Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Head up #$% disease - a modern literary ailment

Saw something in the HuffPo...

Writers of the literary sort tend to be isolated, introverted, yah-dee-yah. They also tend to disdain modern socializing technologies.

The problem is, however, that their potential readers don't, and these technologies have quickly become enormous elements in the discourse of modern life.

As Joanne MacNeil sees it:
The average fictional character is either so thoroughly disinterested in email, social media, and text messages he never thinks of it, or else hastily mentions electronic communications in the past tense. Sure, characters in fiction may own smart phones, but few have the urge to compulsively play with the device while waiting to meet a friend or catch a flight. This ever-present anachronism has made it so that almost all literary fiction is science fiction, a thought experiment as to what life might be like if we weren't so absorbed in our iPhones but instead watched and listened to the world around us at a moment's rest.
Are literary writers anachronizing (not a word, I know, but it works!) their characters by imbuing them with their own authorial techno-uselessness or disdain?

Contemporary readers of contemporary fiction are now running into the same problem that post-Colonial readers had with the all-white, all-male Great Books pantheon. The works don't speak to them, because they do not resemble them.

Now, the other side of the coin is that by imbuing a work with period specific references, it hampers the ability of a work to later be considered "timeless."

I believe there is a certain arrogance in thinking that your work is somehow fit for the ages. Anyone dispensing that advice really is putting the cart before the horse (an anachronistic idiom that is yet somehow still relevant in our hyper-cyber-age!).

But even if you receive the approval of these fuddery gatekeepers of eternal lit, what they think and feel has no bearing on what time will bring.

A few years ago, I met with Ross King, who wrote "The Judgment of Paris" and he spoke about Ernest Meissonier, who, in the 18th Century was perhaps the most famous and celebrated artist in the empire. Of all the artists whose work and fame would survive through the ages, all were certain Meissonier would be foremost of them all.

Within decades of his death, his work had been derided, his name forgotten, and his art, which had once commanded sums only kings and emperors could afford, barely drummed up a pauper's two-pence and ha'penny.

All of which has led me to think that there's little point in writing for the ages. Write for today, if history decides that your work is worth remembering, count it a blessing, happenstance, or luck. No more.

1 comment:

  1. I think a lot of readers want to see their mundane lives and selves reflected in the books they read, while others feel threatened by anything superior to what they could do themselves. If that is the target market, you give excellent advice. But for those who don't write for such target markets, why bother? What does it add to the literary experience to say "so and so swept his iphone," or some some such drivel as that? It bores me to watch it on the street corner. Why would I want to read about it, when I read for insight into people's souls, not their jaded pastimes.