Essays - Autumn 2018

The End of Literature

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Even If writing is reduced to tweeted epigrams to keep readers reading, won’t writers still tell stories?

By Robert Coover | September 4, 2018
Flickr/Matthias Buehler

Literature’s mainstream is not a river that flows between fixed banks, but one that must be cut, and it is the experimental writer who, avoiding the backwaters of the often more lucrative and momentarily celebrated conventional writing, can be found at the cutting edge. We all know this. But what if literature itself is an expiring holdover from the last century, using an outmoded technology and fast declining into an archival state of primary interest only to scholars and hobbyists, the current worldwide proliferation of writing programs nothing but an ironic death rattle? What if it’s over, and the wildest and most brilliant of experiments won’t revive it?

Some 33 all-too-brief centuries ago, the 13th-century BCE redactor of the then-500-year-old Gilgamesh epic, our oldest known sustained literary narrative, added a frame story that pretends to locate, hidden within a copper foundation box under the legendary ramparts of Uruk, themselves by his time long since fallen into dusty ruin, a text engraved on lapis lazuli and perhaps inscribed by Gilgamesh himself upon his return from his adventures, which presumably is the story about to be told—a modernist, if not postmodernist, metafictional contrivance right at the very beginning of what we call literature. Which at the time was itself a new experiment, so new that the author of the original epic didn’t even have an alphabet with which to compose.

Literature, etymologically “things made from letters,” can be seen as a specific artistic process, containing within itself its own potential and limitations, one that began at a certain time in human intellectual history, a time when written words themselves were often believed to be sacred and magical, and a process that has evolved over the subsequent centuries, using generations of writers to fulfill itself. But for many reasons—a radical change of focus, a discontinuance of the tools including writing itself, a sense of completion or exhaustion or irrelevance, an impatience with the attention demanded, a transfer of such activity into other media less “made from letters”—such a process can come to an end.

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