Saturday, December 20, 2014

Thoughts on Written Language

There's probably a time - an age - where your use of language becomes fixed; where's there's little else that you'll learn, no new words, or none you'll find comfortable with, and no new idioms. Similarly the things you say, and the way you say them (or write them) will become detached somehow from the world around you. It may well be, if you're a professional writer, that your audience will grow old with you, that you will speak to them in a familiar language; but however educated you are (and the more educated, in this case, perhaps its for the worse) there will be an inevitable disconnect from the written world around you.

As a kid I couldn't understand why things like The People's Friend still existed in the magazine store. I used to occasionally read the stories in old hardback volumes that collected Boys Own Stories or similar, and the tight print was almost unreadable. This was a language as musty as the smell of the books it came in. The classics on the other hand held up, and influenced our own idiom. As a fifteen year old reading "Pride and Prejudice" I didn't go all "this is dull" but having read a fair share of old books by then, could take joy from its language as well as its story, only stopping dead to ask the teacher to explain what an "entail" might be. I distinctly remember it wasn't the language which was the problem but the social more of a house being passed down on the male line and - more strange - that it was not on death that this was the consideration but during the life.

Language changes, and we might use Chaucerian or Shakespearean phrase or idiom but to speak like their characters speak is now only allowable in comedy sketches. It would be naive to think that the twentieth century - that time of change in so many ways - was also not a time of change in language. From the first "talkies" through to the internet, technology has influenced and changed things. We laugh at class difference language of Monty Python sketches, yet that knowing separation between working class and upper class registers is in itself now an anachronism. In novels its often a sign of something when we begin to find a writer dated; often that he or she always was and that the warning bells can't now be ignored - now that the passage of time has moved on.

I was thinking about how this pace might be quickening even. There was a debate online about criticism which I mostly kept out of, but was wondering how many of today's contemporary writers engage (or indulge) in criticism. Do we not read critical essays by David Peace or Nicola Barker or David Mitchell because they have nothing to say, or because they never get asked, or because their time is spent only on their fiction? When Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith drops a long essay in the New Yorker or somewhere we sit up and listen because, I think, its a little rare. But one aspect of this absence is that the culture around books changes and the interrogation of language also changes.

This week you can pick up the 25 year old "Doolittle" by Pixies, a reissue of an album I remember coming out and buying on vinyl (though oddly I had their debut on CD), a quarter century ago. We know music dates and dates us. But in some ways its a different way: music's a time capsule of the immediacy of when it was recorded. We listen to "Doolittle" and wish music was as loud, spontaneous and sinewy as this these days. Hearing them play tracks from it this summer, it was a no nonsense set, that to these ears didn't sound dated (but of course I was there with lots of men of a certain age, though the audience was much wider than that as well.) We don't quite get the same thing with prose of course - though perhaps the Book festival or Radio 4 is the same thing - "ah yes, its that nice Clive James or Jeanette Winterson" or whoever. It may be years since we read the book and we probably don't want to read the latest, or even the last ten since the "hit", but identify with the writer, with the sayer of these things.

This creates a conundrum for the contemporary writer who is now in his forties (me, say) for what am I but an anachronism? It sometimes seems that there was a moment, a wet Wednesday in 2004 perhaps, where I went from being always a little futuristic in my prose, to being always a little fusty? I exagerrate of course - but you look up from the pages of the book you are reading and wonder if the type of book you've been striving to write all these years is now on its way out before you've even had your say. Like the Magi in the T.S. Eliot poem you've been waiting all your life for the messiah, only to find you are too tired and set in your ways to truly appreciate his arrival. Yet if we are talking about a life lived without - being born out of age - in our peaceful, abundant, post-war west we've had it easy. I've never had books I can't read - no samizdat. Instead the whole of the world's best literature has been constantly available to me, and yet I've made (we all make) so little use of it.

One thing reading McEwan's "Black Dogs" was thinking about how likely or not a book like this would get published, especially if from a first time novelist, these days. Its written in such a high style, and its so circulambutory in its holding back of plot that I think not. Moreover, though it pretends to be a book from a solipsistic narrator it quickly uses this only as a wrapper, as another story unfolds. I reread the first fifty or so pages of "London Fields" by Amis recently and it was a wonder - just purely joyful reading him at his phrase-making best. Yet how indulgent is this kind of serious prose (even in a funny book.) The paragraphs are long, the descriptions are blocky. It actually seems closer to Dickens than it does to, say, David Nicholls. Serious books, serious writers, even younger ones still want to tackle not just the story or the first person narrative, but the many layers of writing. Here's where Will Self's "oh woe is me" about the death of serious literature - and serious readers - comes to pass I think; that as the audience for this kind of depth resides, it becomes anachronistic and dated. And the pace of this thing - with so much passing by us in the info-heavy age - means that I can speak for myself, a pre-internet, pre-computer reader, and realise that a fifteen year old would have to be pretty focused to follow my reading regime when there's so many other exciting things around him.

It seems that there's a weird corollary to this in the publishing world where we can see a young writer like Eleanor Catton write a Dickensian novel and win the Booker, or a snappy, snazzy short story writer like Colin Barrett gain many plaudits for a "Winesburg, Ohio" set in contemporary Ireland, and nothing is really wrong - serious books are still being written. But there's an immediacy about both those examples - like Zadie Smith in "On Beauty" - which can occasionally seem too easy to like. "Black Dogs" would seem - had it been published this year - eligible for both the Goldsmiths and Folio Prizes, yet this is McEwan we're talking about, a writer we generally think of being moderate and to some degree minimalistic. Turns out he was actually a late modernist all along.

I sometimes think this blog sticks to the same number of readers, the same few comments, not because of anything inherently niche about it, but because its unable to step beyond that wet Wednesday in 2004 - I was once future-talking, but in an age of ghost written Youtube vloggers, I'm inevitably old hat. I should find a hook, start talknig about "my life" etc etc. Yet more positively we see longform journalism coming back - think sites like Medium or the Guardian's long reads - and niche magazines of cultural criticism like n+1 and the White Review seem to be saying there's more to life than the TLS or the New Yorker.... then again, the year's media sensation has been "Serial", "In Cold Blood" for the podcast generation. Our language betrays us like nothing else in our life, a signature as time-heavy as the rings on a trunk.

I suspect I won't get to say anything more before Christmas, so, in time honoured fashion (old/new collisions), a happy Christmas to all our know who you, Johnny.


Jim Murdoch said...

I dedicated 2014 to reading. I hadn’t really planned to but I was so scunnered by the lack of (and by ‘lack of’ I mean ‘non-existent’) sales of my short story collection that I ended up not wanting to do anything bar sit curled up with a good book. So I did and no sooner had I finished one than I picked up another and then another. I’ve just finished my review of 2014 in books and it makes interesting reading. (It’ll go live on Sunday.) What surprised me was the fact that over 90 of the 160 books I ended up reading were published in the 21st century. Since I was indulging myself I expected I’d end up reading mostly from the mid-20th century but, no, it does seem that good (and by ‘good’ I usually mean ‘literary’) novels are still being written. Far, far more genre novels are being churned out though and that’s what most people appear to want but I do suspect that’s always been the case and more people read good books in the past quite simply because less books were available. I also noted that a lot of the novels I was drawn to were foreign novels; could it be that the literary novel is not as looked down on in other countries as it certainly seems to be in the UK? What amazed me were the number of writers I kept running across who’ve been slogging away for years that I’d never hear of or only heard of. You mentioned Pixies and, oddly enough, you reminded me of The Fall which was a group I read about all the time in the seventies—they were the darlings of the music press—but I never actually heard them play until a couple of years ago and they were awful. And I feel that way about so many writers, like Amis and Self; I’ve read about them but I don’t know them. I suspect more people know Self as one of the Grumpy Old Men than have ever read a word by him. A part of me never wants to read him so he keeps his mystique.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Even when I've read or listened to a lot of old stuff I find a surprising amount tends to be more recent. Its a long time since I've had the chance for such a reading spree. 20 a year if I'm lucky these days, so must have given you a bit of a perspective on what's out there. You must have caught the Fall on a bad day, at their height they've been amongst the best live bands I've ever seen - though the band has changed every few years, so its hardly comparing like with like. Self's hard to get into - his stories are better than his novels, with the exception of The Book of Dave which I think is brilliant.