Tuesday, 29 September 2009

The Shock of the Novel

The folks over at The Millions are making a strong bid for the title of “the VH1 of Books Blogs” with their countdown of The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far). And I thought Sainsbury’s was jumping the gun when they put the Christmas aisle up at the end of August. There’s no detectable humour in the introduction, so I feel relatively safe in assuming that this is an example of our culture’s obsession with hierarchical list-making, rather than an ironic “critique” of it.

The sheer hubris of The Millions’ venture is remarkable. They could have played it safe, and gone with The Decade (So Far), or even The Century (So Far). But the Millennium? Pitting the literary output of the last nine years against almost everything we think of when we think of literature? If Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is the best we can find for number one, then all this list proves is that none of the books on it will likely be remembered in 1000 years at all. Perhaps Franzen can compete with the best of the Nineties’, maybe the Eighties’; but beyond that? It’s like forcing a child into a boxing ring because he can beat up his older brother.

Ours is a generation singularly in love with novelty. No doubt every generation before ours had a similar taste for the ephemeral distraction, but what culture has ever had access to such a limitless supply? VH1 already resembles the TV station in Idiocracy. As The Millions has demonstrated, our literate culture is far from immune to the same social pressures that benefit the The only requirement of novelty is that it should be superficially different from whatever immediately preceded it. Thus we, as a culture, throw accolades on punk because it is not disco, then on new wave because it is not punk. Years later, when we have long forgotten both the curiosity that incited each passing fancy and the saturation that brought it to an end, much of what remember fondly will likely alarm or embarrass us. Chances are high that what will continue to hold our interest will be works that we initially found offputting, confusing or dull.

This is not because people are stupid. In fact it is only natural. As in the famous story of the audience that was driven to riot by Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, we cannot hope to understand works of great complexity on the first try. Contrarily, the work that gives away all its secrets at once cannot hope to hold our attention forever. What is foolish, though, is to place too much stock in these early opinions, to appoint ourselves equal (or superior) to history, and to mistake an infatuation for true love. The editors of The Millions could conceivably update their list every month or so, assigning a place for each new darling of the publishing world as the Millennium progresses. The result would reveal plenty about the passage of literary fads, but little to nothing about literary quality.

The shock of novelty dissipates fast, and the need to fill the silence it left can quickly become an addiction. If we must have top twenty lists, is it too much to ask that we focus on the past millennium for a little bit longer? Then at least we could think about the value of books that we’ve had the opportunity to digest. As Nabokov said, there are no good readers, only good re-readers. If we refuse to take the time to understand a work before chasing after the next big sound, we do a disservice both to the old and the new.

On the other hand, maybe I’m just bitter. My favourite book didn’t even get an honourable mention.


NigelBeale said...

If you accept that 'great' work appears maybe once a decade, perhaps one on The Millions' list will survive time's verdict...

But don't dismiss the practice of identifying and arguing the merits of 'good' books over bad ...quibbling about whether or not War and Peace is a better book than Ulysses may be a waste of time: both have weathered decades of criticism; but recognizing merit in new works, and attacking mediocrity, is I think fruitful. Criticism is about argument; the more of it the better.

Stephen Crowe said...

I guess you're right. I'm not dead set against lists in general (I certainly have my own), although I do think it gets a bit silly when you start assigning numerical values. You could pretty much rearrange most lists of this kind at random without making them any more or less controversial. A list of twenty great books since 2000, in no particular order, would have aged a lot better. Less of an attention-grabber, though.

But I will say this definitively: if Cloud Atlas is the third greatest novel of the Millennium so far, then I give up reading. It'll be just reality television for me from here on out.