Is There Still a Role for Literature in 2020?

A year-end letter from Electric Literature's executive director

Light bulb against cloudy sky
Photo by KS Kyung

Dear reader,

Every year, we re-evaluate what makes literature exciting, relevant, and accessible, and recalibrate our role in furthering that mission. We hope you’ll support Electric Literature’s work with a year-end contribution today.

Wouldn’t it be convenient if literature’s value was self-evident, and the argument for why it must be supported didn’t need to be made? But year after year, global and national events call into question the relevance of reading, of writing, of creative expression, of work that is created and experienced in solitude. What is literature’s value in a pandemic? In the face of rampant injustice and racially motivated violence? In a brutally divided, tribalistic electorate?

We ask these questions every year, as we think about the role of literature in general—and Electric Literature in particular—in helping us face national and global challenges. And at first glance, it’s hard to make the case that literature is what we need. A lone book cannot solve a country’s entrenched racism, or crisis of empathy. It cannot explain Trump voters, or reverse  the climate crisis, cure addiction and disease, or even really heal pain. Literature cannot solve society’s problems anymore than it can single-handedly fix society’s mistakes.

Literature is not the antidote to the news. It is the news’s complex, variegated shadow,

What literature can do is reflect and observe these experiences in ways that are startling, illuminating, insightful, and personal. What you do with that reading experience is up to you. Literature is not the antidote to the news. It is the news’s complex, variegated shadow—the countless volumes of human experience that get reduced to ten-word headlines. 

If you don’t know why literature matters, if you haven’t felt that truth in your bones every day of 2020—whether or you read more than ever or were often too distracted to focus—then I am not going to be the one to convince you. If you know, you know. 

But I can tell you that Electric Literature plays an essential role in keeping literature exciting, relevant, and inclusive, when every force threatens to convince us otherwise—whether that’s reductive dialogue about literature that treats art like a zero-sum game, or a publishing industry that has silenced marginalized voices for decades.

The point of our mission is that it is a moving target. What is relevant, exciting, and inclusive changes year to year and must be renegotiated. In publishing, there can be no resting on our laurels. As the world changes, we must respond. We must change what we read, and what we write. 

Every day this year, Electric Lit worked to provide a platform for writers who have been historically excluded from the literary conversation, on topics that you care about. We supported debut novelists who published into the toughest marketplace for books in recent memory, and we elevated extraordinary short stories, flash fiction, and poetry by writers who deserve your attention.

We know there are many worthy organizations vying for an end-of-year contribution, and we understand if there are other causes that you’d like to support. Many of you have already given to Electric Lit this year, either as members, donors, or attendees of our virtual events, and we are immensely grateful for your support. But if you are able, and you believe in literature’s intrinsic value and want to see us continue to fight for its rightful place in our culture, please make a donation today. 

Gratefully yours, 

Halimah Marcus

Executive director, Electric Literature

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