Something is rotten in the current state of literature. But first, a confession.
As much as I love reading literature, I prefer classics. This is because I’m frustrated with many traits of modern literature, and believe that it’s not reaching its full potential. I noticed this when I read Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. The novel is acclaimed, with The Guardian naming it the best book so far this century (in the English language). Whilst reading it, I enjoyed Mantel’s use of historical detail. She’s clearly done her research, and she understands the nuances of early modern history. But the prose left me cold, as if Mantel was showing something shiny, but not allowing anyone to touch. That’s a shame, because the best historical fiction invites the reader into a complex wormhole of both tragedy and rebirth.
Is the book bad? No, of course not. Mantel is not a bad writer, either. But neither her nor Wolf Hall ever maximise their potential. Considering early modern England was alight with intrigue, drama, passion and warfare, this is a shame. I’m also aware that certain early modern writers, such as William Shakespeare, were also accused of simplifying complex subject matter. Yet Shakespeare married his evergreen themes with a rich vocabularly and a genuine innovativeness.
In Romeo & Juliet, a play I’ve defended in the past, the motifs of love and fate are well established. But what Shakespeare does is remind us of their urgency, through brilliant storytelling and language. Likewise, in Macbeth, Shakespeare twists prophecy to cruel proportions.
The early modern writers were not perfect. But they were also inventors who used their passion to forge new ground in the earth of literature. John Milton’s terrific Paradise Lost contains the most memorable depiction of Satan, precisely because of his willingness to experiment and take bold risks.
I don’t see that in modern literature, but I might in the future. Some authors are reasons for hope: A.S Byatt and Cormac McCarthy. But they are of an older generation, and younger writers must learn from them. The great Umberto Eco passed away a few years ago, and he was an inspiration for myself. However, simply learning from established authors is not enough. Writers must add something new, take risks and offer fresh perspectives.
The awful thing is, in this age of ‘cancel culture’ and easily offended morons on Twitter, few writers have the willingness to take bold risks or make the reader actually uncomfortable.
There’s a reason why The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littel is mentioned so often in this blog. Very few authors, particularly in the West, have the guts to use a Nazi protagonist. When I read The Kindly Ones, it stood out in a mediocre sea of WWII literature that is more comforting than disturbing. As someone who loves history, I must argue that there is nothing ‘comforting’ about history, particularly WWII. When I read All The Light We Cannot See, I was disappointed that the novel didn’t challenge my intellect or assumed morality.
Am I saying that all WWII books need a Nazi protagonist or a ‘grimdark’ tone? No. My point is that literature has lost its edge. Books that ought to disturb and frighten taste like comfort food. The French author Michel Houellebecq is divisive in the English-speaking world, and thank goodness for that. It’s a sign that he is interesting and has something to say.
Of course, not all books must be disturbing or even provocative. But all books need a ‘spark’: something that makes the novel special. J.K Rowling, the author of Harry Potter, is called ‘unoriginal’ with her wizarding world setting. And that’s partially true. But what J.K Rowling accomplished is fusing influences from different historical periods together.
In Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire, Harry’s act of taking Cedric’s body back to his father mirrors The Iliad. However, her novels are a feast of medievalism and early modernism, with witch hats and references to Nicolas Flamel. There’s also a breath of modernity, too. She tackles authoritarianism and the Enlightenment, while paying attention to gothic and modernist literature. (Severus Snape is not too different from Heathcliff, the Byronic Hero in Wuthering Heights.)
Mentioning Harry Potter often causes eye-rolls and accusations of childish writing. After all, Harry Potter is children’s literature, and as much as I love it, the morality isn’t that sophisticated. This is emphasized in the fifth Harry Potter novel. A character named Marietta Edgecombe gets mutilated via magic after betraying Dumbledore’s Army. I don’t take issue with Hermione Granger’s ruthless punishment. If anything, it makes her more interesting.
But J.K Rowling never explores the moral arguments or nuances in this action. It’s accepted as righteous justice, which is a shame, because I loved how J.K Rowling allowed depth to Draco Malfoy in the later books. Yet despite that, Harry Potter is a terrific example of a book series having a ‘spark.’
For every book and author, a ‘spark’ will present itself differently. Part of Harry Potter’s charm is that it references other literary works and history. What J.K Rowling does, however, is create an awesome sense of mystery that travels through all seven books. I’m not looking for a perfect work of literature: but I am looking for a novel or series that captivates me and stands out. The Kindly Ones was that for me, even if the sex is icky. (I can handle it!)
What I can’t stand are novels that earn so much acclaim and attention but lack anything mesmerising.
Recently, I read Susanna Clarke’s latest novel. Piranesi. It’s a short novel, far less than Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Clarke has interesting ideas about traps, prisons and reality. Sadly, the novel lacks the spark of her debut. It has no soul, as Clarke has covered similar ideas already in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. That’s okay, but she doesn’t add anything new or interesting. It’s a pleasing book, but it has little staying power. Whereas I felt transported by the fantastic Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I am bored by 2020’s attempt at ‘literature.’
There are books I like, such as The Snow Collectors and The Tolstoy Estate. I gave them positive reviews, while pointing out flaws with formula and structure. But they couldn’t save the mediocre state of literature.
To put it simply, literature is boring me. And it shouldn’t.
What are your thoughts? Comment below!
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