Cinema Lit

By Burnham, Alexander | The Virginia Quarterly Review, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

Cinema Lit


Burnham, Alexander, The Virginia Quarterly Review


Had I decided in my student days to become a gentleman scholar in bow tie and tweed jacket rather than a newspaper reporter in tattered raincoat slogging through the muddy trenches of life, I might have conducted a course in literature. Had I done so, I would have called my class Cinema Lit.

My reason for this should be quite clear to academics au courant with today's students. In a world plunging recklessly into a 21st century gorged with electronic amusements, it is obvious that the solitary reading and appreciation of literature is near rock bottom. What galvanizes the students in their stylish universities is what excites the six billion or so people who live in less rarefied and less expensive settlements. That intoxication is movies, whether emanating from large theater screens or from all-day, all-night television tubes.

Forget those literary intellectuals in New Haven pontificating incomprehensively about deconstructed, meaningless, indeterminate texts; those literary lights in New York in a tizzy over the "meanness, vengefulness and pettiness" of Simon de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre; those chattering classes in London pondering solemnly over which youthful writers should be crowned with the Booker and the Whitbread. The college students and the unwashed billions "couldn't care less." Ernest Hemingway's Catherine Barkley can't compete with Demi Moore's striptease mom; Leo Tolstoy's Prince Andrew is no match for Sean Connery's 007; and Victor Hugo's grim Quasimodo just doesn't come close to Walt Disney's loveable hunchback. The "dumbing down" barbarians are no longer at the gates. They have invaded and conquered. And professors of literature-at least those who reject the exaggerations of the multiculturalists and the absurdities of the deconstructionists-have become like monks, keeping alive the literary faith in monastic classrooms.

Princeton University professor Alvin Kernan has aptly described literature's problems in his book The Death of Literature (Yale 1990). He wrote: "Television and other forms of electronic communication have increasingly replaced the printed book, especially its idealized form, literature, as a more attractive and authoritative source of knowledge." As for today's egocentric authors who seek to replace Wharton, Donne, and Moliere, he said: "The art novel has grown increasingly involute and cryptic, poetry more opaque, gloomy, and inward, and theater more hysterical, crude, and vulgar in counterproductive attempts to assert their continued importance. What was once called `serious literature' has now only a coterie audience, and almost no presence in the world outside university literature departments."

Some years ago, in a break from a prominent newsroom whose reporters and editors strove to construct accurate, meaningful, and determinate proper English, I became the editor of a distinguished New York book publisher whose sedate Madison Avenue offices reflected its early l9th-century foundation and a proud literary history that included Trollope, Tolstoy, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. (Regrettably the firm no longer exists, taken over and soon killed by a wealthy religious publisher whose goal was not literature but proselytizing New York's wicked literati.) In a quest for enlightenment, I decided to accompany a member of our sales department to the fortress-like headquarters of a mighty chain of bookstores whose acceptance or dismissal of a book can make or break it in the marketplace and strongly influence its appearance or nonappearance on The New York Times bestseller lists, where the unexceptional achieves celebrity. My idea was to learn how our latest group of books, which included our never-failing treasure Agatha Christie, was being received outside our editorial sanctuary.

We were warmly greeted by a sleek young woman, and over preliminary cups of coffee we had a chat at which we learned that she was a fairly recent graduate of a university of majestic reputation. …

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