Those who have studied the big bad world of literature are familiar with a slew of different “-isms” that were trendy at some point or another: surrealism, symbolism, acmeism, etc. For some, these names referred simply to the style of writing. But the very differences in style themselves were the result of each “-ism” constituting an idea or a set of ideas.
It was this battlefield of ideas (if I may borrow that overused but excellent term) that gave literature its relevance, in contrast to the creative writing monotony of today. Poems of some kind and stories have been told from the very beginning of time in societies across the globe. But the phenomenon of literature, as it developed in Europe, brought the art of storytelling and the art of verse to a new level, as exemplified by the ideas behind these trends.
A story was no longer just a story. It was something that transcended the very ink from which it was penned. It is the reason why Dante was not just a poet, Cervantes was not just a storyteller and Shakespeare not just any ordinary playwright.
It was not the only time literature reached a specific height. One may cite Icelandic sagas, evolving independently in the remote and removed island of fire and ice. One may mention Lady Murasaki, who is considered the first novelist but whose Tale of Genji played no other role in the development of world literature, just as Leif Eriksons journey to Vinland played no developmental role in Columbus’ discovery (as far as I know).
For better or for worse it was the Western tradition, directly descended from the Ancient Greeks and Romans, that eventually reached that higher level and made what would otherwise be normal storytelling transform into a high art. Other traditions would only reached that level with poetry, such as Sufi poetry for instance. Even so, Sufi poets were not known to reinvent the wheel of storytelling, a change by which the Western tradition eventually defined itself. Poets like Rumi were not interested in experimenting but in expressing their love for God, among other things. They wrote for an already-earmarked set of ideas – Sufism, or Islam – while writers, the ultimate symbols of individuality, developed universes and philosophies that, with a few exceptions, might not have done had they followed the path of a Kierkegaard or a Kant.
And now we come to today.
The literary world has felt a malaise for awhile now as it quietly realizes the Golden Age stemming from the Enlightenment and ended with the collapse of the Iron Curtain has done just that: ended. This malaise takes its form in several different ways among its victims, usually aspiring writers. Sometimes it constitutes the feeling that every relevant topic has already been discussed by somebody greater than them. In other cases, the internet has arrived, everybody watches TV now and writing a masterpiece is pointless if nobody will read it. In my opinion postmodernism and the rise of the superficial argument of relativism plays a role in making literature tepid, although its effects have been a lot less catastrophic in literature than they have been as a social and academic philosophy.
Either way, for writers who admire greatness, with each passing of a legendary writer – whether it is Gunter Grass and his vivid, Danziger imagination or the very insightful and anthropological science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin – one feels an empty void stretching before them, and one in which they feel helpless.
So what can a writer do to change that?
While observing the literary climate while talking or listening to aspiring and successful writers, several things have struck me as of late. Things that have also, in my humble opinion, disprove the notions mentioned above.
Starting with relevance. Whether it is an underlying theme, a certain period in history or, in the case of science fiction, a certain subgenre like robots, cyberpunk, galactic exploration and whatnot, those who know the history of literature well can identify a great author who has developed a certain theme in ways that are stupendous. Revenge? No better place to turn to than the Count of Monte Cristo. Robots? Karel Capeks play or, if you’re running scared at the concept of literature in translation, Asimov’s classic I, Robot. The bombing of Dresden? I barely need to mention it for most people to think of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. The list goes on.
A brief look at certain literary traditions, however, show that attempting to be original is not always necessary. Whether it is Stendhal, Gide, Mauriac, Balzac or Zola, French writers have produced countless stories with “challenging” (for lack of a better word) love situations. They might come in different flavors but these French writers did not feel the need to think up some quasi-original nonsense and pretend to be relevant. All they use is quality while allowing for the influence of the era they live in to furnish the rooms, so to say.
Another informative literary history is that of Czechoslovakia or, to be more precise, the Czechs living in that political entity (the Slovak tradition developed separately and has had other concerns throughout its history).
While establishment writers approved of by the Communist regime did not always write drivel, there was a distinct difference between them and dissidents like Vaclav Havel, Ivan Klima, Bohumil Hrabal and others who were only able to publish via samizdat. While their storytelling is top notch (insofar as they do or do not experiment with that format), their prose brimming with quality and their voices irreplaceably unique, the premises of their stories, while blessed with imagination that in my opinion surpasses magic realism at times (especially with Bohumil Hrabal), are themselves expansions of very ordinary but very timely situations. Nothing altogether new: maybe in the Czech tradition, but not internationally. Milan Kundera, for example, made his novel debut with The Joke, a critique of the government as the Prague Spring of 1968 was approaching. Ivan Klima writes more richly, beautifully and sensitively about Czechoslovakia in the mid-1980’s than any other writer ever will. Not in the 90’s. Not in the 70’s. But in that period specifically.
Most writers I’ve encountered today who write what is now amusingly titled “mainstream” literature write historically (Anthony Doerr, for instance), nostalgically (Smith Henderson of Montana, whose regrettably weak novel Fourth of July Creek takes place a few decades ago) or about overblown issues not as relevant as people think they are (like Ta-Nehisi Coates). Just as it was easier for a Czech writer to write about how bad the fascists were during the Occupation rather than the inept nature of the Communist regime, it is easier for Americans to write about the racism of the past than it is to write about the ideological degeneration of the far left and the Progressive movement. Or to even entertain the notion, however slightly, that they might be wrong about something.
There are some writers writing about the issues of today. Most of the time it is about the devastation wrought by America’s excessive and ridiculous usage of drugs. But much of what I’ve read is so nihilistic that not only does the writer seem too impartial as to this world of devastation (one unfortunate effect of postmodernism: too relativistic) but the new generation of writers fabricated in creative writing programs gives all these stories what feels like an invisible stamp of approval, as if somebody somewhere decided that writing about communities devastated by drug use is an acceptable topic to write about. I don’t know how else to explain the similarity all these stories share, stylistically and contextually.
Not to mention that the very nihilism of the story decreases its accessibility, which outside of the avant-garde is essential even if you’re wordy. I personally find Dostoyevsky more accessible than these stories because beneath the heavy language lie core ideas that any human being can understand and relate to as long as they possess an open mind. There’s a very good reason why one of the early voyageurs concerned with the subject of nihilism, Ivan Turgenev, did not narrate his excellent novel, Fathers and Sons, from the perspective of Bazarov alone, the nihilist in the story.
And as much as I think great writers out there should write about this issue if their pen is up to the task (something like television has done with Breaking Bad would be most remarkable), it is, in both the domestic and international scheme of things, a rather tepid issue compared to the political mess engulfing virtually every country in the world, including the United States.
Where are stories that take on these larger issues as writers in the past were strongly obliged to do? Are they simply underground and I haven’t heard of them yet? Salman Rushdie and Michel Houellebecq are the only writers I can think of offhand who have written about some of the current modern malaises from the perspective of fiction. Houellebecq, who stoked some unfounded controversy with Submission, got into a lot of trouble due to the coincidental release of the novel at the time of the Charlie Hebdo attack. I personally hope he keeps writing, as Salman Rushdie has done despite the fatwa being put on his head.
These are only two writers, however, and while I will say sto lat like the Poles say at birthdays (which means 100 years) both Houellebecq and Rushdie are not young men anymore. In such uncertain times, we need writers who will fill this nihilistic void and address today’s issues head-on. Not by beating around the bush, but by actually writing about what is going on. Not by being propagandistic but by being artistic.
This, I believe, is the way literature becomes relevant again and the cure for the malaise. The ideas are there. Why are writers of fiction not seizing them?
Writers need to do what YouTube has been doing for a few years now: bring fiction into the battle of ideas while the great stories of literature are still relevant for many people. It is something I plan on attempting, as creatively as my brain can muster. I hope I won’t be the only one.