Thursday, February 05, 2009

Is Literacy Doomed?

The latest CEMETERY DANCE (No. 59) contains an interview with distinguished British horror anthologist Stephen Jones. He views with alarm the state of literacy in general and the condition of mass market horror fiction (while remaining hopeful about the future of the genre, the demise of which has been predicted many times in the past). He says, “Most kids are leaving school sub-literate,” and, “Almost nobody reads these days.” He mourns the passing of the time when we used to “get our information from words.” He doesn’t count the information (and fiction) readers find on the Internet as worthy of notice. (While many newspapers and websites are part of the “dumbing down” process, as he says, surely not ALL are?) Jones considers blogs and personal websites a waste of an author’s time and lumps together all e-published and POD books with unedited, shoddily produced self-published releases.

Coincidentally, Thomas Monteleone’s column in the same issue laments declining standards of literacy among would-be writers, as demonstrated by the low quality of slush pile submissions. He points out an alarming frequency of misspellings that make it evident the writers are trying to write words they have never seen in print. In other words, even many aspiring authors aren’t necessarily readers—and I agree that trend IS alarming, if true. As Garrison Keillor says in today’s column, “Writing is an act of paying attention.” Disdain for the niceties of spelling, punctuation, and usage implies a distressing lack of care for one’s own work as well as the material one reads. Monteleone connects this plight with what he considers the disastrous state of education and general cultural literacy.

My overall reaction to the two CEMETERY DANCE articles is along the line of, “Calm down, get a grip, it’s not THAT bad.” Viewers-with-alarm seem to forget how novel the ideal of universal literacy is. In the “good old days” when people supposedly read lots of books and were well acquainted with literature and history, those who attended high school, let alone graduated, were in the minority. Even in my youth (when dinosaurs roamed the Earth) I suspect the “bad” kids were either expelled long before graduation or at least not discouraged from dropping out. Nowadays, schools pursue the goal of having all students complete a secondary education. So of course the average gets pulled down, now that high school students represent the entire population rather than a select group (the group those people nostalgic for the good old days are actually thinking of when they compare yesterday's level of public education with today's). Meanwhile, a college degree has become the entry-level employment qualification that a high school diploma used to be. So of course everybody is urged to go to college, even if not well prepared, because they may find themselves jobless otherwise.

As Isaac Asimov pointed out in one of his essays, people who voluntarily read for pleasure have always been a minority. Only the competing leisure activities have changed. As for the legitimate causes for alarm that do exist, in my opinion it doesn’t help a bit to dismiss wholesale all instances of new formats, e.g. e-publishing and POD, as substandard and inauthentic. Does anyone seriously believe the comparatively few books for which mass market publishers have room on their lists exhaust the number of good submissions they’ve received? Small presses and other alternative publication venues give those worthy-but-rejected books a chance to find a home. The widening and varying of the fiction delivery system, to me, is something to be celebrated. Yes, Sturgeon’s Law holds true; 90 percent of everything is junk, and maybe the ease of online publication makes the 90 percent more visible. The other 10 percent, however, should have fresh opportunities find its audience in this “brave new world” reading environment.


  1. Well said. If nothing else, THIS blog should prove Mr. Jones' assumption is far from accurate.

  2. Aah one of my pet subjects.......
    “Most kids are leaving school sub-literate,” and, “Almost nobody reads these days.”
    I have a son who is 22 and would possibly have fitted this description. Having a twin sister, his speech, reading and writing levels were well below the norm at school. (And my efforts to keep him back a year at the start were resisted by everyone so that the precious twin bonding wouldn't be broken.....) However, when he left school, the internet, blogs, fan fiction and the need to follow dialogue online improved his level dramatically. Even his spelling improved. OK, Tom Clancy, Matthew Reilly and Terry Pratchett aren't Pulitzer Prize winning authors, but at least he reads them! If it hadn't been for the internet, he would have been a lot worse off.
    “Writing is an act of paying attention.” Disdain for the niceties of spelling, punctuation, and usage implies a distressing lack of care for one’s own work as well as the material one reads. Monteleone connects this plight with what he considers the disastrous state of education and general cultural literacy."
    I have no argument with this quote. I was educated in an age where spelling and grammar were important. But it was taught at an early age. Having to Precis a paragraph, meant you really had to pay attention to what the article was saying. Admittedly, the main reason for it being taught was so that you could send telegrams! (I told you I was ancient!) However, that ability has been so helpful to me ever since. For example, I can read reports and immediately find the crux of the argument. So perhaps if educators got their acts together, taught the basics at the right age and used the new media better, we might be better off.
    Small presses and other alternative publication venues give those worthy-but-rejected books a chance to find a home. The widening and varying of the fiction delivery system, to me, is something to be celebrated.
    Spot on Margaret, thank you for your blog!

  3. The problem is, too many teachers are also sub-literate.

    I encountered one recently who couldn't punctuate his own name!

  4. Thanks for the comments. I'm glad at least a few people don't think I'm an ostrich or a Pollyanna on this subject. :)

  5. “Most kids are leaving school sub-literate,”

    I have three teens, my life is full of teenagers, and there are plenty of kids who read! They fueled the Harry Potter Craze. And they are still reading as far as I can see. My teens read, all their friends read. Fiction is huge with these kids-the future college bound, debate team, marching band, decent grades kids-they read and write it(fan fiction). But they are different than the older folk--these kids use laptops in the class room, they communicate with text messages and have their blog on you tube.I think ebooks are not as popular with these kids because of formatting issues.

    I think these kids might like interactive ebook/readers sites similar to what they find in fan fiction where immediate comments and reader interaction happen all the time.

  6. I think the amount of teens reading is on the up. Well in my town it is anyway. There's always been a lower than expected reading level from graduating students and yes the curriculum has been dumbed down somewhat since everyone is forced to stay at school until year twelve here. What used to be an academic two years has now become a generic two years of high school. So compared to thirty years ago the average student is less academic (but that's mainly because the numbers of students have tripled that finish high school now).
    As a high school teacher I have encountered colleagues that needed help with English. Heck I had even forgotten exactly where the comma goes (but have since rectified that). My take on the whole thing is that Jones is panicking. He needs to accept that perhaps some blogs aren't academic. That's okay.

  7. Literacy isn't dead. It's just changing. Parents must take charge of their children's education, at least in the United States. Most public school teachers are overworked, their teaching time stretched to accomadate a myriad of different programs besides the Three R's.

    The Number One Thing all parents, grandparents, and/or anyone who cares about the education of children can do is *Read Out Loud* to them from birth. And don't stop once learn to read by themselves. Even teens like it. Everyone likes to be read to. Surround them with great books.

    Reading is the key to every other aspect of their education. Nurture that passion and the topic of this post will become obsolete.

  8. While I was in the UK for the holidays, I was sad to notice that the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) isn't like it used to be.

    In the days when Angela Rippon and many other distinguished colleagues were responsible for the news, great care was taken to pronounce foreign Proper Nouns correctly, and all sentences were constructed perfectly.

    It wasn't always the easiest of listening, but it was a shining example of civility and respect not only for the newsworthy persons, places, and issues but also for the audience.

    Nowadays, it seems, everyone in front of the camera speaks in breathless headlines, which usually admit to more than one interpretation, and which lack articles, auxiliary verbs, and other necessary parts of speech.

  9. The insane state of the sub-genre of reality TV that is called news these days is another whole ball of wax. You could do a whole blog on that alone.

    I do just want to say one think though. Not all people who can't spell or use a comma come from crappy schools.

    I went k-college to very good private schools, they tried as hard as humanly possible to force spelling and grammar into my brain. It just never took. I remember dozens of uncomfortable parent-teacher meetings and nights of crying myself to sleep on the subject.

    In college, I was required to take remedial English with the foreign students and basketball players, although I tested out of so many other requirements that I was a sophomore in credits the first day I walked on campus.

    In 1978, when I was 19 years old and halfway through college, my psychology prof, asked me to take some testing, after he saw my first written exam. He was working an advanced degree studying learning disabilities and wanted me as part of the research.

    I was diagnosed as Dyslexic. It was great vindication that I hadn't spent my whole life screwing around and not applying myself.

    So, bad spelling and poor grammar don't always go hand in hand with stupidity, sloth and disrespect. I try and try but I just don't see things.
    The e-revolution is both a blessing and a curse. Spell check is God's personal gift to me - You may not have known that. but don't worry I don't care who else uses it. But, Spell check only goes so far. It is harder to see mistakes on a screen than on paper, and you don't have the option of hardcopy review on all forums.

    Just keep that in mind the next time you see a blem in a blog or forum.

  10. Mfitz,

    I have the greatest respect and sympathy for those with word-blindness. Two of my nearest and dearest male friends/family members are dixies.

    But, you don't teach English Language, do you?

    Now, I am number-blind. I couldn't teach maths.

    Best wishes,
    Rowena Cherry

  11. mfitz:

    Jean Lorrah, my sometime collaborator on Sime~Gen, a popular fiction writer on her own, and in other collaborations -- Jean Lorrah is a now retired Professor of English who taught English since the year she graduated college.

    And yes, it's hard, but knowing what is different about your perceptions from the perceptions of other people -- especially those the reading and writing lessons are designed to teach -- is the one, biggest clue you need.

    And hey, I appreciate spell-check and even the auto-correct feature for my ingrained typos.

    Thus you see typos on these posts!

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  12. I don't teach English. I only speak it.

    Math isn't my friend either, but I can write a pretty good computer spread sheet, so I get by. :-)

    One good thing growing up in an uber-verbal family with lots of teachers, actors, politicians I learned at an early age to speak well and speak up. That has been a huge gift that paid off in everything I've done in life.

    I think the problem with schools isn't that they don't teach kids to read & write, but that they don't teach them to form, articulate, and defend their own thoughts. In any format.

  13. All true! That's why editors are so indispensable.

  14. God bless folks who live to copy edit!