I have recently read two novels that explore a post-literate future: Olympos by Dan Simmons and Red Rising by Pierce Brown. Both scenarios present horrific and disastrous consequences for these post-literate humans. You could say that it is kind of self-serving for authors to argue that not reading books has dire consequences, but history has proven them correct, repeatedly. As I read these books, and thought about my own ideas for a story set merely a hundred years in the future, I began to be more aware of the first signs of post-literacy rearing their ugly heads in the present. I don’t think I need to go too deeply into all of them, but the increasing fascination with “reality TV”, a marked preference among book buyers for non-fiction (coupled with a sometimes vehement rejection of fiction), the attack on (and outright dismissal of) humanities subjects in the universities, and rampant willful ignorance in an unprecedented age of information access, are just some of the signs that cause me alarm.
The main issue that I want to talk about here, though, is the decline of discernment. Lowered standards, in all of the arts, could be part of this slippery slope towards a post-literate future. It worries me that I might somehow contribute to this decline by letting down my guard when it comes to how I rate the books I’ve read on Goodreads. This may seem silly and monumentally egotistical of me, but I’m concerned about it anyway.
After reading both of the novels I mentioned earlier, I was torn over how to rate them on Goodreads. I really enjoyed both novels, so I immediately wanted to give them three star ratings. But something was nagging at me. I have talked about my problems with Simmons in previous podcasts and in a previous post, so I’ll refrain from repeating myself, but some part of me wanted to give him a two star rating because of these issues. As a punishment? As a warning? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Similarly, Red Rising was a really “fun read” (in some circles this can be more of a dismissal than a compliment), but there was nothing spectacular about the prose, there were many stock characters that we have seen countless times before, it is an obvious Hunger Games Bandwagon jumper, and there just wasn’t a great deal of depth to the novel. I thought to myself, “How can I give this three stars? Doesn’t that do a disservice to the other, much more accomplished, novels that I have given a three star rating? If I give this rating, am I contributing to the lowered standards in publishing? If I am a guard on the walls of Fortress Literature, how vigilant should I be? Too vigilant and you get an empty fortress with nothing fun to do. Too lax in your vigilance and the barbarians take over.” It was quite an existential crisis, I can tell you.
At the root of all of this, perhaps, is the difference between snobbery and refined, discerning taste. Snobbery is something received and unexamined. It is imposed from without. Taste is something that comes from within (informed, of course, by extensive study, and experience). The two are often intertwined, mistaken for each other, and are certainly kissing cousins, of a sort. I reject snobbery, though, and value taste. Pure entertainment is fine and dandy, but doesn’t it have to bring something extra to the table? I really like hot dogs and Cheez Whiz, but that doesn’t mean that I would like a steady diet of them, nor would I recommend them to others as culinary delights.
Do we need separate scales on Goodreads? More stars? Half stars? I don’t know. What do you think?