Friday, February 01, 2013

Where is the 21st Century Literature?

What did the future look like 100 year ago? Culturally it was very interesting, for Stravinsky must have been putting the final touches to the new ballet he was working on with Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes which would premiere in May 1913, the crates containing the art works that would appear as "The Armory Show" in New York in February were probably en route or already docked; Ezra Pound was presumably collating the poetry that would appear in 1914 as "Des Imagistes."

Yet, the world at large wasn't yet aware. The 1890s had been an odd decade. The spoils of Empire were being shared around the European capitals; mechanised culture was becoming commonplace in our cities; nationalism was on its march to disaster; America was yet to ascend, though its East Coast wealthy were apeing the European bourgeoisie. For art you had to look elsewhere than England and America; the art of Fin de si├Ęcle, was a sign of the times; safe; genteel – or in the word that stuck to it, decadent. Henry James and Joseph Conrad's new fictions were doing extraordinary things but these were 19th century novelists moving beyond the books that had first got them noticed into a new and unusual place; the late Victorian poets collected in Quiller-Couch's 1900 anthology "The Oxford Book of English Verse" – were, Tennyson aside, an insipid bunch.

The modernist sensibility cannot be said to be have been conceived in one particular place at one particular time, yet by 1913, the conception was about to lead to the birth. "The Rite of Spring", "The Armory Show" and Blast! (which published in 1914 would include the first chapter of Ford Madox Ford's "The Good Soldier") weren't to prove anomalies, but summations of the new style. The devastation of the First World War would take many great artists and writers from us, alongside the rest of their generation, but there was already an art appropriate to the challenge of giving some sort of explanation.

So, how have we got as deep into the next century without finding a similar point of entry? Our "war" - on "terror"  - following on from the Twin Towers is a proxy one of course; for we are not really combatants or victims of it. For the Zeppelin, let us replace with the remote controlled drone. A literature that could reflect that terror may well be being sourced in the hills of Pakistan and the deserts of north Africa, but will it be ours?

Fundamentally, the innovations of over a hundred years ago - from social innovations such as Marxism and Freud to the growth of "mechanical reproduction," may well dwarf the innovations of the last twenty years, yet our "information age" is still in its infancy - we are, in some ways, redrawing the systems of our forebears with data (Google maps to replace the A-Z; email and twitter to replace the twice-daily post), rather than anything more fundamental: yet that will come. The art of the time reflects this change in two ways; a conservative nostalgia for old forms and old histories; and a frenetic activity that reflects our information age sensibility but rarely offers a fundamentally new art. In other words, we are hankering after the times gone, or simply drawing pictures of the latest innovation. Not so dissimilar to one hundred years ago. The art of modernism in the end soon diversified from the documentary attempts of the Futurists into something more abstract; modernist poets went back into antiquity in a reaction against the times; the music of Schoenberg and others was already reflecting a world where the symphony orchestra or the tea room quartet were anachronisms, or easily enough preserved on shellac discs.

When we look back in twenty or thirty years in this first part of the century I don't think it will be rushed fictions by middle-aged men about the impact of 9/11 or nostalgic poem sequences about dead loved ones or even novel sequences about the Tudors that will speak of the age; these are leftovers in many ways from a generation that is growing old slowly. Technology is both ubiquitous and in some way forbidding: how many of the X Factor youngsters have been taught any more than singing like Whitney Houston? Do they understand the mathematics and the science and the technology behind the auto-tuning or the compression techniques that blasts the new Calvin Harris production out of the radio? A hundred years on from modernism its "usefulness" as a term seems less obvious. There were writers with the same sensibility before it was named; there were writers who did different things who came afterwards and would have been impossible without it - whether or not they reacted for or against it. In many ways, literature is as much a social more as an artistic one. The soldiers coming back from World War II to educational grants because of the American G.I. act weren't just Mailer or Vidal, but a ready audience. Heaney would have surely succeeded in any age; but his role was probably consolidated by the Troubles, as was Coetzee writing in and against apartheid South Africa. The baby boomers generation are hitting retirement age and to put it simply: the generation born in the 70s is smaller, less wealthy and in many ways straddles the pre- and post-digital eras. In some sense we might be the ones to make sense of it: in other ways perhaps it requires "digital natives" born with a mobile phone at their fingertips to create the art of the 21st century.

And talent has a tendency to carry on regardless; to find a way - whether its a troubled Edward Thomas turning to poetry in the last couple of years of his life, or Kafka struggling between the expectations of his class and family and the realities of his uncompromising work. But also, we should recognize the qualities of the age. The contemporary media that has given us the ensemble art of the Sopranos, the West Wing, Breaking Bad, the Wire et al, is hardly one that has no new artistic surprises in it after all. Few artists are able to fully understand the technological age that we live in, or even realise that we’re still at the start of a period transformation not the end - and we are therefore yet to see fully the artistic advances of the disruptive technology.

The 21st century literature: it will come; it will come, as sure as night follows day. Forgive me for thinking that it has not arrived yet, but I'm enjoying the looking. 


Tim Love said...

In "How Authors Write" (MIT Technology Review), Jason Pontin claimed that "The technologies of composition, not new media, inspire innovations in literary styles and forms" (i.e, the typewriter had a greater effect than the book). Maybe.

Marjorie Perloff's pointed out that "surprising as it may seem, given the enormous political, demographic, and cultural changes of the post-World War II era, in the mainstream poetry press the lyric paradigm has remained remarkably constant"

I feel that the digital mentality might affect whether people engage with literature, but I'm less sure that literature will change much.

Adrian said...

I don't think its quite as direct as technology = change; more that it enables different sensibilities. Joyce and Eliot and Pound were "modern" but didn't really ape Marinetti or Dos Passos in their picturing of the modern world. A nature poem or a sonnet can be relevant in 2012 just as country music became relevant in 1969-70; but I'd argue it will have a different sensibility. The one thing I think we already see is a certain solipsistic art; and the allure of first person, present tense narratives. I'm personally not a fan, but I can see that its becoming commonplace. Maybe that's how we recognise the contemporary work?

Jim H. said...

There's a terrific review by Zadie Smith in an old NYRB (2008) re: Joseph O'Neill's Netherland and Tom McCarthy's Remainder. The link is here:

It proposes a reasoned, articulate response to your question.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Thanks, the Zadie Smith essay is very interesting but I disagreed with her overall premise, it seemed to me that McCarthy and O'Neill had more in common than different.

Its more interesting, in retrospect, given the style of "NW", as a debate she was having with herself.