Why English Literature is Failing

The list of British best sellers is usually dominated by parish murder mysteries, John Grisham thrillers, and novels set every year before ours. Stories that reflect modern life are lost without knowing and without. The song of our country is not sung like it is now.

Their presence may be obvious. In our age of mass destruction, cost of living problems, and political upheavals, escapism – even murder – seems like a comfortable option.

This was not the case in the 19th century, when everyone from Anthony Trollope and Elizabeth Gaskell to Benjamin Disraeli turned their hand to writing novels explaining “how we live.” now”: is the title of Trollope’s 1875 satire of financial scandals. Gaskell North and South (1855) is an angry tour of the horrors of industrial England, as the naive and modest Margaret Hale is forced to leave idyllic Helston – a village like “in one of Tennyson’s poems” – and move to the right. A few millers’ riots, one right-wing cartoon and one naval mutiny later, Margaret was well-regarded and, perhaps more importantly, engaged.

Disraeli’s novel, Sybil or otherwise Both Nations (1845) is a similar exploration of “The Condition of England”. The poverty of those who lived in the industrial towns of England was so extreme that it seemed to belong to another country. Many of the works of Charles Dickens have an element of representation in similar places. Between ridiculous names, bad fog, and iron donkeys. Hard Times (1854), David Copperfield (1850), Oliver Twist (1839), a Philip’s House (1853) everyone tried to remind British people of Britain.

Middlemarch (1872), George Eliot’s “Study of Domestic Life”, is the most unsophisticated work of this genre. Focusing on the lives of middle-class English townspeople, Eliot explores everything from medical developments to the status of women in the 19th century.th century. But its regular appearance on lists of “the nation’s best novels” leaves me queasy. Was the book intended to be about the land revolution and the passage of the Reform Act of 1832, or was it a broad analysis of the intellectual?

State journals are defined as those that “address social and political changes”. This is simple, even simple: by its very nature, a work of literature answers social questions. In that calculation, Middlemarch It is certainly a state of national history, but so is the story of Douglas Adams The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979). Eliot, like Adams, toys with “the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything”. He gives us a world wide web of human connection, heart, and failure. Number 42 is unknown.

However, some modern historians have taken up the challenge. Amanda Craig has written a series of nine novels set in contemporary Britain, including the year 2020. The Golden Rule. For him, the records of the modern state are those, viz Middlemarch or one of Dickens’ or Trollope’s gifts, “helps us see how we live now”. He notes that contemporary figures such as Gaskell and Disraeli are few and far between, and says he is “bombarded with contemporary material by the media”.

Author William Boyd makes a similar complaint about the news cycle. “The common problem, it seems to me, is that time is faster than the 19th century”. There’s a problem for writers that an important story won’t be relevant in three years. He uses the example of Justin Cartwright’s 1995 novel In all the Faces I meet. The “central epiphanic comparison” is a test coined by former England football team captain Will Carling. As Boyd said, “that story will be forced into the footnotes in order not to remember the event”.

This was a small matter for Dickens and Trollope: their works were often published before print, in newspapers and magazines that carried news and stories. Instead of writing about the news cycle of politics and current issues, they became a part of it.

Thackeray biographer, DJ Taylor, has identified another problem facing the status of the national writer: the year Thackeray was born. Vanity Fair (1848), “the author can understand his social nature in a way that is not possible now”. They can understand the political, financial, and social environment. Currently, “no modern historian really understands the workings of money”. It is more difficult to define class markers and differences in a year where a six-figure salary can call itself a “cultural class”.

And, many historians are not concerned with the class-related issues at the heart of the state of history. There is, of course, an exception – the new Luan Goldie story These Roads about gentrification and the cost of living in East London; a place that the writer knows well. But it is difficult for a West London-based, Remainer, Lib Dem-voting journalist to write honestly about disillusionment and anti-EU sentiment in an old mining town.

The lack of fiction about modern life is nothing new. Among the most acclaimed books of the past year, it is difficult to find many that take, as a basic theme, the complexities and impermanence of modern life.

But it’s hard to say that there hasn’t been a blockbuster state of national history in living memory. In 2012, John Lanchester published Captain: a closely watched account of London life when the financial crisis of 2008 rocked the world. The lives of people living on the same street in London – from Polish builders to Senegalese footballers and wealthy bankers – are quickly explored, and a true picture of Britain in the 21st century emerges. .

Most recently, Ali Smith wrote it Low Season in the years after the Brexit referendum. Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer eat this year Friends Club to give an idea of ​​British lives as they exist today. While 19th-century historians recorded railroad timetables, the price of stamps, and contemporary legal battles, Smith was happy to describe the headlines and dedication. ekphrastic in describing the image. His books on modern life – Summer could have touched Covid-19 even though it was published a few months after the start of the epidemic – but, in their radical and characteristic, they are not “state of the nation” stories ” because they are symbols of the “state of literature”.

Neither Lanchester nor Smith have come to terms with the fact that this is where the tide goes. What is the reason for this reluctance to separate the daily lives of ordinary people?

For Boyd, there’s a good reason: it’s dangerous, and unrewarding, for writers to write about now. Many historians – literally – write about the past or semi-distant because “everything is fixed and visible”. Do not Red evening (1993) i The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth (2017), Boyd writes novels and short stories, but “he refuses to let the reader decide what age they are set in”. He takes “great pains not to make a subjective reference so that his current opinion may be ten or two years old and more conventional than accurate”.

But Craig took a different approach. The protagonist of his latest book, The golden rule, a single mother who cleans houses for a living and always strives to make money. But Craig believes that readers have been put off by the leftist educational potential of a book about poverty and income inequality. A state history “should be able to hold a mirror to some of the major problems and personal problems of the day and ask the readers what they love”, but “not The right compass is easy for people.75 years ago.

This difference in opinion marks a very different approach from the source of the modern details in the story. Are they meant to provide a “contemporary feel” – a new aspect of the story’s action – or are they part of the story’s direction, and why it was written?

With Boyd’s novel, the answer is the first – and for Craig, for his fellow Victorians, it is the answer. But for Smith, the answer lies between the two: new resonances give his stories time and purpose, but that’s it. Low Season It is less a story about modern life than a story about modern life but retains an element of detachment from it.

That’s why these stories fall into place. For Dickens, Eliot, Trollope, and Thackeray, literary culture was closely related to everyday life: stories appeared, literally, behind the news on the pages of newspapers – and often used events from current events such as design lines. In our day and age, writers, journalists, and the small book world are separated from “normal life”. (Publishing statistics show a shortage of corporate workers.) We don’t want to read stories about the housing crisis, corrupt politicians, and global chaos. when we can watch it on our television. In response, fiction found a home of its own from everyday reality.

But we should not be content with this part of literary culture from everyday life. Let’s bring back the stories that were covered in newspapers, the books with real politicians covered, and the stories about the little things of ordinary life. It’s not the issues or politics that readers remember about the novels of the Victorian state, but the images.

The Britain they lived in, with its financial scandals and famous celebrities, was not so different from ours. All the stories are there: Becky Sharpe today in a train box; Obadiah Slope in the Church of England at this time; something new Oliver Twist looking at the crying condition of the children in care; or Dorothea Brooke as an unmarried woman. What we are doing is waiting for the talents to tell them.

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