Saturday, March 24, 2012

What Literature Is Missing

First, let's get away from the notion that the contemporary world is too crazy and complex for novelists to compete with and write about. That's a defeatist attitude. The historical chaos of the French Revolution and resulting Napoleonic Era didn't hinder the creation of some very great novels about that greatness and tumult. The years from 1938 to 1945 were filled with a couple centuries worth of history, war, drama, madness, tragedy and pathos. This was an invitation to the novelist. Our own time is tame and comprehensible by comparison.

What American literature is missing:

1.) ARTISTIC AMBITION. The ambition to portray, interpret, and explain our world. Fantasy, sorry, is a copout. Even magical realism. It's an attempt at a shortcut that I take as an insult to the reader's intelligence. It's an admission of failure-- the failure of the novelist to make the natural world seem magical and fantastic.

2.) INTELLIGENCE. All the great novelists were not only artistically ambitious, they were highly intelligent. They had large, comprehensive intelligence, of a kind that comes with a great deal of experience in the world, and being challenged, hurt, even terrifed by that awful and awe-inspiring world.

3.) CHARISMA. I don't know what fields the great minds of this society are going into. Likely there aren't any such minds. We know the great, larger-than-life personalities over the last several decades have been joining rock bands. Are there any in literature? The most we get from today's approved writers is cuteness and glibness. Superficial wit. Most of them walk around with negative charisma. Walking voids. Black holes emitting no energy, and when they read from their books, suck all energy from a room.

4.) PERSPECTIVE. What the entire intellectual establishment lacks is perspective and distance about their ideas and these times. There's no sense of the millennia of great minds who've preceded them-- they, in their unknowing smugness, are superior to the intelligence of the past. Even the recent past. There's also no sense of the future, of how more wise and more human intellligences in the future might judge our worlds of art, literature, and culture, those messy swamps of now.

1 comment:

nitpicks said...

This was an excellent post, thanks for writing it.

The qualities you list are antithetical to the role of "literature" since WW2. It's role is to shepherd public opinion first, make money second. You can't have charismatic, intelligent authors who can tell a good story because they might go rogue. God forbid they be historically aware- look what happened to Pound.

The natural result of this situation is compartmentalized literature that cannot deal with real issues.

I think that the arts have always been used as mouthpiece for power, but what may be unique about our time is how poorly the arts are used. When you throw away history, artistic training and willfully ignore what makes effective communication then you are left with art that nobody reads, views or listens to. The only thing left is just-add-water dross like The Twilight Saga and Coldplay.