Cosmopolis and the creative cowardice of Anglo-American literature

I recently watched David Cronenberg’s new movie, Cosmopolis, and shortly after doing so read the Don Delillo novel on which it’s based. I’ll have my review of the Delillo up in the next few days, but reading it made me think about what seems to me a key failure of much contemporary fiction.

The great fiction of the nineteenth century engaged with the world around it. It looked to the problems of its day and sought to capture and explore them. Authors such as Balzac or Zola weren’t afraid of life beyond their studios, nor Dickens or indeed Trollope. Later came writers such as Eliot, showing us fear in a handful of dust, Fitzgerald, capturing the spirit of an age, Dos Passos pushing at what the novel could do so as to better show the city around him, Orwell showing suburban despair, civil war and so much more. These are exciting writers.

Cosmopolis, published in 2000, tries to capture our age. It tries to investigate how the world is changing around us and how the pace of that change seems to constantly accelerate. It explores the movement of value from the physical to the insubstantial, the virtual. It is flat and affectless, mirroring a time of surfaces and shallow sensation, but at the same time looks to deeper currents of information and the sense that we can be helplessly caught in vast forces of capital and history that though created by us seem somehow beyond our control.

Delillo doesn’t wholly succeed in his goals, but he tries. He sees the world around us and tries to say something about it, about our world, the one that can only exist right now and that never existed before and never will again. Most contemporary novelists avoid that challenge, setting their fictions in the recent past or a strangely timeless present that might as well be past. The Yips, to take one example, though published in 2012 is set in a prelapsarian 2006, already a historical novel.

As I write this economies globally are adjusting to a painful “new normal”. The markets are spoken of as if some deity that must be appeased, with governments replaced where necessary with appointed officials imposing austerity regimes while their people flail around for lack of offered alternatives. At the same time, many of us have phones that double as computers, more powerful than those I owned in the 1980s or ’90s. I call up maps when walking in new places, routes appear on a screen showing me where I need to go. My CD collection is increasingly a record not of the music I like, but of the music I used to like before downloads became so readily purchasable.

As Paul Simon said more than two decades ago, this is an age of miracles and wonders. The fact he said that in the 1980s makes an obvious point, we always are and hopefully shall be for a long time yet in an age of miracles and wonders, but the details of those wonders change and the shape of our lives changes with them.

I’m not suggesting here that novelists should dwell on the flotsam of our lives, on twitter accounts and Greek bailouts (though nor am I saying that they shouldn’t). At the same time I am suggesting that the world has changed, and that to write about it as if it hadn’t is a form of creative cowardice. To write about a world where comfortably middle class people live comfortable lives much as they would have twenty years ago or even fifty years ago, without acknowledgement of how unrepresentative those lives have become, is a dereliction.

We live in a time in which, in the West, children can now expect a lower standard of living than their parents. A time too in which most families need two salaries to survive, but with widespread unemployment and where many jobs that do exist are part time or insecure. A time in which there is a great transfer of power and wealth from West to East, creating a sense of our own coming obsolescence (I write here from a Western perspective).

We live in a time of near-constant war, but war fought with drones in places where our news cameras do not go. We hear statistics, 30 suspected militants killed, but see no footage of bodies or burnt homes. We live in a time when protest has become seemingly irrelevant, and where governments can sometimes appear to owe more to distant millionaires and billionaires than their own peoples. We live in a time when banks commit offences most of us barely understand, or don’t understand at all, and which are somehow too large to ever be punished.

Not all of this is new, and not everything is bleak (it never is), but what it is is largely missing from the contemporary English language novel. Talking to the present risks being irrelevant tomorrow, but better that than never being relevant at all. John Lanchester may not have fully succeeded in his Capital, just as Delillo doesn’t fully succeed in Cosmopolis. At least though they haven’t just given up.


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34 responses to “Cosmopolis and the creative cowardice of Anglo-American literature

  1. I agree with you and I think that it’s mostly because a lot of writers are literary scholars or teachers or journalists. (at least in France) They’ve never set a foot in a company and don’t necessarily understand much about manipulating the LIBOR or EURIBOR xrates (not that I understand it myself)

    This is why I enjoyed Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan or Company by Max Barry.They’ve lived in the corporate world and as economy rules everything, it’s good to read someone who seems to live in “the real world”.

    PS: The cowardice you mention reminds me of the comment Scott left on my post about Beside the Sea, that this book could only have appeared in France.

  2. The two examples are well chosen. I suspect that Delillo mostly gets away with addressing relevant contemporary themes because he writes brilliantly (and of courses does his research). Lanchester drifts too close to journalism (maybe because he over-researches?) which is not what I am after when I devote time to reading a work of fiction.

    I suspect that major events (wars, economic crises etc) require a passage of time and emotional distance to explore them with proper perspective. I suspect the “best” Vietnam fiction were those written in the 1980’s.

    At a microsociological level I agree. Amis tries but is pretty ham-fisted.

  3. I think you make a very good point here, Max, and I wonder if it’s also linked to the level of diversity of authors. I’m struck that the book I’ve read this year which feels most engaged with the contemporary world was Take This Man by Alice Zeniter, a 22-year-old French-Algerian woman. The book had its flaws, certainly, but I really felt it had captured something of current life in a way that few novels I read seem to.

    Thinking about it further, it seems to me that mainstream UK publishing focuses a lot on novels set in London; and there’s the statistic that only 3% of books sold in the UK are works in translation… I just wonder how many perspectives we don’t get to see easily, or miss outright.

  4. I have this book on the shelf but haven’t got to it yet. Frankly I wonder if the cowardice issue you mention is that to write about it makes it a reality. When I tell people that the middle and working class just took a baseball bat to the knees, they look at me as if I’m crazy. People would rather see these times as slump rather than a permanent condition or a continuing trend.

    I read that during times of war, people flock to see costume dramas–it’s the escapism. Perhaps there’s a similar thing afoot w/fiction?

  5. selinac

    In a fast changing world traditional publishing methods mean all novels will be set in a world now gone. Twitfic and other forms of distribution might allow writers to share fiction about the right now, but I’m not sure that should be the aim. I find the fiction which best holds a mirror to our current society is science/speculative fiction – supposedly unlimited by what is possible, it often reveals the edges of our daring based on the era in which it was created. And for writing which ventures over the edge, try children’s fiction.

  6. Emma, exactly, it’s a question of which voices are heard. If the voices that reach us are from too narrow a group, the result is irrelevance. It’s not that I think any individual writer should change what they write, writers should write as they wish, but that there’s an absence, a lack of the diversity that David refers to.

    David, quite, we see a slew of books written by London authors about the sorts of experiences London authors have. It’s a cripplingly small view of the world.

    Anthony, I agree that large events can need distance, and it’s easy to forget that many 19th Century writers were writing of their own immediate past, not their present. The microsociology I think needs to arise from lived experience, which is where the diversity issue becomes relevant again and where Amis fails. Agreed on Lanchester by the way, his reportage is excellent and possibly more interesting than his fiction.

    Guy, I think that’s where the cowardice comes in. There’s a fleeing from reality, a seeking of comfort in that which never changes. The eternities of human existence are of course incredibly important, but how they manifest differs and equally some aspects of the human condition rather fade into the background when you’re one bad review away from redundancy and poverty. I suspect 19th Century writers may actually become more relevant, as our socio-economic situation reverts more to that of that period than of the 20th century which is now further away than the 19th in many ways.

    selinac, I’m less sanguine about SF. With the honourable exception of Gibson it seems to me SF has collapsed even more than literary fiction. FTL for example we know to be impossible. How has most SF adapted to that fact? It hasn’t, it’s ignored it in favour of fantasies about interstellar travel that we now know to be impossible. British SF has fared far better than US I’d say on that front (Reynolds, Baxter, MacLeod, arguably Stross) but most SF today is basically phatic fantasy. By the time you have cultures much like ours existing across multiple solar systems without causality violations you may as well chuck in a dragon while you’re at it.

    Twitfic and so on is more about instant response, which isn’t I think the answer. Merely including, as some novelists have, topical references leads only to a shallow relevance which ages badly. The answer I think is much more in genuine lived experience, in actual understanding of the world around us. Given that, whether you then reference twitter or not becomes irrelevant. Without that all the topicality in the world won’t change the fact you’re writing 1950s fiction with a thin veneer of 21st Century existence stretched over it.

    I should add I’m not arguing for state of the nation novels, which are generally rather dull and which I think is an inherently flawed concept anyway. It’s much more about diversity of perspective, and a lack thereof.

  7. I’d add another factor to the melting pot: age.

    The typical age of a novelist at first publication in that format is early to mid thirties: it’s hard to write fiction that engages with the human condition before that age due to the simple necessity of acquiring the experience and insight that is grist for the author’s mill. And successful novelists keep going until they drop dead in harness. It follows that the median age of working novelists is probably somewhere north of fifty.

    However, we are at our peak of adaptability in early life, and it becomes increasingly difficult to engage with new technologies, new ideologies, and change in general once one reaches middle age.

    So much of today’s fiction is largely being written by 50 year olds (or older) who lost the ability to easily adapt to new tools and circumstances in the late 1980s!

    (Finally, I’d like to second Max’s point about the internal collapse of science fiction, but I think the story there is a little bit more complicated: the opacity of the near future makes it very difficult to see where things might be, as little as a decade hence. There’s been an odd kind of collective failure of nerve, dating to roughly 1990. None of the pre-1990 generations saw the end of the cold war, or the lengthy hiatus in space exploration. Virtually none of them spotted the internet creeping up on our cultural zeitgeist. It took more than a generation for the end of the sigmoid curve of increasing transport speed to sink in; very few of them have yet noticed that the curve of increasing computing power is also a sigmoid function with an end in sight.)

  8. Charlie Stross, gosh. I’m afraid you got spamfiltered though given you wrote a novel with sentient spam perhaps that’s appropriate. Anyway, fixed now.

    Your point on age is a good one. I’m not sure why but it made me think of another issue in the UK, which is the decline in benefits.

    Historically a lot of artists were supported by a relatively non-punitive benefits system. The money you got was terrible, pauper-level existence, but it was at least there. Plenty of bands got through their struggling years signing on.

    Today of course that’s not possible. Benefit levels are sub-subsistence and carry with them a requirement to actively seek work/be in training. That’s incompatible with developing your music/book/whatever.

    Couple that with the aging issue you refer to and you get a combination where those writing are either already getting on a bit, or have enough income that they can support themselves while writing. It’s easy to see how that would lead to a narrowing of perspective.

    As an aside, I don’t think the answer is mere topicality as I’ve already said. it can also be exploring new ways of saying things. Trainspotting is for me an interesting novel, because its language captures experience more in the end than the story itself. Welsh used vernacular to capture an experience otherwise ignored.

    Similarly Ann Quin uses new narrative techniques to examine (among many other things) the changes she could see around her in terms of British culture.

    And, while I’ve not read it yet, Charlie Stross wrote two (I think, happy to be corrected) books in the second person so capturing the immediacy of computer gaming and its relationship to the gamer. I risk there though pontificating about books I haven’t read under a blog entry against which the author has commented, so I’ll stop at that because I could be talking complete nonsense on that one.

    On the collapse of SF I will definitely bow to Charlie Stross, who for a range of reasons is vastly more informed than I am on the topic. I will say though that it frustrates me, because SF should be more relevant than it presently is. Crime has adapted better than either literary fiction or SF, but SF should be able to respond to the world around us because in part that’s what it has always done (the idea that SF should be judged by the accuracy of its predictions is I think in most cases a misunderstanding of the form, not that there’s anything wrong with prediction or exploring possible futures as per recent Bruce Sterling).

  9. Excellent post. I think you’re highlighting quite a serious problem here.

    About two years ago I moved back to the UK and launched a publishing house. Two things have struck me: how much the country is changed and damaged, and how little the short fiction I receive attempts to engage with the new social situations.

    On the larger scale you have the shocking change in the balance of power between governments and corporations, Britain’s continued failure to find a strong post-empire identity, and the gradual loss or reduction of public services to privatisation; on the personal scale, I think all these things create a struggle not just for survival but also for a sense of purpose: the harder we work, the less certainty we receive as a reward. We can’t even respond with political engagement, as political choice seems to have reduced from left wing vs right wing to mainstream vs fringe. (I recently watched Alan Bleasdale’s GBH, and the political engagement discussed by that series seems as remote now as the Roman republic.)

    The Olympic games have been a fascinating barometer of public and personal mood, with the disgust at financial waste and corporate bullying give way to sheer relief at having something to believe in and get excited about.

    But with all of these things affecting daily life, I very rarely see any mention of them in the submissions we receive. Most stories that come in seem to exist in a sort of limbo; exactly as you say, they could be set twenty or fifty years in the past, and similar stories will no doubt be written twenty and fifty years in the future.

    When I do see social engagement, all too often it’s either sledgehammer polemic, cliched platitudes, or tabloid campaigns rewritten as fiction (or all three); very rarely is it any serious attempt to engage with the challenges of life in 2012.

    Many writers I think simply forget to engage with the world around them, or don’t know how to do so. Many stories are inspired by other stories, or by stock situations. I have a particular dislike for the sort of random exercises promoted by writing groups and how-to books (pick one random object from a bag and write a story about it; write 500 words about your favourite colour). The ability to filter one’s life for worthwhile insight and experience is as essential to good writing as the ability to string a sentence together.

    In the past, the British have done rather well with social realism, in literature and cinema. I’d love to see more of that today, and I’d certainly make room for it in the books we publish. It’s not the only kind of story worth reading, but it’s an essential part of a balanced literary diet.

  10. leroyhunter

    Fascinating post Max. I’m glad DeLillo has struck a chord and prompted such thoughts. I think you’re spot on talking about the “deeper currents” in life and in his work, that’s one element that puts him head and shoulders above most other contemporary writers (in my estimation anyway). He has a real feel for the voraciousness of our world, whether it manifests itself in financial, political or social systems, and the fact that we do live on an often unheeded precipice of threat and danger. Modern culture I think prizes above all the ideal or the dynamic of “the relationship”, but DeLillo is interested in things far beyond the (often trivial) level of the inter-personal. The unknowability of people (to themselves as well) is a more urgent concern. How that plays out against the unseen information backdrop you mention. There aren’t many writers I can think of consistently rejecting that somewhat solipsistic, relationship-based approach that you decry (and succeeding in producing great work to boot).

    On the 19th century point. I’d say that the most passionate and relevant novel I’ve read this year about our property-inspired woes is by Emile Zola.

  11. Max: your point about 19thC novels becoming more relevant hit a chord. You know I just finished Gissing’s New Grub Street–a marvellous novel, but the thing that remained after the last page was turned was the complete and utter lack of social programmes. If you don’t have family or friends to help you are screwed. There’s one scene in which a starving doctor who lost his practice hangs about a food stand waiting for food. You realise that this man has no help, no options except a sort of gentrified beggary. Now with social programmes in the western world being severely stripped away or modified, it seems we may be seeing a return of the worst aspects of Victorian society.

  12. Fascinating post, Max. Love this. Wish I’d more time to respond to all the points you and folk commenting have raised. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot recently. Often as I reader I crave contemporary fiction that engages with the modern world but I struggle to find it. I’m not sure that state of the nation novels are the answer but like you I admire the attempts!

    My main thought on things echoes Emma’s thoughts re: Beside The Sea – which I happen to have started reading this week – and David’s thoughts. There may well be a gatekeeper problem here.

    I do also wonder at a startling blindness to contemporary reality among some aspiring artists. I was interested to read Rob’s take on things. You mention drones, Max – I happened to remark one evening in the pub that I was attempting a story involving these and the assumption was that since I’d mentioned robots I was writing science fiction! (I note Ali Smith gets in a reference to drone warfare in There But For The).

  13. Rob,

    I agree with you on the changes at a national level. There’s been a huge reduction in political engagement both on the part of individuals (party memberships have collapsed on both sides of the aisle in just one example) and culturally (I watched GBH a couple of years back, and I agree it’s now portraying very different time).At the same time far more people are on precarious wage settlements or working part time (I rather like the term, I forget where it comes from, which describes this increasingly large group as the precariat). In parliamentary terms our choices lie between different managerial approaches, but remarkably similar policy offerings (many of the Tories’ most disliked policies were actually inherited from the previous government, changes to disability benefit entitlement for example).

    Not everyone is equally affected by how the world is changing though. If you’re comfortably middle class the world now is much as it ever was. You probably wouldn’t have been politically active in previous decades, and the erosion of rights of protest would be unlikely to be noticed as you wouldn’t be out protesting anyway. Your income is likely secure, or if precarious that’s probably due to being still young and you likely have family to fall back on. In that circumstance much of how things have changed will have passed you by (though it’ll be lapping ever closer to you, initially in the form of phenomena like being priced out of the parts of London you’d traditionally have expected to be able to buy in).

    The answer though isn’t mere polemic, social diatribes. That’s dull, and rarely good art. The answer is one of perspective. A perspective other than that of the comfortably secure leads to different kinds of stories, and potentially different kinds of expression as one finds traditional narrative approaches perhaps inadequate. That process then reinvigorates the traditional. It’s what keeps the novel vital as a form. The problem we have now I increasingly think is that with recent societal changes those who would have other perspectives lack both the access and the opportunity (in terms of time and ability to survive without full time employment or multiple part-time jobs) to explore what they would say. The result is that much of our writing comes from those least affected by how the world has changed. I’m also not persuaded the rise of professional tuition in creative writing has been great for the form, even though some undoubted talents have emerged through that route. How would Ann Quin have been received by a writing group?

    As I said before, I don’t want anyone to write other than what they wish to. The issue isn’t who is writing. It’s who isn’t, or at least who may be but isn’t getting through.

    More responses in a bit.

  14. Leroy, I agree with you on DeLillo (I hadn’t for some reason realised the first L was capitalised, odd). It’s why he prompted this post, because he was trying to do more than personal epiphany-type writing.

    On the 19th Century point it goes to what Guy says, New Grub Street is closer to where we are than anything written in the 1970s say now would be. I was struck to by Emma’s Strindberg review, a book that sounded flawed yet still more relevant to the world I see around me than many I see on Waterstones’ buy one get one half price tables.

    evastalker, the drones point is an interesting one too. It goes to something I touch on in my reply to Rob, not everyone follows the news and not everyone of course is equally affected as things change. If people aren’t aware of drone strikes, or still assume that life on benefits is reasonably comfortable, or otherwise are just out of touch with much of how the modern world works. If the writers we get are those who can afford the fees for creative writing courses (and I absolutely recognise that there are some good courses and some great writers emerging from them) then that is a narrowing.

    Gatekeepers is an interesting one though, because I honestly believe that publishing is full of people who would genuinely be delighted to discover a new James Kelman (a writer who interestingly has never been able to survive just on his writing, so one can overstate the comfortable background point, and most writers get paid basically nothing for their work) or Will Self (I’m not a fan, but I think it’s inarguable that he is a different sort of voice to the norm). I don’t think publishers are opting for the safe and throwing out the new, the relevant, the different (or not more than they have to in order to survive as businesses anyway).

    I think the fault may lie more in public disinterest. Newspapers don’t cut review pages because they hate books, they cut them because their readers aren’t that interested (or not enough are to be more precise). As they do so though they lose space to give exposure to more interesting works. That must impact their sales, and publishers have to make money. It’s a vicious cycle, but I think the cycle starts with a public which isn’t really seeking new literature, but rather more of the old.

    Except that when newspapers praise Ian McEwan their comments sections are filled with people crying out for something new. I guess then all I know is that nobody knows anything.

  15. “You may as well chuck in a dragon while you’re at it”, I’m so stealing that…
    On the matter of writers not having a big enough readership to earn a living out of their books, during Japan’s Heian period, there must have been ten or twenty thousand people who could read and write at most, there was not even a proper currency and barter and payment in goods or rice replaced money. And yet, they left us the Tale of Genji, The Pillow Book, The Essays in Idleness and a lot of great poetry.
    Borges, Kafka and Cavafy used to write at night after their day jobs.
    WordPress and Blogger provide free platforms to publish and be read. A blog could be used to write a novel in an original way. For example, the first dozen posts (the latest in time) will be dull and muddled. Then, one post from a family member will mention how the main writer of the blog had a Stroke and is recovering and soon will be back to posting. And finally the last posts will be wonderful, marvelous things to show what was lost.

  16. cleanthess,

    Fair point on the Japanese writers, but did they earn a living? I suspect they were already well off. It’s where my benefits point comes in. Save for very few writers as a rule don’t make a living from their art, but in the UK at least the benefits system oddly enough used to help counter that. Same for actors, who noticeably are increasingly coming from a much narrower set of social backgrounds.

    Of course, while I do strongly support a more generous benefits system about the weakest argument for that I could present is that it would help foster new bands and writers, though it would.

    The issue with the blog idea is twofold I think, which isn’t to dismiss it. One is the lack of an editor. Nobody is there to properly critique, so the work has no way to improve. For most I think that’s an issue, and I don’t think most writers’ groups will add value particularly if the writing is experimental or challenging.

    The other issue of course is getting anyone to read the damn thing. Your blog may contain a heartbreaking work of literary genius, but if only your mother reads it nobody will ever know. Publishers generally don’t promote most authors much after their first novel, but at least that first novel gets a push.

  17. Serendipitously, I read today an article in the New Statesman about state of the nation novels (it’s here for the curious:

    My main concern with my piece above is that it sounds like I’m arguing for more of these, which I’m not. Happily though the article contained a quote from BS Johnson, who captures what I want to say better than so far I’ve been able to. Here it is:

    “Present-day reality is changing rapidly; it always has done, but for each generation it appears to be speeding up. Novelists must evolve (by inventing, borrowing, stealing or cobbling from other media) forms which will more or less satisfactorily contain an ever-changing reality, their own reality and not Dickens’s reality or Hardy’s reality or even James Joyce’s reality.”


  18. leroyhunter

    That’s a nice quote from Johnson. I read the piece, and am little the wiser for it: “all storytelling is political”…really? I think you could have a debate about that proposition for starters.

    I got that what you are calling for (if that’s not overstating what you’re doing Max) is not more (or less) “state of the nation” stuff, but a more diverse and interesting selection of reflections of what our current state is. “Comfortable people having mild existential crises” may be an unfair simplification but it describes a type of book I recognise and agree holds little attraction.

  19. trying to catch the zeitgeist is such a hard task I felt he did it better in underworld his best book by miles ,all the best stu

  20. Mr. Cairnduff thank you for your answer. I appreciate your point better now. But it really cannot be helped, increasingly fewer people will be able to make a living out of writing on the marketplace as access to pirated copies of epubs and pdfs for every single book becomes available over the net. As for the readership numbers, that too is diverging fast; very soon it will be ’50 shapes of grapes’ or somesuch for the masses and a hundred readers for everybody else. If it’s some consolation, Borges once wrote that when his first book was published he went to the bookshops that were selling it and asked how many copies had been sold; he found out that some twenty-odd copies total had been sold. Borges wrote that he felt like visiting each one of those readers and saying ‘thank you for buying my book’; and it’s very likely he could have done so, since those readers must have been his closest friends and family members.

  21. Neither here nor there, but I was reading the third of Canetti’s autobiographies last night in which he talks about his friends and rivals in the Vienna scene at that time. It struck me how many of them wrote about what was happening around the time (the decline of Austro-Hungrian empire) and how many great novels they left behind; Radetzky March, Sleepwalkers, Man Without Qualities, etc.

    I’m not sure it is as much that the world is changing faster (we know how fast the world changed when that fateful bullet struck the archduke) or about “catching the zeitgeist”, but that modern life has grown increasingly alienating. I was just talking to Jonathan (McCalmont) the other day about how technology has made self-identity (which the philosopers dating back to the pre-Socratics show us has never been on particularly solid bedrock) become even more fragmented. If we don’t have an (and the Adorno’s of the world would chastize me for using such jargon) authentic connection to the world around us, can we write about it in a meaningful way? I’m not saying you have to experience something to write about it, but I think it helps to have a vested interest in it, or you just end up like toss like the latest Amis.

  22. Sorry for the slow replies folks, I was killed at work and then a little under the weather (nothing serious).

    Leroy, in a sense everything is political. Whether that’s in a useful sense though is I think more open to debate. The Johnson quote seemed spot on though. You’re right on what I’m calling for. A more diverse and interesting selection of reflections. Precisely. In terms also though of technique, not just subject matter.

    Stu, that’ll probably be my next by him, as I have a rather nice hardback copy of it already at home.

    Cleanthess, please feel free to call me Max. Piracy is an interesting point. I doubt to be honest that the serious end of literary fiction has enough readers to make it a big problem. If you’re a popular SF writer then I can see piracy being a real issue for you. If you’re published by some obscure literary imprint then the chances are that there aren’t enough people interested for someone to rip the book in the first place or for others to seed it. Of course, if you’re not popular enough to pirate that brings its own financial issues. The Borges anecdote is great. I have to admit, with some writers I do feel like when I buy a copy of their work I’ve made a meaningful difference to their sales.

    Paul, the fall of the Austro-Hungarian empire led to an absolute flourishing of talent didn’t it? Or gave existing talent something vast to try to grapple with perhaps. There’s a reason I have an Austro-Hungarian literature category on the blog.

    The idea that the world is changing faster is I think a comforting lie (now, more than ever, what does that phrase even mean?), and catching the zeitgeist is impossible in part as I’m not sure the zeitgeist ever exists outside of a few small circles in society. Atomisation is one of the great themes of the post-industrial age, but I do think there’s something there and that it may be growing. Ballard was good on this. Agreed on the vested interest. Writing from outside can work of course, but the risk of caricaturing or worse just missing the point is considerable.

  23. Gibson, and Brunner before him, both deal with the nearly now in admirable ways. However I think their romanticism prevents their insights from being quite as trenchant as they could be.

    I think the world is changing faster, or at least we are more aware of it, because of increased information density, of the changes (see Stross’s analysis for example). Where previously one had to hunt for news, now news is pushed at one from all angles (and prejudices). Much of this information is romantic too, this is how better life would be if only you bought our product, this is how bad your life is because you don’t subscribe to our point of view (and newsletter, t-shirt, product). Or, to quote The Princess Bride, “Life is pain. […] Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

    Gibson goes partway into an analysis of the economics of life but keeps it largely superficial. Which reminds me that I should get round to reading Simon Ings’ Dead Water.

  24. Steve, Gibson definitely. Are you thinking Shockwave Rider for Brunner or his fat sociology novels?

    The increased information density point is a good one. I get bombarded at work with information, as do many, and could do nothing but read news all of which is relevant to what I do. Relevance is no longer sufficient.

    Beyond work there’s all that other information you mention, all of it selling a dream of a life. Gibson as you say goes into this, but is quite superficial (though at least he engages with it). Simon Ings I’ve heard of but don’t know. SF though generally hasn’t responded as I think it ought, if anything I think literary fiction may be more relevant now than SF which is a slightly depressing thought.

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  26. The content vs. form argument will never go away, will it? I think Vollmann is often at odds with the general refusal to engage with the immediate present. As much as anything Pynchon writes is fun from my point of view, he folds neatly into the slot of this argument by latterly writing a stoner detective story set in the seventies and an epic centred around a bygone era. We need more Crying of Lot 49 and less Against The Day, as joyously well drawn as that is. Richard Powers also seems to have a bit of a go at encapsulating the age, wouldn’t you say?

    Here’s something that troubles me a little and I’ve never been precisely sure why (and to cite one example in particular): Geoff Dyer, always a proponent of modernist leaps, and a savvy and perspicacious commentator thereof, writes things like Jeff In Venice, Death in Varanasi, which, depsite being tremendous fun, are basically Frayn/Coe/Nobbs dragged into a contemporary setting.

    Any book truly literally engaging with this country right now would need to deal with some of the following: political apathy, social media dependence, acute employment and financial precariousness, fast widening social divisions, thuggish mass media forming immediately changeable mindsets, the housing crisis, NHS, dwindling police numbers, etc etc. Who wants to read it? And anyone tackling it all, howewver tangentially, would be mocked as opportunistic, however stylistically/thematically adroit.

    What is the ‘now’ in the UK? ‘State of the nation’ books are polemical tracts and always have been: I’m not anxious to read one. I haven’t seen a better attempt at getting at what life is right about now than that which DeLillo and Vollmann have to offer, though Lydia Davis is, I think, a clever and acute commentor who captures the essence and the cadences of modern thought processes to an extent.

  27. (‘What life is’ sounds preposterous but my early morning waffle might have better read ‘a writerly attempt at encapsulating the maelstrom of information and experience in the current age’ or something perhaps no less dodgy sounding. And even then, that is a distinct demand imposed by me; there is no definitive need or responsibility on any writer to try and substantively ‘get’ the world as I subjectively imagine it. Can pure story ‘get at’ that anyway? Do story and form ideally need to be contiguous (as I think Will Self manages rather well with Umbrella)? I think the main reason I have cited Vollmann and DeLillo is what I see as their success at melding narrative and mindset in to something both contemporaneous exciting and potentially useful and insigfhtful.)

  28. Lee, I’ve not read any Richard Powers, so I’m not sure. A quick look at wikipedia though suggests a definite interest in contemporary issues. Which Vollman have you read?

    We always need more Crying of Lot 49, but then it is such a good book.

    Perhaps for the reason you cite I’m always more tempted by Dyer’s non-fiction than his fiction. His fiction seems accomplished, but not daring. His non-fiction seems both.

    I haven’t read him yet, so could be utterly off base on this, but does Kelman not capture something of the modern UK without getting bogged down in a list of issues?

    I don’t think story and form need be contiguous, but I think there is power in them being so. Leverage, to use a Cosmopolis-esque word. Story is immensely powerful, perhaps at times overwhelmingly so since we create it even where (as in real life) it is lacking. Story leveraged by form though can I think realise a greater degree of insight, or at least interest, than story alone.

  29. On Kelman: certainly, but Adam Mars Jones’ recent demolition of Mo Said She Was Quirky has corroded my impressions! I do think Kelman is an important writer; How Late It Was…is a landmark piece, brilliantly done, harrowing and a perfect meeting point of form and content. The problem with it is, where do you go from there? So absolute and definitive a statement is it that it feels pastichey thereafter to an extent. That doesn’t lessen its importance.

    Vollmann: Imperial, Riding Toward Everything, Rainbow Stories, Rising Up and Rising Down (abridged) and The Royal Family, which is particularly what I’m referring to here. It’s noir but it’s literature; it’s terrifying but it’s hopeful, etc. And again, how it’s composed is inextricable from what it’s doing. I think the ‘contiguousness’ of it quickens its immersiveness and verisimilitude. In that case, the form leverages everything good and compelling about the story, which in itself would be fascinating. Rendered as it by Vollmann, it’s magnificent.

  30. Do you have a link to the Mars Jones piece? I missed that.

    Noir is often literature, of all the genres it crosses that line most easily. Often very good literature. I’ve not read Vollmann, which would you suggest starting with?

  31. Here it is. Ouch, likesay.

    I’d start with The Royal Family, Max. Very intrigued to know what you think about that.

  32. The Royal Family is over 800 pages Lee, ouch.

  33. Try the abridged Rising Up and Rising Down instead, then? 747 pages. (From 3,300.) Or maybe Europe Central? Whores for Gloria is short, under 200.

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