Sunday, January 25, 2015

There are Different Forms of Contemporary

Reading "Wolf Hall" it brought Tudor England into the present. Impossible of course, for the difference between then and now as so great as to not even work as a distended metaphor. But it tells us other things about ourselves. It is the birth of Protestant England; the birth of a process of independence from Rome and Papal rule, which allowed the growth of the English language; it also was an age of superstition, torture and state sanctioned murder - not so different than the world today if you know where to look.

I've always considered myself a contemporary writer - so that when people ask me I tell them  I write about the world we live in. And its true, I do, and will continue to do so. But looking at what I'm currently working on I realise there is a difference between being set in the contemporary world, and being about the contemporary world explicitly. Increasingly my concerns and interests are not about today, but have a wider scope - even if for reasons of expediency and style  the majority of my fiction is set in the day either before or after today. 

History becomes interesting not as setting, but for reasons of understanding. None of us rocked up in this world from nowhere. Create a character and he or she will have a history, a back story. There seems in an old country like Britain, a difficulty here - hence the continued obsession with class in the English novel - since change is difficult, it does not happen lightly to an individual. The fictional "life story" of rags to riches you might find in "Earthly Powers" or Jim Crace's "Arcadia" can hardly happen in contemporary Britain without a "windfall" of some sort. I've talked before about a certain kind of neurotic realism in contemporary British fiction where character/heroes are essentially static - the world happening to and at them, like in Nicola Barker's "Clear" or Tom McCarthy's "Remainder." We are adrift in a world where its hard to make our way, but harder still to be defined by our family and upbringing. In the TV sitcom the world of "family" has so often been replaced by that of "friends" (or "Friends") for we are uncomfortable with our historical place. Only late in their careers have - in "The Pregnant Widow", "Sense of an Ending" and "Sweet Tooth" - have our leading novelists gone back to what is now history - the sixties and seventies.

This lack of perspective is what creates difficulties for the young novelist trying to say something about their contemporary world - even about themselves - whilst at the same time not been pulled back into a BBC costume drama type of past. We don't seem to be in a world where the flux you find in F. Scott Fitzgerald or Hemingway for instance - men who had (like their characters) gone to make their way in the world - is even possible.

Yet writing about the present has its own foibles. The first person present tense of so many contemporary novels on the one hand; or the creative imagineering of impressive feats of historical ventriloquism on  the other; yet I think - and this is me writing in my forties - that when I want to write about the "contemporary" I now think of something different than I did even ten years ago. Now, I'm beginning to see that its possible to assemble my characters' lives from a meaningful history that in itself is now withered enough to allow change. I've suspected that a few writerly choices as to when things are set are to do with the fast changing technological times we live in. The simple thriller can't be as simple in a world of sat-navs, GPS, mobile phones and internet; similarly setting a book in the mid-90s safely puts us in a less technologically frantic age. We'll get used to it of course - I don't think one made too much notice of whether it was telegraphs or telephones, or motor cars or horse drawn carriages in "The Good Soldier" for instance.

The contemporary therefore becomes a useful setting, without being what the novel is necessarily about - yet I don't think I'm that concerned with the historical past so much as the social one. How my grandfather differed from my father differs from me seems an interesting story - more so than setting something in the 1930s or 1950s or 1970s. There are other writers who are more comfortable there. Similar to my writing of poetry, that is not so much about myself, but has come from myself in some way shape or form. I think I'm going back to an argument I've made here before - negating David Shield's "Reality Hunger" - that I'm much more interested in making things up. The world gives us plenty of setting to do this in; but even in a long piece, its surprising how soon your characters begin to crowd out everything else, wanting the room to tell their stories - and that aim you had to reflect on, say, the  Nixon administration, or punk rock, or Greenham Common, gets reduced to mere colour. Like in life, so in novels, so much of history is off stage. It's why I preferred "Wolf Hall" - with Cromwell on the rise, to "Bring Up the Bodies." The latter is too dependent on the court of Henry VIII, of which we both know too much, and paradoxically will always know too little. A Richard Yates novel - or "Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson which I'm currently reading - can tell us more about the times I think, through its concentration on a microcosm of those times.

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