Lev Grossman at the WSJ has written a fascinating piece on the state of modern novels.
The key question that this answers for me is:
Why are books such as Harry Potter or Twilight, which are read and loved by hundreds of millions of people of all ages, considered to be ‘young adult’, unliterary, too-easy? The fact that you are so engrossed in the pages that you can move through the entire novel within days, is somehow a bad thing.
Conversely, why are novels that are ‘critically acclaimed’ but read by almost no one, because no one can finish them and recommend them to friends, held up as real, literary stories?
The answer to this is – the Modernist writers.
Prior to the mid-1800s, stories reflected the life of those times. Quiet; lit by gas lamps and candles. Generally speaking, the fastest you could travel was the speed of a horse, and even they needed rest. Steam powered trains and ships were opening up an era of travel.
For the generation born in the late 1800s however, these stories held no relevance. Their world was noisy and dirty. Lit by electric lights and powered by internal combustion engines – they witnessed the birth of mass media, mass market advertising, psychoanalysis. War transformed from horse cavalry to tanks and bombers.
They created a new style of writing. They sought to capture the confusion, loneliness, and messiness of real life. Life wasn’t structured, leading to neat, happy endings. They threw ‘plot’ out the window. They layered their writing with symbolism, allegory and a requirement for the reader to analyse and interpret. Who is speaking a particular line of dialogue? Is it the protagonist, or his conscience, or an external narrator, or a new character? You decide.
This introduced the element of ‘difficulty’ that critics so prize today. Writing was no longer for the mass market – it was for those with the education, and interest to pore and struggle through these books seeking to unlock the real meaning within.
An easily-understood, exciting, and readable story has become supermarket fiction. Cheap. A little embarrassing. A somewhat guilty pleasure.
Grossman argues that now, after 100 years, things are finally changing. A whole new breed of writers are developing novels that are both intelligent and highly readable. These books don’t need deep analysis and deep patience. He suggests writers such as Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Donna Tartt, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Richard Price, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, and Susanna Clarke.
I think I’ll look into this myself. I’ve finished the Twilights and Harry Potters.