Are Modern Writers Getting Dumber?

“Monkeying with Literature” (ca. 1877–78) by William Merritt Chase

When I read the fiction of 19th-century writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Herman Melville (among others), I am amazed by the depth and sophistication of their work, both psychologically and philosophically—not to mention the craftsmanship of their prose. Is anybody writing such complex fiction today? Society does not seem to make writers like they used to. (Myself included—though such writers inspire me to elevate my work.) Keep in mind that those writers were not professionally trained to be writers—almost all were self-taught. How were people so long ago seemingly so much more knowledgeable than we are today when we have so much more knowledge? Perhaps that very “knowledge” is the problem.

Mass media gives us vastly more information than any humans from the past, but the medium of mass broadcast media is making us—on the whole—dumber. Modern society produces fewer individual geniuses and more average conformists. Writers in the past had far fewer books to read, but most books available were the classics of literature and mythology. Every educated person back then read Homer, Dante, and the complete works of Shakespeare. Now society is flooded with millions of mediocre books, which most people don’t read anyway, and instead watch television and Tik-Tok.

In a way, it is related to the degradation of art over time I referenced in this post about AI and DALL-E. It used to be that writers wrote books based on the ancient classics they read. Then writers wrote books based on the modern novels they read (based on the ancient classics). Then writers wrote books based on the tv and movies they watched (based on modern novels). Now we are in a postmodern age where writers are writing things based on other postmodern media (tv and movies based on tv and movies, video games based on video games), often with no knowledge of the ancient lineage of mythology, art, and literature.

With no internet, video games, or TV to watch, 19th-century writers had nothing better to do with their time than read books—and not just any books but the timeless classics of literature. Just about everybody back then knew every verse of the King James Bible by heart. When a text like that is second-nature, you will at least attempt to match its depth and prowess. Anybody today can do the same—self-educate themselves to the same level of literary sophistication by reading all the classics available for free in the public domain (and a rare few do). But it’s so much easier to just watch Netflix and scroll Twitter.

Of course, Poe, Dostoyevsky, and Melville were outliers of their time—the best of the best—so it might be unfair to expect anybody of any time to equal their greatness. My argument is that the average writer of the 19th-century was more intelligent and sophisticated than the average writer of the 21st-century—and the average readers of each age. Those 19th-century writers’ books are full of references to classic literature and ancient mythology because their readers were expected to recognize the references. Readers today, however, require footnotes to even recognize that a reference was being made, then they’ll need Wikipedia to understand what that reference means.

In a previous post, I wrote about my struggle in deciding whether to read classic or modern books, and I ultimately decided on both. I still agree with that sentiment, but the more classics I read, the more imperative I believe it is for people today—especially writers—to read the classics. So many modern stories are based on classic stories whether the writer realized it or not. These myths have permeated the collective consciousness and been reinterpreted time and time again. But it has become a game of telephone, where many writers of today lost the original message. For that reason it is worth revisiting the original well.

It’s not that older always equals better, but only great art is worth preserving over centuries, so the only centuries-old art remaining is inevitably great. Homer was not the only epic poet of his time, but the Odyssey was the greatest epic poem, so it was preserved while Homer’s mediocre contemporaries’ poems were not. There are likely writers as artistically and intellectually sophisticated as Dostoevsky, Poe, and Melville today, but they are difficult to discover through the literary chaff. Time will honor the unheralded geniuses of today though, as centuries from now most current bestsellers will be forgotten, but the hidden gems of greatness will remain.

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