. It's like the full Alex Jones playbook. So all right, let's take them one by one. First, biological. In the 19th century, doctors believed, well, a lot of crazy things. And among the craziest, is that women and men's bodies operated differently. Men had a catabolic constitution and women had an anabolic constitution.
Catherine Golden: The idea of the anabolic constitution is that a woman has limited energy, and she needs to conserve that energy for survival and reproduction.
Jason Feifer: I mean, am I the only one who hears this and thinks of like a BBC documentary about some far flung animal and its self-preservation methods?
BBC: The Galapagos Islands. Some of the reptiles that live here are particularly skillful at solving the problems of getting their energy directly from sunshine.
Jason Feifer: The women of the Victorian era lay on the rocks, their tales elongated, their scales absorbing the sun until they are recharged enough to return to the kitchen.
Jason Feifer: And of course, it's not likely to shock you that men of the Victorian era are not considered to have the same energy problem.
Catherine Golden: The man, with a catabolic constitution, has unlimited energy, and therefore does not have to worry about those sorts of things. So reading would take energy from this biological model, and it would take energy away from a woman's necessary reproduction functions.
Jason Feifer: This, by the way, is also why a woman's place is in the home. It's just logic, you see? She needs to stay and conserve her energy. She can't go out into the world and work. Why, she'd have no energy left for her family.
Jason Feifer: Now, category number two of Victorians going nuts over the novel? It's medical. This build off the biological issue. If women have this anabolic constitution and their energy is easily drained, then what happens if they do read and they do drain their energy? Well, the answer is quite clear. Their bodies will cease to function properly.
Catherine Golden: If I read it once, I've read it maybe 20, 50 times, so medical authorities make this very convincing, and at times damming arguments against excessive and unsupervised reading of this type of popular fiction, and they link it to early menstruation, they link it to painful menstruation, they link it to infertility as well as nervousness, insanity and death.
Jason Feifer: Infertility, nervousness, insanity and death? I guess we can do some quick fact checking here. I'm going to bring back Jen, my wife and co-author of our novel, Mr. Nice Guy. Jen, you read a lot of novels, and I suppose I should know this, but are you infertile, nervous, insane or dead?
Jen Miller: Well, I do get nervous sometimes.
Jason Feifer: Oh, yeah. That's true. I think we're going to need to cut you off.
Jen Miller: But I don't think that.
Jason Feifer: Hush now, woman. Actually, Jen is going to serve as our archival reader for the next portion for the episode, as it seems only appropriate to have a female novelist read all the insane things that people wrote about how the novel will harm women.
Jason Feifer: And the doctors of the Victorian era seemed really, genuinely alarmed by the idea of women reading novels. I went back and read some of their writing, and they have the same kind of frothy-mouthed urgency that you find in fundraising emails from congressional candidates, like "Stop this now or we will all be destroyed!" For example, there's this great part of an article called Novel Reading, a Cause of Female Depravity, which was published in a British medical journal in 1797. Here's a bit.
British Medical Journal: I have seen two poor disconsolate parents drop into premature graves, miserable victims to their daughter's dishonor, and the peace of several relative families wounded, never to be healed again in this world. "And was novel reading the cause of this?" inquired some gentle fair one. I answer "Yes."
Jason Feifer: Now, important question. If these novels are bad for a woman's health, why does the woman continue reading them? I mean, if you eat something and it gives you a stomach ache, you don't keep eating it. You don't order a second helping and a third and eat until you're infertile, nervous, insane or dead. So how to account for women's continued reading? That leads us to our historian Catherine's third category of Victorian arguments against the novel...
Catherine Golden: Which is consumption and addiction.
Jason Feifer: Consumption and addiction. The way people described books and the way they treated books was very much as something you consumed and became addicted to. For example, advice givers of the time described books as food. Most of the time, of course, you should be eating very healthy and nourishing things. The Bible and history books were your meat and potatoes. And novels were described sometimes as sweets, as in something you could have a little of alongside your meat and potatoes. But it's very tempting to overdo it. Other times, the novel was described more like a drug. Here are the words of Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, whose name you'll recognize because he was one of the inventors of cornflake cereal, but who also happened to have a lot to say about women's reading habits. And in 1882, in a publication called The Lady's Guide in Health and Disease, he wrote that novel reading is...
Jen Miller: One of the most pernicious habits to which a young lady can become devoted. When the habit is once thoroughly fixed, it becomes as inveterate as the use of liquor or opium. The novel devotee is as much a slave as the opium eater or the inebriate.
Jason Feifer: And that wasn't an original comparison. Lots of people were likening novels to liquor and opium. For example, here is the social reformer and nurse Florence Nightingale writing in 1852.
Jen Miller: They are exhausted, like those who live on opium or on novels. All their lives, exhausted with feelings, which lead to no action.
Jason Feifer: Let's recap all this so far, right? Women's bodies have a limited amount of energy, reading takes that energy, which is why it's dangerous for them to read. And if they do read, their bodies start breaking down. But they're helpless against all of this because reading is addictive. Now, it's time for Catherine's fourth and final category of opposition for women reading novels, and this one puts a nice little bow on top of everything we've heard so far. Here it is. The novel causes moral corruption. Assuming a woman somehow manages to survive reading these novels, of course, it will change her worldview. She will become immoral, living in a fantasy world.
Catherine Golden: If you read too much, you are going to become influenced, you're going to become dissatisfied with your life, you're going to want things that you can't possibly have.
Jason Feifer: Women dreaming big dreams? Wanting more than they can have? "Well," people of the Victorian era thought. "We certainly can't have that. And if novels are giving them these big ideas, then the novels have to go."
Jason Feifer: Now, you and I are going to hit pause on women for a moment and turn to another group of people that critics believed were too vulnerable, too easily influenced to have access to this dangerous new form of writing. Want to guess who these people are?
Actor (British): Somebody please think of the children!
Jason Feifer: Of course. The children. Here to set the scene is a quick sampling of some of the many, many things that people said about novels and children of the time. I'm going to offer three. We have, to start, the English essayist Vicesimus Knox in a 1778 essay called On Novel Reading.
Voice Clip (Vicesimus Knox): In vain is youth secluded from the corruptions of the living world. Books are commonly allowed them with little restriction as innocent amusements. Yet, these often pollute the heart in the recesses of the closet, inflame the passions at a distance from temptation, and teach all the malignity of vice and solitude.
Jason Feifer: And here's none other than our founding father, Thomas Jefferson, in a letter he wrote to Nathaniel Burwell in 1818.
Voice Clip (Thomas Jefferson): A great obstacle to good education is the inordinate passion prevalent from novels and the time lost in that reading, which should be instructively employed. When this poison infects the mind, it destroys its tone and revolts it against wholesome reading. Reason, in fact, plain and unordained, are rejected.
Jason Feifer: And finally, here's some news from the New York Times 1883 under the headline Ruined by Dime Novels.
Voice Clip (The New York Times): [Pence 00:30:10] and [McColough 00:30:11], who were arrested for shooting car driver [Groth 00:30:13] in the face and back when they attempted to steal his cashbox, confessed the deed today. The accused are boys addicted to dime novel reading.
Jason Feifer: The dime novel made them do it! That was a common claim back in 1800s, that dime novels, which were just cheap stories full of adventures, were turning children into criminals. And it sounds familiar, doesn't it? I mean, more recent examples were when the game Dungeons & Dragons was accused of making children satanic, and when video games were accused of making children violent, none of which is true, of course. Scientific studies have disproven the video game thing, and I guess just the lack of a generation of satanic children disproved the Dungeons & Dragons thing? But this is the predecessor to all of that. The novel turning children wayward.
Jason Feifer: So what is actually going on here? We asked Leslie Butler, an associate professor of history at Dartmouth College who specializes in American thought and culture in the 19th century. And Leslie says it's important to appreciate what was actually in the popular novels of the time.
Leslie Butler: A lot of those early novels from the 1740s on, are novels of seduction, where there's an innocent girl led astray or at least tempted to be led astray by a bad man. And one of the interesting things about it is that the novels themselves are usually pretty moralistic in that they're not embracing the seduction. I mean, usually the would-be seducers or the would-be tempters come to some ruin and virtue is rewarded. But I think, in telling the stories, the authors, the novelists, told the stories in exciting and sometimes titillating terms.
Jason Feifer: And all of that came is a pretty big shock to what Leslie calls the people in traditional authority, ministers, educators, politicians and so on, because these people are thinking a lot like Plato thought many thousands of years back when he was considering the dangers of early fiction. I mean, remember that Plato, like these people crusading against the dime novel, saw fiction as a manipulative tool. It draws you in emotionally and changes the way you think. Give someone a juicy novel and they'll come out of it a different person. It just seemed too dangerous to give young people access to these new ideas and these new worlds.
Jason Feifer: And hey, to give these critics some small amount of due, they were right that something about these novels is extremely appealing to people, and it does seem to move them in some way. It has some impact. But, as cultural critics almost always do, they failed to make the right connection. They saw a straight line. If you read about criminals, well then, you must be a criminal. If you read romance novels, well then you must become lusty and leave your spouse. But what if the impact is just more complex?
Leslie Butler: With novels, to the critics of the time, they may have seemed like poison or whatever. But we look back and we see them as important schools of sympathy or empathy. There's a way that reading a novel enters you as a reader into the interior subjective life of the protagonist, of other people, sometimes people like you, sometimes people not like you, especially when you're talking about novels. If they're being read by, say, the meddling sort but they're about a lowly orphan or something like that, it allows people to have this psychic and empathetic identification with other people that I think a lot of scholars see as, not causative, but certainly part of this huge transformation in sensibility that does occur around late 18th century and into the early 19th century.
Jason Feifer: And Leslie is talking about big changes that take place around that time. The anti-slavery movement, the beginnings of modern democracy, the first concepts of human rights. She says historians genuinely debate how much of an impact the novel had on those things. And let's not overstate the case, of course. You cannot draw a straight line from reading novels to any of that. Certainly not any more that you can draw a line from reading dime novels to entering a life of crime. History is not made of straight lines, even if history definitely is full of people who are convinced they can draw straight lines.
Jason Feifer: But all the same, we have an interesting data point to consider here, don't we? I mean, listen. We know for a fact that the opposite didn't come true. People's worst claims about the novel were flat out false. Women didn't rapidly decline into infertility and insanity, and boys didn't all grow up to be criminals. We know that. Time has settled the debate. Anyone who made such claims has been proven a fool. So that leaves us to consider other outcomes. If the novel had some kind of impact upon us, and it wasn't a destructive outcome, then what was it?
Jason Feifer: Thomas Pavel, the novel historian I spoke to earlier in the episode, had an interesting thought on this. We were talking about this recurring fear that the novel would introduce readers to other worlds, perhaps seedier worlds where people make bad choices. And he said, "it is better to read a lot to know about the huge variety of human behavior to be able to learn how to avoid bad examples." I mean, imagine that as an outcome. Critics believed that someone would read about bad behavior and then follow that bad behavior, but what if we actually just get to see how that behavior plays out? Reading novels allows us to run through some of the endless possibilities of the human experience, which is useful because we, of course, only actually get to live one of them. The novel allows us to see outside of our own experience, to broaden our understanding of the world, and instead of just being transformed by that insight, we use it to make decisions. We wouldn't have become captive to the novel. No, quite the opposite. We take what it has to offer us, and then, like any good book, we would put it on our shelf. In our minds, in our hearts, we'd add it to our collection.
Jason Feifer: And to be honest, that's how I planned on ending this episode, but then just as I was finishing things up, I came across this new piece by the novelist Will Self in the October 2018 issue of Harper's. It's called Print in Peril, and it opens with Self talking about this moment earlier in the year when he asked an audience how many of them have recently read anything by Norman Mailer. One hand, apparently, went up. From this, Will argues that, this is such a leap, screens are destroying literature. He writes, "Mailer's death coincided with another far greater extinction, that of the literary milieu in which he'd come to prominence and sustained for decades." The argument, I guess, being that people are reading on screens and they're reading less Mailer and therefore screens are the enemy of literature. Anyway, now, Self claims that he must rage against "the dying of literature's light."
Jen Miller: Wait, wait. Wait, wait, wait. Wait.
Jason Feifer: Oh. Hey, Jen. What's up?
Jen Miller: Will Self is talking nonsense, that's what's up. To claim that literature is dying because a bunch of people haven't read some dead white guy? That's absurd. Honestly, this isn't any different from the kid who had to hide Heliodorus under his desk. Just because people are reading a more diverse selection of books, and god forbid reading them on screens, doesn't mean literature is over.
Jason Feifer: Exactly. Exactly. He's like the cranks before him going back at least 2,000 years all just trying to define what's proper reading. Literature isn't dead. The novel isn't dead. But you know what? Even if it was, who cares? That's not what matters. What's important is that we, humans, are still telling stories. Stories are what's important. Stories will last. Stories will evolve and we will get better at telling them, and we will find new ways to tell them, and maybe in the grand history of storytelling that's yet to be fully told, the novel will turn out to be only a stepping stone in storytelling's evolution.
Jason Feifer: So what comes next? I don't know. But rewind a few thousand years before the novel existed, and the people of that time couldn't have answered the question either. They liked what they had. Then the novel came along and changed things and they didn't like that very much. Now, here we are, maybe in the same place. I mean, listen. I don't think the novel's disappearing tomorrow. I like the novel. I like that I wrote a novel with my wife. I think you should buy our novel. It's called Mr. Nice Guy. But if we all hold on too tight, if we can't imagine anything else coming along that's better or more meaningful or more powerful that what we already have, well then we'll make the same mistake our predecessors made. And we all know how that story ends.
Jason Feifer: And that's our episode. I have one final bit of novel pessimism to share with you, but first, let me say, hey, if you like what we're up to here, I have a favor to ask. Please subscribe to Pessimists Archive on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts, and review us there as well. The reviews really matter. You can also follow us on Twitter on @PessimistsArc, P-E-S-S-I-M-I-S-T-S-A-R-C, where we tweet amazing and hilarious snippets of old pessimism. Our website is pessimists.co and it contains links to some of the things we discussed in this episode. And you can also email us as firstname.lastname@example.org. I always love to hear from listeners.
Jason Feifer: Thanks to our sponsor, Element AI and Alex Shee the host of its AI Element Podcast, whose voice you also heard voicing all the opposition to children reading novels. Thanks to the experts you heard in this episode, Susan Sauvé Meyer, Thomas Pavel, Catherine Golden and Leslie Butler. Thanks also to Greg [Daleman 00:39:58], Jonathan [Smeltzer 00:39:59] and whoever picked up the phone at Angelo Patri when I called the school. And of course, thanks to my wife Jen. That novel we wrote, one more time, is called Mr. Nice Guy. It's a romantic comedy, it's lots of fun, it draws a lot from our own lives, check it out. Our theme music is by Caspar BabyPants, and you can learn more at babypantsmusic.com. The other music you heard was by Rafael Cruz, [inaudible 00:40:22]. I'm going to mispronounce these. [Franken 00:40:26] and [Franken Jay 00:40:28], Daniel Birch and Tri-Tachyon. The Pessimists Archive team this episode included [Louis Anslow 00:40:33] and Elizabeth [Briar 00:40:34].
Jason Feifer: And now, okay. Last bit of pessimism. Remember that article by Angelo Patri that we performed at the beginning of this episode with the back-and-forth? "Why, there's Claire, always with a book." That thing? That whole thing is so amazing. Honestly, I was tempted to just somehow jam the entire thing into this episode. Just it was long and I couldn't figure it out, but man, I really wanted to. It is so nuts. So instead, I've linked it to our website. You should go read the whole thing. But I am going to perform, for you, one last paragraph. This is Patri explaining the dangers of sitting alone and reading a book, and it gets deep. Okay.
Jason Feifer: Growth requires resistance, and resistance involves something or somebody to resist. Bodies must resist other bodies. Minds must be sharpened on other minds. Thoughts must be stimulated by other thoughts and actions are the expressions of all such resistance. Resistance is healthy, and it is essential to all healthy growth, whether of mind or of body. The child who constantly retreats to avoid resistance from companions is not healthy. He should be taken to a physician who will search out his difficulty and remedy it.
Jason Feifer: And of course, the retreat was reading a novel. Oh, boy. Anyway, thanks for listening. My name is Jason Feifer and will see you in the near future.
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