Date of Degree

2-2020

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor

Matthew K. Gold

Committee Members

George Otte

Ashley Dawson

Subject Categories

American Literature | American Popular Culture | Digital Humanities | Other Film and Media Studies | Rhetoric

Keywords

death of the novel, sociology of reading, media studies

Abstract

This dissertation examines long-term shifts in the quantities and demographics (namely the race and educational attainment) of twentieth-century American literary readers alongside the rise and popular consumption of new media (namely television and the internet). The twentieth and twenty-first centuries are testament to a great expansion in the numbers and demographics of literary readers, and in turn an increase in the variety and intended audiences of literary publications. Examples include the rise of “middlebrow” readers and books in the 1940s and the rise of African-American, feminist, and countercultural small presses in the 1960s and 1970s. However, even as the variety of literary production and literary readership increased, so did the consumption of other emergent mass media.

While literary readers are more numerous and diverse than ever before, there have been in recent decades moderate declines in literary reading, likely due to competition with other media, namely television and the internet. The novel, never that popular to begin with, has been surpassed in popularity and purpose by emergent forms of media, creating new, though imperfectly “public,” spheres and audiences. In other words, new media have formed new vernaculars.

Rhetoric concerning the “death of the novel” or declines in reading ability has, this dissertation argues, been in response to real and significant shifts in the media landscape, including the enfranchisement of literary readers and the loss in cultural hegemony of the novel form in comparison to other media. While these dominant rhetorics attempt to situate these changes within a narrative of cultural crisis and decline, this dissertation considers an alternative discourse that emphasizes the continued enfranchisement and empowerment of media consumers through increased access to an education that prioritizes functional literacies over “great literature.”

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