Neo-Victorian literary culture

51m9dmdbqkl-_sy291_bo1204203200_ql40_I came across this interview of literary critic Harold Bloom from 1992, shortly after the release of his book The Western Canon. Bloom’s answers give the kind of insight on national television you cannot find outside of small blogs and podcasts in our modern low-information discourse. Bloom says at one point in the interview that you can find literature graduates who have never read a word of Shakespeare or a line of Wordsworth–and this was twenty years ago when postmodernism had not yet reached its peak. Literature too, has been on the decline for the past twenty years at least. A piece in the Atlantic–arguing against that position–helps prove this point:

Surely there are a decent number of straight white men in the world of literature who aren’t doom-and-gloom pessimists about its future. But despite wracking my brain and looking through online media and academic archives, I could find no female or non-white writers who have made comparable statements, none who have similarly contributed to this literary despair. Why?

Th  author of this piece is not concerned with tackling the argument at hand , merely deconstructing who is saying what (i.e., shooting the messenger). To answer the author’s question, women and minorities are part of the liberal coalition that controls much of higher education and publishing. Of course they would not be concerned about the death of literature–their stories are on top of the social hierarchy. Women authors and female-dominated genres, especially romance, make up 45 percent of all Amazon paid units, about 174 million units annually.

Anecdotally, the Writer’s Digest feed on Twitter announces new literary agents from time to time (not that I bother with that racket, and neither should you) most of which are women. One day at Barnes and Noble, I had to struggle to find Graham Greene’s books. Eventually, I found them–surrounded by all women authors named Green or Greene. The premise that publishing is somehow stacked against women in particular is absurd. These kinds of identity politics are a part of the Neo-Victorian orthodoxy that pervades our country, from our political discourse to literature. Our time is eerily similar to the late nineteenth century: extreme income disparity, authoritarian culture, and an unhealthy focus on status signalling.

Neo-Victoriana manifests itself in other ways in the modern literary world. The culture of the nineteenth century Anglo-sphere was rightly derided by the Modernists as overly stifling. Similar to the lengthy young adult novels popular today–Harry Potter, Twilight, et al.–the books of Dickens and Henry James (while excellent writers nevertheless) allowed their readers to escape back into themselves. The literature from the post-Great War period was in general more condensed, yet intense. Even F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, while having more in common with the likes of James or Dickens, used less pages to tell a story just as effectively. When a country’s literature “is in good working order” (to borrow Ezra Pound’s phrase), it allows the reader to reflect back on reality through the story, not give them a lengthy, self-indulgent escape.

The best case study and simultaneous worst offender is George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, dramatized as the HBO series Game of Thrones. According to the Wiki page, Martin started writing the first book in 1991 and is still writing the projected seven book series. It is not by accident, I would argue, that they are fantasy novels. Fantasy and science fiction are pure-escapism genres, although the latter has authors who used genre well, such as Philip K. Dick and Frank Herbert. Fantasy has little ability to be great literature because its situations and themes have little or nothing to do with the real world. It allows the reader to slip into a kind of mental cocoon for a few hours, live through the charters and then return to real world, no better equipped to understand or engage with reality. This is where our “literature” diverges from the Victorians; at least Dickens, Zola, and James dealt in realism. Our science fiction and fantasy drenched culture escapes back into its own delusions of grandeur.

The country’s literature needs to be put back into working order, and it will not be done through nine hundred page novels of postmodern antics.

 

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