What about Modernism?

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.

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7 Responses to What about Modernism?

  1. toctoc says:

    The idea that contemporary fantasy often feels like it’s after a mid-Victorian sensibility (or, in some cases, merely absorbed the strategies of that sensibility) feels right to me. Seems like a hefty section of realist fiction (Franzen et al.) is also preoccupied with that kind of monumentality, the “tyranny” of omniscience, as you put it. (Well, Tolkien…) There’s room for it all, I suppose, but I confess that I too prefer a bit of air in my fantasy (partly because it’s so rare on that end of the spectrum)–a cerebral space that respects the reader’s intelligence, that allows feeling to follow thinking.

    Looking forward to the arrival of my copy of The Thorn & The Blossom . Were you thinking at all of Pavic’s Inner Side of the Wind when you wrote it?

  2. zm says:

    When stories ask me to feel, tell me to feel what and where and for whom, I often end up feeling emotionally manipulated

    So glad you said that. Yours is one corner of the blogosphere that sounds aware and rational.

    Add to this, if you can find a copy, the season 11 episode 11 of South Park, about Imaginationland. Because, mystery of mysteries, while there is a certain subterfuge afoot to destroy Imaginationland, a bevvy of writers, as you describe above are filling up a lot of space. When a writer tells you what gestures to attend to (infers that a data point is foreground), interprets what it means (only he and he alone knows this) AND tells you how to feel about it, we’re no longer in the world of casual writing, we’re in the land of propaganda.

    Fortunately, the antidote is to remind the writer of the difference between fact and subjective opinion. Indeed, in my experience, these kind of narrators, be they politicians, historians, shrinks, or other, go largely unquestioned by their audiences. To be sure, in secret, these kinds of writers hold a disdain not only for those who give them their authority, but their audiences as well. They sneer at the unmitigated amount of head space freely rented out to them, they scoff at the amount of toxicity they are allowed to spew, without anyone in their audience ever calling them out as the pollutors that they are.

    I have an idea for a book or a blog (who knows) where I can outline any number of these scenarios, loosely based on what’s going on in the world today and possibly in the future. Since you encourage samples in this kind and thoughtful space you maintani, I offer this:

    He writes:
    She stood outside, having a late night smoke, slouching against the front of the house, neath the overhang of the second floor. Across the street, she saw her neighbor’s light go out and the curtains close. Far away, her Minder began scribbling down notations on his notepad. A thermal scanner, mounted on a drone above her, had noted a lighting up of her cortex as she observed the light going out and the curtains close. “Aha!” he spouted. “She registered that as a signal meant for her!” With his foregone conclusion that his subject was dangerous and delusional, he projected his interpretation of what she MUST think it all means.” Writing scientifically, he posited, “subject thinks the signal is intended for her, something along the lines of ‘lights out for you’ or ‘stop watching me’. He posts his findings to an internal report, read by her contacts.

    Later, one of them tells her of her Minder’s findings. She sighs heavily and says, “all that occurred to me is that someone was going to bed. My inner subjective experience is that it’s something I didn’t really want or need to know. I laughed about the fact that we have curtains for a reason, but everyone seems to forget that. I also felt awkward, because knowing that everything is being hoovered up, the next thing you know, since the lights went out at such a late hour, my neighbor will probably begin receiving flyers and adverts on TV for insomnia meds.”

    Because you see, the agit-prop writers almost never ascribe any moral or ethical motives to their subjects. At the very least, it is a projection of their inner world and theirs alone, to be so devoid and bereft of higher motives. Afraid of his own shadow, and shored up by a thousand modes of cheating, all he has to do is go to the Cloud to steal ideas and profit from him. He is the kind of guy who will file an ethics complaint against a public offical for abusing the perks of his position, but sees nothing wrong with what he, himself is doing. And because he is letting a privileged few in on his secret, no one thinks to call him on his scam, on his abuse of their Imaginationland.


    Something like that.
    Have a great day, Dora : )

  3. sftheory1 says:

    A very interesting post.

  4. Jon Awbrey says:

    Aye, and what of Musil, Kafka, Mann, Hesse?

  5. Patrick O'Connor says:

    The list of Germans by your last commenter encourages me to add two more: Robert Walser has finally gotten the full English translations he deserves (you should start with Jakob van Gunten/Institute Benjamenta –the second title was the one that the Quay Brothers used for their live-actor adaptation), and, jumping ahead seventy years, I just recently taught W.G.Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, which is full of homages to Borges as it follows “the traces of destruction.” And it has pictures!

  6. Alejandra says:

    Interesting post. I’ve been thinking about this subject a lot recently, and I think my opinions on the matter veer a little bit in the opposite direction of what you say. I understand what you mean about not wanting your emotions to be manipulated (and there’s a lot of writing of the kind that you describe that is quite terrible), but I do want to actually feel emotions. I like it when I can read a story or a novel and I begin to think of the characters as actual people. Of course, other aspects of writing often spark strong emotions as well, but I always seek out those lifelike characters first. If something else in the story stands out for me as well as (or instead of!) the characers, then that’s okay too.

    I’m taking a graduate level creative writing class this semester, and I’ve seen a trend in my classmates’ writing where the characters don’t have names, or physical features, or hardly any traits. What’s the point, then? Are they just shells that encapsulate ideas? They’re just boring stories, in the end.

    With your writing, Theodora, I feel that it delivers exactly what I long for when reading. Your characters certainly aren’t shells!!

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