I’ve been trying to read more contemporary literature, but sometimes when I do, particularly the books that are popular, that make bestseller lists, I feel as though I’m suffocating in book. As though there’s too much book there.
Here’s what I mean, more specifically. I’ve been trained in a nineteenth century literary tradition, in Charles Dickens and George Eliot, as well as in what broke that tradition the literature of the turn of the century, of early modernism. By which I mean writers like Oscar Wilde.
The books I’ve tried to read recently are in the nineteenth century tradition, of the big, fat book that moves slowly, that gives a full and vivid description of a secondary world, whether that world is Middlemarch or Middle Earth. The Harry Potter books are heirs to that tradition. They are books that ask you to feel, to experience the story emotionally rather than intellectually. They are books you can become immersed in.
And I start wondering, reading books like that what happened to modernism? To the slim book that moves swiftly? Look, for example, at this excerpt from James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (which I picked mostly at random):
“The sunlight breaking suddenly on his sight turned the sky and clouds into a fantastic world of sombre masses with lakelike spaces of dark rosy light. His very brain was sick and powerless. He could scarcely interpret the letters of the signboards of the shops. By his monstrous way of life he seemed to have put himself beyond the limits of reality. Nothing moved him or spoke to him from the real world unless he heard in it an echo of the infuriated cries within him. He could respond to no earthly or human appeal, dumb and insensible to the call of summer and gladness and companionship, wearied and dejected by his father’s voice. He could scarcely recognize as his own thoughts, and repeated slowly to himself:
” I am Stephen Dedalus. I am walking beside my father whose name is Simon Dedalus. We are in Cork, in Ireland. Cork is a city. Our room is in the Victoria Hotel. Victoria and Stephen and Simon. Simon and Stephen and Victoria. Names.
“The memory of his childhood suddenly grew dim. He tried to call forth some of its vivid moments but could not. He recalled only names. Dante, Parnell, Clane, Clongowes. A little boy had been taught geography by an old woman who kept two brushes in her wardrobe. Then he had been sent away from home to a college, he had made his first communion and eaten slim jim out of his cricket cap and watched the firelight leaping and dancing on the wall of a little bedroom in the infirmary and dreamed of being dead, of mass being said for him by the rector in a black and gold cope, of being buried then in the little graveyard of the community off the main avenue of limes. But he had not died then. Parnell had died. There had been no mass for the dead in the chapel and no procession. He had not died but he had faded out like a film in the sun. He had been lost or had wandered out of existence for he no longer existed. How strange to think of him passing out of existence in such a way, not by death but by fading out in the sun or by being lost and forgotten somewhere in the universe!”
This is a way of writing that leaves spaces, quite a lot of spaces, for you to fill in. It’s a writing with gaps. And so it allows you to breathe, to put in something of your own, to participate. In fact, you have to. You can’t read it lazily. (I would argue that you can read Harry Potter lazily. At least, I have.)
The issue for me is, I don’t want to write in the tradition of Eliot. I don’t even particularly like Eliot. I want to write fantasy, but not like that. Luckily, I have Jorge Luis Borges and Milan Kundera to show me different ways.
(Twice in my life, I’ve dated men who told me they were in love with me, but did not like Borges. And I’ve thought, how is that possible? Because if you don’t like Borges, there are some things about me you will never understand. Some of my stories wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Borges.)
I suppose all this is why I’m drawn to late nineteenth-century literature, which is pre-modernism but has already started to fragment. The tyranny of the omniscient narrator is already gone in writers like Bram Stoker, Arthur Machen, and H.G. Wells. I recently read a story I liked very much: “Reports of Certain Events in London” by China Miéville, in his collection Looking for Jake. It took me a few pages to understand what he was doing, and for those first few pages I was frustrated, but once I realized that he was using those late nineteenth-century techniques, and what he was using them for, I felt a sense of delight. And then, when the key to it all, the term Viae Ferae, was in Latin, I thought, Ha! Lovely. It was the literary technique of another time, used in a thoroughly modern setting. And what I also liked was that the story asked me not to feel, but to think. Like Borges. (When stories ask me to feel, tell me to feel what and where and for whom, I often end up feeling emotionally manipulated.)
So I don’t know, maybe I’m out of step with the times, in some way. But it seems to me that the big, fat fantasy novels are heirs to a mid-Victorian tradition. (After all, where else do you see three-volume novels, endless serials? Those belong to the middle of the nineteenth century.) And I’m not interested in writing that way.