Saturday, 4 May 2013

Contemporary Literature

The fact that I found it so difficult to pick the right novel for this week’s review made me think about the strengths and weaknesses of contemporary literature. There are few living writers whose work I really appreciate, like for instance Ian McEwan. In the bookshop I always have second thoughts when it comes to widening my horizon and giving someone new a chance. It’s very likely that I’ll forget my good resolutions and buy yet another classic from before World War II in the hope that its being still in print is a sign of good quality. More often than not it is. 

Experience taught me that emerging authors who receive much critical acclaim can easily turn out to be a big disappointment. Indeed, it isn’t rare that I finish a novel written by such a newcomer with the feeling that I could do better. Weak reads aren’t a complete waste of time, though. Finding so many flaws in the books of others gives me the courage to continue writing myself and it helps me to further develop my own ideas about the ingredients of strong fiction. But why is it that contemporary literature tends to bore and annoy me so terribly? 

In the course of this week I read different articles (I posted the links of two on my facebook wall) raising the question if contemporary literature was always terrible and why. The commentators came to the conclusion that many novels were more self-portrayal than anything else. In fact, creative writing teachers and tutors use to encourage everyone aspiring at a career in literature to concentrate on themselves, their thoughts, their sensations, their feelings. This is a good way to learn to develop an original style and voice, but it’s seldom more. 

Ian McEwan brought it excellently to the point in a letter that the protagonist of Atonement, Briony Tallis, receives from the editors of a literary journal several months after having submitted the typescript of a story: 
‘… The crystalline present moment is of course a worthy subject in itself, especially for poetry; it allows a writer to show his gifts, delve into mysteries of perception, present a stylised version of thought processes, permit the vagaries and unpredictability of the private self to be explored and so on. Who can doubt the value of this experimentation? However, such writing can become precious when there is no sense of forward movement. Put the other way round, our attention would have been held even more effectively had there been an underlying pull of simple narrative. Development is required. …’ 
Towards the end of his novel The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafón has Julián Carax say through Nuria Monfort 
 ‘… that a narrative was a letter that the author wrote to himself to tell things that otherwise he wouldn’t be able to understand. …’ (My amateur translation from the original Spanish text). 
This hints at the ultimate goal of every writer to explain the world and life to himself and hopefully to the reader, too. Perceptions and sensations can help to understand, but they don’t just pop up out of the blue. They are produced by a certain course of events, they are tinged by the peculiarities of the characters experiencing them and they always follow a personal logic. 

I’m sure that a novel like Fay Weldon’s Puffball published in 1980 would long be forgotten today if it weren’t for Liffey and Mabs who are depicted in all shades of colours. They are very different characters and they are changing as the story advances. Emotions, perceptions and sensations get much room, but they always serve the purpose of the plot making clear why people do what they do. That way Mabs’ efforts to get rid of Liffey’s unborn baby become natural without losing their sometimes surprising effect. Fay Weldon tells their story. 

In my humble opinion many literary fiction writers forget today that they are supposed to tell a story, at best a captivating one. Other genres like chick’ lit, romance, fantasy, science fiction and thriller are so much more popular because their focus is on entertaining their readers. Personally I find most of the latter too predictable and thus boring, but I have no doubt that there are exceptions to the cliché. After all, if a novel is strong or weak has nothing to do with how it’s labelled by publishers. And of course it goes without saying that tastes differ – also in literature.


  1. Sadly, I rarely read contemporary literature, for one, because I have yet exhausted the 19th and 20th century canon, and as you have stated, there is too little story-telling in much of the modern offerings. There are a few writers I enjoy, however, including Geraldine Brooks.

    1. For many years I've avoided contemporary literature, too, Perry. When I plunged into fiction writing myself a few years ago, I thought it wise to see what's going on in modern literary fiction... the above post is the summary of my experiences so far. However, thanks for the comment!


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