Mad at the NEA?

Chart-topping Bill Clinton and David Sedaris are probably too busy counting royalty checks to be upset with the NEA for its recent dismissal of literary nonfiction. But there are plenty of others in the literati who think the “Reading at Risk” survey made a big mistake to “only cover poetry, fiction, and drama at a time when the whole country was completely ga-ga for nonfiction of all kinds — memoir, history, travel, and so on,” says Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review.

Unintentionally hammering home the idea repeatedly expressed in the survey — that more people are turning to the Internet during what could be a reading hour devoted to the classics — Genoways made that observation on the CLMP literary magazine listserv. Astutely taking issue with the NEA’s methodology, the obviously well-read editor listed the books he and his family read in 2002 that would not have been counted in the part of the survey devoted to “literature.” His list included Crossroads to Freedom, Masters of the Senate and Evolution’s Workshop — clearly, all titles that would lead to an active mind and a better engagement in our democratic process.

When PT questioned Chairman Dana Gioia on the NEA’s chosen methodology, he apologized to anyone in the publishing industry he may have offended. “We meant no disrespect to John McPhee or Andrew Solomon. And if we had to do it again, we would add literary nonfiction.” However, he doubted that would add much of a positive spin to the survey results. “If you added the literary nonfiction, it is my opinion that it would add 5% or 7% to the numbers,” he said. Gioia refered to the part of the survey that asked the 17,000 participants if they had read any book at all. Only 56.6% said yes. “The total number of books being read is going down among every region, every race, and both genders. And that includes the Bible and diet books,” he said. “I wish I were wrong, but I believe that most of the people reading literary nonfiction are also reading other types of literature.”

Finally, he said, even though the biggest drop in reading is among young people, it is falling in every age group, and he thinks adults need to look inward, not point fingers. “If people want to know how to solve the problem, they should look in the mirror.”