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Mass Literacy and the Revolution of Literature

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | January 16, 2014 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | January 16, 2014 |

We all know what “literacy” means, at least if you have the skill set required to be reading these words, you do. Literacy means being able to read and write. Seems simple enough. Except that the word wasn’t even invented until 1883, which if you recall from history, was slightly after the development of reading and writing. Before that point, the word “literary” was used in place of “literate”, and yet included all the modern connotations of “literary” as well: a knowledge of literature, a comfort with the classics, cultured in the field of books.

For most of human history, there was only need for one word, because the two concepts had not diverged. Education was an elite privilege, and being able to read went hand in hand with a classical education on literature. If (using the modern meanings of the two words), you were literate, by definition you were also literary.

So what changed? Well someone came up with the bright idea of letting the unclean masses learn to read and write, and everything started to go downhill. See, mass education had wonderful humanitarian proponents who wanted it for its own good, so that the peoples of the world could better themselves, learn, appreciate art, and all that progressive jazz. But the ball really got moving on the project once industrialization hit and it became clear that an educated population meant workers who could be trained and retrained as progress marched on year after year. Mass literacy was largely a function of realizing that it made for better human cogs in the new machine.

Teaching cogs to be functionally literate so that they could read manuals was the breaking point in the two conceptual halves of the old world notion of being literary. Gone was the assumption that being able to read meant that you’d become familiar with the Bard and were comfortable reciting a bit of Marlowe in the midst of conversation.

A side effect of all this was the explosion of communication, of a thousand newspapers and the first glimmerings of pulp fiction on paper barely fit to be rags. The people were discovered, no longer just the endless waves of peasants to be alternately ignored, squeezed, or repressed, but now fully functional cogs in a mounting machine. And those millions of thinking souls, communicating and thriving, could be used for more than just laying more and more steel. Mass movements, you see, rippling out across the entire Western world, a generation behind mass education. Fawned over, bought off, twisted to work against their own interests, the masses were raw political force, and the only thing that couldn’t be done was ignore their effect. All the great ideologies erupted on the backs of mass mobilization: fascism, communism, and yes our favorite friend democracy.

It did more than mere politics though, it made art a mass thing as well. It’s no coincidence that this was the age of the birth of the novel, after so many centuries in which it was epic poetry or high-minded essays that dominated print. And as millions of people read instead of thousands, what they read multiplied as well. When only a tiny percentage of people read, the market for producing new literature is extraordinarily small. You have the greats, a smattering of others, but in absolute terms, a very small number of producers.

But once you have a market in the millions, you can fragment, you can target the niche. Genres detonate for the first time, because there are actually enough people reading, that it became feasible to produce things that might appeal to a fraction rather than have universal appeal. Horror, science fiction, fantasy, all of our little subdivisions of writing originate during this short period of time when mass literacy becomes a reality. We found a new equilibrium after millennia of the old.

See, it’s not that the unwashed masses were incapable of being literary, it’s just that they were a fragmented sort of literary by their sheer numbers. Any of them were as literary as the previous generations of elites, but within new universes of literature that had not existed a century previous. Distinctions were established, battle lines drawn as they always are when privilege gives way to universalism, over ideas of high versus low culture, and other transparent ways of establishing that these people are different than us.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here and order his novel here.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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