Saturday, February 13, 2010

Modern fiction: Boring or what?

There's an interesting article on the blog of the New York Review of Books called "The Dull New Global Novel" by Tim Parks that posits "authors’ perceptions of who their readers are [are changing], something that inevitably leads to a change in the kind of text they produce". In a reductive nutshell: writers are writing for a more global audience and it makes their books dumber. I disagree with your premise, Mr. Parks!

This may come as a surprise to the people who know me in real life. I have variously been described as a curmudgeon or a "hater" or, less kindly, a total jerk, when it comes to the analysis of contemporary works of fiction. And it's true that if you ask me to start listing the best novels I've ever read, the overwhelming majority of authors on that list will have been dead a very, very long time. But I think that's just because history has a deeper catalog to choose from, as opposed to the list of people who are alive and writing today, February 13, 2010. I'm pretty confident that if I lived in 1904, I'd be saying "Aside from Conrad's Nostromo [which didn't even make Publisher's Weekly 10 best-sellers list] everything else that came out this year was pretty much shit." That's just the way it is. And I am equally confident that the works of, say, Harry Mulisch and Hilary Mantel have entered my own personal canon forever, and will endure long after both they and I are gone from this Earth.

That being said, I don't find the claims and fears of Parks--himself an accomplished novelist and translator--very worrisome, and they seem to me to be the literary equivalent of the miscegenation fears of the 19th century. Yeah, the commercial mushing-together of attitudes maybe lessens the cultural distinctiveness of geographically or culturally separate people, but ... so? It's reasonable to argue the inequity of the mushing, as I think English-language writers have to make few, if any, of the concessions Parks' speaks of to make their works more accessible to foreign readers. But even if we are in fact careening towards a literary dystopia in which separate cultures all become one titanic monoculture, my question is again: So what?

That being said, when I hear things like Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro speaking out on "the importance of avoiding word play and allusion to make things easy for the translator", it does make me cringe a bit. As a retailer, of course I want writers to create works that are accessible to people, that will enable authors to connect with as wide an audience as possible, and that will insure the writer is reasonably compensated and able to make a living. As a reader and a lover of literature, however, I don't care about any of that. I just want people to create enduring works that take nothing into consideration other than the works themselves. Write big or write ... home. You know what I mean.

Don't get me wrong. I realize that commercial considerations have played a role in virtually all important works of literature created at any time in any language, and to propagate the myth of the "real", "noncommercial" writer is stupid and juvenile. People who write only precisely what they wanted in their first draft and refuse to ever change any of it are not magical towers of integrity, and people who listen to the advice of their editors to make all their characters' names easy to pronounce in English are not sell-outs. Reducing greatness to a checklist of the concessions, for whatever reason, the author is and is not willing to make is a loser's game. It's a moving target and I don't think there's any formula for it other than for authors to only write books they think will be capital "G" Great.

[Image of Winslow Homer's "The New Novel" from Wikimedia Commons.]

1 comment:

Peter said...

It's not exactly true that authorship has always been a commercial consideration. Commercial literature starts with Balzac, before that it was only really the printer who produced for profit.