Thursday, 27 June 2013

The Ages of Literature

Despite the fact that there were many competent poets in many centuries, the ones in the English-language world that most laymen and fairly educated people think of first would be the Romantics. As in, the poets of that age. Shakespeare may be famous for his sonnets, but as a group or age it is the Romantics who stand out. It is my theory (I have since found out someone else has written about it but forget the link) that there is a golden age for each branch of literature. We’ll just focus on English literature, to make it easy.
The Age of Drama was the Elizabethan Age with the greats, Shakespeare, Marlowe and Ben Jonson - and 200 years later, the great dramatists were considered the Elizabethans, and it was the age when Shakespeare was revived and becoming popular. The 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, and you had a lot of economists and philosophers - but we’re talking about mainstream literature here, so I would say the golden age of novels of the 18th century was the 1740’s. You had Richardson’s Clarissa and Fielding’s Joseph Andrews I believe, and I think Tom Jones was published in that decade too. And these novels survive to this day. I realise Daniel Defoe and Swift published around the 1720’s, but I don’t know much about these too. But when we talk about the modern novel, about realism, we speak of Richardson, who gave voice to emotional depths, and Fielding, master of the picturesque. Of course we had Smollett, whose masterpiece Humphrey Clinker was published in 1771 but I believe Smollett wrote in the era of Richarson and Fielding as well, at least Roderick Random and Peregrine Pickle. Between the 1750’s and the 70’s there seems to have been no major English classic novel that has survived well. So there are short ages in English literature, the novel being a sturdier species than other forms.
The late 18th century and early 19th century would encompass the Romantic era, but really the major literary novels of that era were far from Romantic, and were primarily moralistic, especially Maria Edgeworth. Jane Austen was of course a true realist, but her era was not The era of novels. Among the novelists, only Jane Austen and to some extent Walter Scott has survived well in people’s imaginations. Of course there was the Gothic genre popular in this period, but few people read Ann Radcliffe nowadays. While Jane Austen is a figurehead, her school of fiction did not survive. It is an interesting age, because you had the moralists (Austen and Edgeworth), the realist (Austen), historical novelist (Scott) and Gothic (Mrs Radcliffe), which later gave rise to the immensely eclectic Victorian literature. I should say the school of literature from this era that has survived would be the Romantic poets - Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley and Keats. And Blake now. They were influenced by the Gothics (Keats and Byron were fond of Mrs Radcliffe’s works) which was characterised by gloom and excess emotion. Even Wordsworth was influenced by the pre-Gothic Graveyard School of poetry, (a famous work would be Elegy written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray), and the gloom would give rise to the pensive melancholy in Romantic poetry. The Romantics did not invent gloom, supernatural, pastoral or philosophical poetry, as we are apt to credit them with. The nature-pastoral came earlier, with Robert Bloomfield and Burns and others, but they did not survive. They did influence the famous Romantics though, who churned it into a higher power, with emotion and lyricism. The Graveyard school as I have said predates the Romantics’ melancholy. Poetry before and after that does not have such a famous school that endures so well in our memories, even though there have been excellent poets, so it was something in that age that made poetry so appealing. The great emotional power, for one thing, the vogue for nature (with industrialisation people had nostalgia for the countryside), the change from strict meter to a more flexible lyricism, the exploration of self, the vivid images - these are the characteristics of Romanticism, and what we equate with great poetry. Dull philosophical poetry does not last so well, which is why fewer people like TS Eliot. But the Romantics did not last.
I have said the novel is the greatest survivor of them all. There were famous Victorian poets (the greats that come to mind are Tennyson and Browning, though Mrs Browning, Swinburne and Christina Rossetti were important) but better known and loved (just as the Romantic poets are better loved) are the Victorian novelists. Now the Victorian novels come in early Victorian (1830’s-50’s), mid-Victorian (1850’s-70s) and late (1870s-90s). This is almost a continuous stretch, which is a remarkable feat. But good novels with a great plot, memorable characters and emotional power will endure - and the Victorians had the formula. They had all three, as well as some realism, though the late Victorians were different from the early ones. 
The early Victorians are Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontes and Mrs Gaskell. Dickens and Thackeray admired Fielding, and tend to have more of the picturesque, though with more drama and a focused plot. In the picturesque, it is the side characters who capture our attention rather than the insipid hero, who is only our eyepiece. Now all these authors are vastly different, especially the Brontes from the rest. We can see however that Dickens and Mrs Gaskell were into social issues and reform (both were Radicals and supported working-class movements). Dickens likes comedy and caricature, Mrs Gaskell was more humane in her humour, and all her characters are well-drawn and real. But unlike Jane Austen and Maria Edgeworth there is always the sense of an outside world apart from courtship. Manners matter less than humanity. Which makes the Victorians in a sense greater realists than the Regency novelists, because they cover a greater scope. The Brontes were into the inner emotional turmoil, though these great introverts (Charlotte and Anne in particular) did not fully ignore social issues. Governess and feminism issues are present, though Charlotte wrote to her publisher that her work lacks real-world issues. But by 18th century standards they would have been considered very outward-looking for novelists. Emily was more a poet than novelist, and she was into epics, because great passion and violence are the sort you expect in poetry rather than in a novel. Wuthering Heights is one of those. They were influenced by the Romantics, who liked the past and great unrestrained feelings, which added dimension to their works. But arguably the early Victorians were realists - Dickens and Mrs Gaskell social realists, the Brontes emotional realists (though in a very narrow sense).
The mid-Victorians cover Mrs Gaskell, Anthony Trollope and George Eliot. They were wider in scope than the early Victorians, who tended to have more fantastic plots and happy endings, and a lot of sentimentalism (influence of the Romantics maybe). They were more straightforward and factual in a way, and Trollope was a master of character and numerous plots. So was George Eliot. While the Brontes were contented with monsters like Heathcliff and Mr Rochester and Bertha Mason (and Dickensian characters) the mid-Victorians could not stoop so much to caricature or be booed at. George Eliot was political, and so was Mrs Gaskell, and both were into social issues. Anthony Trollope wrote society novels, and was less intellectual than both, but there is a wideness in him, nevertheless. They are more true realists compared to the early Victorians, and there are more sad endings. The 60’s and 70’s were the age of Sensational Fiction, which means Wilkie Collins and thrillers, and reviews lamented that these were more popular than proper literary fiction. Collins has endured, so has Mary Braddon, but few others, and they are considered comparatively minor.
The late Victorians became diverse, because although realism became more harsh and nitty-gritty and real and depressing (think Thomas Hardy and George Gissing), there was a turn in the other direction. The other group of Victorian fiction would be the rise of adventure fiction. H Riger Haggard and of course Conan Doyle remain popular to this day, and Rudyard Kipling.  Robert Louis Stevenson and HG Wells too. THese are the precursors of genre fiction, scifi, fantasy and detective novels. While Hardy has lasted, he is far less adept at character than his predecessors, and the real classics of this era are the adventure/scifi/gothic novelists - genre fiction. Realism has had its heyday, it seems, and you understand when contemporary reviewers bemoaned the depressing novels that were in vogue, because idyllic novels were considered unrealistic and old-fashioned. No one will want to read depressing novels all the time, but adventures have a hold on our heart. The characters are interesting only because they suffer, but they do not hold our hearts the way the early Victorian characters did. The latter are real and interesting whether they suffer or not.
The 20th century returned with realism, in the form of EM Forster, Virginia Woolf and F Scott Fitzgerald (but he’s American, and this is strictly Great Britain literature) but they have been less loved compared to the Victorians. It is the sophisticated who appreciate the great 20th century authors but novels that cater for a wide overall intelligent audience are still the Victorians. We admire the 20th century, but we love the Victorians. The 20th century realists who survive seem to be clustered around 1910-1940. They tend to be gloomy and depressing, but they do probe into the characters’ minds, which is a good thing. They are more introspective in a sense, and show a detachment and lack of community. But if you mean classics that people actually read and remember, the early 20th century was actually the Golden Age of detective fiction - Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. These are still popular. Realism is wavering as a school.
In the 40’s-60’s the Dystopia school became the thing, in the form of George Orwell (I believe Aldous Huxley too). But I know little about this. Now true realism has become obsolete and unread after its heyday. But genre fiction is now a major force, with LOTR influencing every mediaeval-inspired fantasy series. Interestingly TH White’s Arthurian series appeared in the 1940s. WWII seems to have nurtured fantasy, even appearing in the Narnia series. It is the escapism they captured, away from the war, while also using fantasy as a way to criticise war. And in LOTR and TH White you see a lot of WWII elements. Character realism is dying, and plot and politics are the thing. This is a notable difference from the Victorians, as even the politics the latter preached seem insignificant compared to plot and character. 
I don’t know about sci-fi proper, not being an expert, but Douglas Adams I believe was in the 1980’s. Recently, we have had offshoots of Tolkien in the form of Harry Potter and the Dark Materials - though the latter is different. Harry Potter, while entertaining, may not endure so long, because there are so many spells to remember, and the world is something you only really know if you’ve read the series or watched the movies. There is fun but less power. The Dark Materials is more powerful and has fewer rules, and therefore may endure. It is also shorter, and has important theological arguments. Theological arguments are unlikely to endure, so that is not in its favour. It has lots of contemporary references which is not always a good thing for future generations.  Still, Narnia is a Christian apologist work, so that bodes well for Dark Materials. But fantasy novels that survive have a few basic rules and not so many. It is the power to shock and strike terror, not a happy universe of students that will live. Because it is not fantasy enthusiasts who will keep it going, it is the intelligent reader, both fantasy and non-fantasy enthusiasts who will keep on promoting it.  This however, was in the 90’s/2000s. It is evident however that fantasy  that survives must have a quest, danger and power. This is why Diana Wynnes Jones has not lasted so well, because she is quirky, intelligent, mild and un-epic although her characters are far superior to other fantasy authors.
Of late, in our decade, the paranormal romance/dystopian teenage romance theme is fashionable. I speak of course of Twilight and Hunger Games. Whether they will endure or not is another question. Most intelligent people diss Twilight, as do I. But I am not so sure, because of lack of other blockbusters Twilight will probably have a name in literary history. Perhaps it will not endure, but certainly literary scholars will have heard of it in later decades, as an example of The School of Porn, as it has sparked off a formulaic series of novels including Fifty Shades and others. Since teenagers outgrow the novels quickly this does not bode well for Twilight. And since the formula is so easily copied Twilight is not likely to endure as there are others just like it. Some elements might influence a later school of fiction though. What is in its favour is the raw emotion. Bella is an anal nuisance, but you clearly see she’s depressed and self-centred, like many teenagers. She reflects the growing discontent in teenage society, and to inspire so much hate indicates some sort of authorial power, though SMeyer has no sense of grammar. Anastasia Steele’s depression is not convincing at all - but people identify with Bella, and people hate her, which means perhaps SMeyer is unconsciously some kind of realist. What however is common, is the love triangle between teenagers. Reviewers observe that YA fiction is the rage - so this could be the YA fiction age. Will it last? That depends on whether it has emotional power, or a gripping plot, or memorable characters. Gripping plot is out of the question, because romance novels are plotless. Emotional power is rare in most novels, and memorable characters too. But honestly dystopia has had its heyday long ago. Perhaps it is the silly romantic crap that will last. I shudder at the thought. They will promote neurotic, self-conscious insecure girls. As it is usually the intelligent readers who promote the previous generation’s works (because most idiots live in the present), we have some hope. Intelligent readers already diss SMeyer, so she is fighting a losing battle. Also most classics tend to be written by intelligent people, and at least part of the audience is intelligent, but have a wide appeal over many others.  So what is our current enduring classic?  Honestly I have no idea, but I suspect, like the 18th century, we are having a vacuum of good literature, and only till the next Golden Age comes along will we get enduring classics. What that will be I don’t know, but there are clues. Since classics tend to be influenced by the ideas and genres of their and a previous generation we can look at those. Particularly the popular genres. The Brontes were influenced by the Gothics (now a minor school), the Romantics by the graveyards and the pastorals, Trollope by Jane Austen, Dickens and Thackeray by Fielding. Looking at current popular fiction, we are influenced by a great deal of genre fiction - dystopia, fantasy, scifi, romance. There is also the Pseudo-philosophical school of fiction, which means Paulo Coelho and Yann Martel, which makes a symbol out of everything - a return to the ancient fairytales and folklore motif in a sense. These may last, if there is emotional power and sufficient morbidness. Historical novels are back in vogue, with Hilary Mantel, but she will not last. Real as she is, it is too mundane and lacks power. It is full of unnecessary details, and she will be sidelined like former respected historical novelists, good in their day but obsolete later. Surprisingly, the latest winner of the Walter Scott Prize may actually endure, though he lacks character vividness, and overexoticises Japan. As Walter Scott popularised Scotland and Scottish historical fiction, Tan Twan Eng has done the same to Malayan historical fiction, with anachronisms like the former’s novels. He will last, however, not so much for his actual novels, but for his name as the Malayan Bard or something. Walter Scott is known for Ivanhoe and as the Waverley guy, but few actually read the Waverley novels nowadays. For successful historical fiction, like in Scott’s case, needs exoticism and vivid descriptions, though Scott was lacking in human emotions in his novels.  From the dramatic plots of Victorian literary fiction we are back to the picturesque, where scenes and descriptions and misery, not plot, matter. This is why I think literary fiction proper of this era will not endure. All classics have elements of other genres - for the Victorian realists, this was a good plot and a happy ending. Tan very wisely said that one needs plot to make a good novel, which he emphasised in his first novel. And so his first novel will be more popular in later years than his second, which is less powerful though better reviewed. Another candidate is Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy which is like a Victorian novel, but if you ask me, too long. It is realistic though, and vivid, and has memorable characters, which are the strengths. It won’t be a blockbuster for some time, that’s certain, but it may be reprinted for decades, to be read by the intelligent. Let us hope it has a better future in store.  A number of the Asian novelists who write in English are fortunate, as they have been influenced by the old English novelists (if they are from Commonwealth countries especially) and less exposed to the modern literary schools of the Western world (unless they spend a lot of time overseas and have been educated in creative writing). Since people love warm communities, chatty characters and family sagas, Asian novels tend to have those - and in Indian novels set in earlier decades particularly. Why do you think people like country-house novels? Because of the community, of the way everyone is linked.  Anita Desai may be more famous, but Vikram Seth captures this sentiment far better.    Exoticism in excess is bad, but it is beneficial only for idyllic or for historical novels.
Judging from reviews, it is likely the next age in literature will feature country-house elements. If not in a country house per se, at least a close community interlinked. We have come a long way since solitary dystopia, since the neurotic 1930s, to a circle. The solitary one in novels is an overexhausted theme, and is badly treated nowadays. Since there is a fashion for foreign-culture postcolonial novels, the next great novel may be set there. (Since they understand the Old Masters of fiction better and are less exposed to pretentious modernism). Love stories always last, that’s a no-brainer. A historical setting may be advisable, because you can only have the country-house theme in the past, not in today’s urban depressed and detached environment. A lot of Booker shortlists also tend to be historical novels.  It may be in the countryside (Mrs Gaskell and Eliot loved to write about the countryside), what with the rise of farm lit. This is the “cosy" novel. There may emerge another type of novel within the same era, the darker edgier sort, which may feature dystopia and neuroticism (the paranormal romance thing is hard to sort out, but the neuroticism is real and powerful). This genre was popular in the 40s/50s so a rebirth may not come. The emphasis is on romance and love triangles rather than a dystopia, but goodness knows how that will become a coherent plot. Perhaps I’m missing on something. Neurotic love that survives a dystopian world. With a Byronic hero thrown in. This is starting to sound like a watered-down version of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights. And to this dystopian love story a political turmoil and anti-papal rhetoric. (Since Dark Materials and Game of Thrones are the thing). But if the thing is to last, the love story would be emphasised. Politics that fills the novel seems to suit the dystopian or fantasy genre best but as I’ve said that age is over. Oh, and it’ll take place in a war-torn or politically conflicted country - maybe in the Middle East, which seems to be the rage now, or somewhere similar. But with more power than Khaled Hosseini. Since Christianity is a waning force, I suggest maybe romance in a Muslim country.