As literary people we shall not shy away from trying to decipher the meaning of a speech, statement or literary work simply for lack of context. That we don’t know the professor or why he said so does not stop us interpreting his communication and its ramifications. We do that all the time, it is called Literary Appreciation. We look at the literal and connotative meanings, and consider context and intent etc. Context is important yes. But context itself is not homogenous; it is granular and involves immediate setting, situation and motivation and the wider millieu, setting, situation and motivation. In the absence of the former, the latter can shed light.
The Professor’s remark was loud and clear: “Literature appears to me to be dying”. That’s it. Why does he think like that? Why this pessimistic view? The wider millieu of academics explains this. I have related with academics and industry people and work with both as a consultant and teacher. This professor is symptomatic of an attitude among many academics (the gown) and other town’s people that innovation is debasing “good old culture” or theory.
Academics especially in literary fields, arrogate to themselves the custodianship of culture. They want to believe the established, and carefully abstracted rules of engagement which they have packaged in handouts, notes, books and other media are gospel and should be obeyed and not broken. They want you to write to the standards of Shakespeare, Tennyson and literary giants of old. Any deviation is a seen by them as a debasement or dilution of the “real” thing.
This is why when you write fine, “delicious” prose as essay for academics, they derisively dismiss your writing as “journalistic”. They would rather you write terse, boring cryptic prose as essay, and even then will pick nits in your work. It is the same conservatism that made them dismiss e.e. cummins’ poetry in his life time, only now to come to see his towering greatness posthumously. The same is going on with Rupi Kaur who, despite her popularity and commercial success in her niche, is dismissed by the academics. It is the same phenomenon we see in the initial rejection of Wikipedia as a veritable citation in academic work (fortunately, many are coming to accept it). In Poetry we have had this raging argument with the pessimists who think Poetry is dead too. As a protest to spite them we launched the #poetryisnotdead movement. You will find it on Instagram and Twitter particularly. May be in response to this professor of yours, we shall start the #literatureisNOTDEAD movement too. But I digress.
The academics (the gown) and some towns people who see innovations and emerging literature as not literature but a descent to the demise of literature, miss a very important point. Literature is a product of popular culture. I use popular culture not in the “glitz and glamour” sense of it but as activities and artefacts of a people in a given social millieu or the society in general. People had folklores, developed chants and incantations and unique techniques of rendering these long before it was carefully distilled and put on paper as literature. Since literature comes out of the culture of the people and is intended for consumption by the people, it naturally panders to the overall whims and caprices, and adjusts to changes in these.
In the 21Century for example, social media is a cultural fact and having literary works especially poetry and stories done by many, non-academic writers all over the world is a fact. That these things are not of the academia, makes them see it as bohemian (pardon my rhyme, am a poet). So they dismiss these as not good since, for example many poems are not crafted sonnets or allegories or some form in the way they are used to. There is a lot of free versing, free-wheeling innovation and flux. Rather than study emerging phenomena and literary expressions of the times (which is what they are paid for), they condemn and deride them ab initio. This is crux of the matter.
So, my take on the professor’s remark: Literature is flourishing. Just try counting how many good hard copy publications or blogs, social media posts and other online content are, say, stories, drama, poetry, screenwriting or discourse on the craft and practice of writing these & you will see that many academics are so far up “there” in their rarefied ivory tower, they miss the point: it’s all about communication and self-expression, its art!
No, Prof.. #literatureisNOTDEAD!