|Nothing here but us same-old-books.|
For many years, one of the most consistent criticisms that I hear literary sommeliers level against literature is that the art form hasn't changed significantly in nearly a hundred years. The main literary form is still the novel, with short stories a distant second, and its supremacy has been almost unchallenged. We've dabbled in flash fiction (or microfiction) but for the most part the art of literature hasn't experienced any major shifts. This is such a common criticism that if you turn on NPR at any given moment (except for during "All Things Considered"), there is actually a 13.8% chance that you will immediately hear someone talking about it.
I would contest these assertions. Literature has experienced huge tectonic upheaval in the time I've been alive and reading, and it's still changing. And it's exciting. And all you have to do is pull your head out of your ass to see it.
For starters there are fundamental aspects of storytelling that have not changed in recorded history. Things like a story having beginning, middle, and end. Certain aspects of story like tension, climax and denouement. From Sophocles to Stephen King, these aspects have endured without fundamental alteration, so they probably aren't going to change much going forward. There is even enough evidence from neurology and psychobiology to indicate that storytelling is actually so fundamental to our lives that it could be considered something that makes us human. In the same sort of niche within our basic humanity as we find culture and language, we find stories and our desire to hear them, tell them, and retell them. Indeed what is culture if not a series of stories we tell over and over and over again to help us order and categorize the world? Change those stories, and you end up with a fundamentally different culture.
Trust a Creative Writing MFA to muck around with human, biological need in an effort to try and make something "more artistic."
The result is about what you might expect. A melange of highly experimental pieces that attempt to transcend "what literature is doing today" as an art form. These pieces usually run in university literature journals that are produced by other Creative Writing MFA programs, (are usually read almost exclusively by other creative writing students,) and are highly inaccessible to almost any other readers. This is so much the case that many undergrands consider the terms "experimental" and "confusing beyond my ability to understand why anyone would willingly read this shit" as absolutely synonymous. The grad students just roll their eyes at this, and it's like a big joke that everybody thinks is actually about the other guy.
These experimental writers continue to attempt to break new ground within writing, even while ignoring cultural trends. They think the artist must pioneer and forge ahead beyond cultural trends rather than being at the cusp of the input/output threshold between art and culture where at an almost preconscious level, the two echo and reflect each other, and is why the question about art reflecting life or vice versa is never going to be answered definitively.
There is nothing inherently wrong with this. It wouldn't be so bad if everyone was just doing what found meaningful and letting the chips fall where they may but every generation more and more critics and sommeliers estrange themselves from the "mainstream," ignore cultural changes, scoff the tastes of anyone not sophisticated enough to like what they tell them they ought to like, and then absolutely lose their fucking shit when authors they can't stand get canonized. Over and over and over and over and over again. It's almost as if writing something people will actually read and understand-- something that sparks on cultural relevance--might be important to literary perpetuity.
The writers themselves of this caliber of material seem more fond of the term "avant guarde," missing both the irony that the movement within modernism was so generally confusing EVEN AMONG ARTISTS as to create its own cultural reactionary swing of returning-to-basics in post-modernism, and also the irony that the avant guarde movement was as much opposed to MFA's and "high art" and institutions like university fine arts programs as it was to commercialism and mainstream culture.
About this situation, even the irony demons have been heard to say "What is this? I don't even.."
How much irony would you say is here? 50 irony? 60 irony?
But wait...there's more.
The series is a huge development in literature. Go back forty years and you will find only a few series. Go back fifty years and you will find almost none. Today the series has exploded as a supremely popular medium for storytelling complete with its own conventions and unique challenges. I'm not talking about the same character in a completely new adventure, but actually increasingly long plot arcs where multiple books are telling intensely rich stories with complex tapestries woven by a myriad of very involved character arcs. The trilogy is so common these days that it is practically the form of choice for many authors. Series of five to ten books are not unheard of. This is basically one long story of thousands and thousands of pages and it tracks with the general growth of the novel that really started in the seventies and eighties.
This development of length tracks also with shifts in other media. Television shows (once fans of the weekly "reset") have begun to be more unusual if they don't have a sort of running continuity. I remember growing up how people used to think The Facts of Life was very strange for its ongoing changes of the kids graduating and moving on with their lives. That just didn't happen in sit-coms. Now it's harder to find a sitcom that doesn't have developments and changes that affect the characters through the episodes. Plot arcs that take up whole seasons and culminate during fanales (or cliff-hang into the next season--the bastards) are increasingly pedestrian. Even entire multi-season arcs are not unheard of (pioneered by Babylon Five, they have since shown up in Angel, Stargate, Carnivalle, Battlestar Galactica [the remake], and more). This is such a fucking thing that they are splitting up ONE kids book, The Hobbit, into three movies--the first of which comes out in a couple of days from this writing..
This development is also consistent with other cultural shifts. In a world of increasing turmoil and chaos and increasing feelings of anonymity and powerlessness, the rise of escapism has been noticed by artists, entertainers, and social workers alike. The rise of MUSHs MUDs and MMORPGs shows an increasing dedication to worlds that exist mostly within the borders of imagination. "Immersive" has become one of the best things you can say about many forms of art and entertainment. People don't seek a few minutes of distraction--unless they're on their smart phones. What they want is to lose themselves. Wholly. Utterly. They want to enter a world where they (or the protagonist they relate to) can actually make a difference. As shorter stories get shorter and longer books get longer, they follow exactly the same sort of cultural "distract-me-or-immerse-me" social phenomenon as other media and other arts.
We are, as a culture, and within arts, are rejecting stasis and the quick epiphany. We are much more interested in exploring the slow and measured changes that make big differences over time. Is it any wonder that that's where our art is given our recent cultural shifts (that seem so small day to day but are gigantic decade by decade) our final scientific acceptance of evolution (small changes that make a big difference over time), and the mass communication that has forced us to understand linguistic drift (small changes that make a big difference over time) and not simply be snobbish assholes about the "one true language".
Most lit sommeliers don't consider this development worthy of literary analysis because they are "so commercial." Series books (like the ones that have been the subject of the recent polls) aren't considered real literature. Thus the sommeliers spend their time ignoring the innovation, which decry the lack of, largely because when it happens as a reflection of culture, it is seen as commercial.
How much irony would you say is here now? 80 irony? 90?
But...hold on. There's even more.
Mixed media and multi-media developments are happening in literature all the time. Interactive books. Increasingly literary audio visual media. Video games with mostly linguistic story development. Blogs. Collaborative writing projects made possible by technology. And even new developments that are splicing different media together on tablets and computers like stories with occasional movie clips and such are popping up everywhere. Of course, our lit snobs don't think any of these are literature. Literature must be words...in a book. Preferably a paper book with a booky smell and not one of those newfangled Kindle thingies. "Get off my lawn with your fancy microchips and your non-homogenous media you whippersnapper smoochers! Don't make me get my twelve gauge!"
And where do these lit snobs think all the past literary "innovations" came from? Many of them came from technological advancements. The novel didn't explode until after literacy (among the plebs, I might add) skyrocketed due to the printing press. The short story gained traction in England where cheap paper and binding techniques made putting together pamphlet sized "books" viable. Novels started to gain girth almost directly as printing technologies made printing longer books more viable. Microfiction was never really popular until the ubiquity of the internet made shorter and sweeter reads much more compelling. And now as wireless everything and tablets begin to change the industry yet again, our sommeliers don't get excited about what could happen or how the new technologies could lead to new innovations. No, they decry it as not "real" literature.
How exactly will we see any innovations if every time there is one, it is immediately discounted as non literary?
Now how much irony would you say? 100 irony? More? Here we have the most significant developments in the literary world occurring right in front of people who not only claim that they aren't real, but who continue to complain about the lack of innovation and development.
And we haven't even reached the most ironic part yet...
Because here's the kicker.... As usual, these developments are happening in speculative fiction. The interesting conventions, the explorations of culture sans bias through the magic of allegory, the isolation of morals through metaphor, the "literature of ideas"...it's all right there for the reading. It's all happening in science and speculative fiction.
While "that's not art" is such a familiar reaction to anything new as to be cliche, most art forms take about a generation to accept pioneers into their ranks. But in literature, the majority of the critics are still caught in 1960s when the scifi dime novel became insanely popular as mass entertainment and really, really, really (really) BADLY WRITTEN science fiction became enjoyable to the plebs and their "puerile" interests. Despite ten decades of innovation beyond those dime novels, major and incredible stories in the genre both before and after (and even during) those "dark days," huge shifts and developments in the forms themselves, and the fact that speculative fiction is almost the "ford finder" of the literary world, they do not acknowledge their achievements and dismiss the entire genre outright for being subliterary. But the worst part is, then they turn around and grouse about the lack of developments. It's like someone in the trench of Moses's parted waters yelling to the sky for God to show them a miracle.
So really, actually, the only thing that isn't changing and developing is the lit snob themselves.
Now how much irony would you say?