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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Are contemporary English and North American novels "gutless"?

There’s a very good discussion thread in today’s Guardian stimulated by an article which suggests that contemporary English and North American novels are gutless – “Sadly, the article argues, literary writers in these countries today seem to have no time for politics” (He recognises that Scotland and Ireland are different).
The discussion which follows is a serious one - some agreeing with the author's contention and offering reasons for the lack of contemporary Orwells; others profoundly disagreeing and offering examples of good political writing. I've selected just three of the offerings -
John Le Carré is someone I´d count as a political author, one of England´s best authors and someone whose status as a "genre writer" perhaps means he´s not given his due compared to the likes of Amis, McEwan and the other overrated stars of English Literary Fiction. While he doesn´t have the linguistic showboating of Amis, you learn far more about the way the world works and the fact that his works are allegedly thrillers has nothing to do with his intelligence and unwillingness to dumb down or sugar coat an essentially bleak artistic vision of humanity and the operations of power.
Really, good writing always transcends genre simply because it has an intelligence and craft and originality that stops it from being "generic". If a book is good its irrelevant what genre it is placed in as a matter of marketing speak. Bad literary fiction is genre fiction as well simply because it is "generic" in that sense, while good writing whether it be le Carré or Roberto Bolaño makes the notion of genre irrelevant.
When I say good writing there are many ways to be "good" of course. Le Carré isn´t a great stylist, in the way that say James Kelman or William Faulkner might be, or rather while he does write well, the style isn´t really what he is about, but he is a great drawer of characters and elucidator of the mechanics of the world. Whereas really what does Amis have which gets him so much attention?

Chakrabortty's chasing a packaging problem - if it is a problem. The book industry has strangled itself with high-cost hardback (auto)biographies of such distasteful entities as Blair, Bush, Brown, Darling, Prescott, Jobs, Lawson... not to mention its surrender before the supposedly fascinating lives of z-list celebs. Nevertheless, Michael Moore, Naomi Klein, Richard Dawkins, Howard Zinn and Chomsky (among many others) have managed to get opuses out that I'd qualify as deeply political. It's more that subversion and protest has shifted to a better packaging. Film. Inside Job, Slumdog Millionaire, Inconvenient Truth, Sicko, Farenheit 911, SuperSize Me, Frozen Planet, Munich, Darwin's Nightmare... Wider audience, greater impact, just as good as a book, extra commentaries on the DVDs. Chakrabortty may merely be suffering from a nostalgia for the printed page (and theatre, but the audience there is pitifully limited) but don't let this make you think that eloquent, hard-hitting, informed protest has ceased to be

I question the premise of this article unless the author objects to the lack of explicit, didactic political advocacy in fiction. I have read quite a few novels published in the last 15 years that are clearly political in their dissection of societal behavior and values: Pamuk's Snow (a wonderful book in the style of the late 19th Century Russian masters), Ballard's Super-Cannes and Millennium People, Le Carre's Absolute Friends, Ellroy's White Jazz and American Tabloid, Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis, Ma Jian's Beijing Coma, Mo Yan's The Garlic Ballads and Takani's Battle Royale, among others. All of them explicitly critique existing social and political conditions, encouraging us to ponder alternatives
If the mood takes me, I'll perhaps offer some thoughts of my own.
Here in my Transylvanian village of Sirnea, the Easter celebrations have already started - with the priests' incantations echoing around the valley. Very touching.

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