Those of us who love to read (which means pretty much anyone who gives enough of a damn to be online on meaningful sites, and not chat-trash) will understand what I’m talking about when I ask this question.
Remember when we were beginning to learn to love reading, and the authors we cut our literary teeth on? Where are the new writers who could have matched the greats of yesteryear? Where are the modern Sholokhovs and Dickens, the Hemingways and Kurt Vonneguts? Is literary talent extinct?
Where, for instance, are satirists like Joseph Heller, fantasy writers like Lord Dunsany, humourists like Mark Twain, or anti-war authors of the calibre of Remarque or Mailer? Instead of imaginative horror writers like Sheridan Le Fanu, we have formulaic, utterly predictable hacks like Stephen King. Instead of the visionary (if not particularly well-written) science fiction of Arthur C Clarke or Ray Bradbury, we have people with unmemorable names whose tales are so involved that you finish reading them still unclear what the author was talking about. Instead of real detective fiction from writers like Baroness Orczy, we have John Grisham. Instead of suspense, we have zombies.
What the hell is going on?
Obviously, it’s not true that the talent isn’t there. If anything, more people than ever before are writing, and the laws of chance will mean that all other things being equal, we should see more, not less, great authors. So why aren’t we?
I suggest that the primary reason is the publishing industry. Books are nowadays thought of in purely marketing terms, and publishers will ignore literary merit entirely for “saleability”. That, in turn, means being acceptable to the lowest common denominator; literary pap, to be more succinct.
Any one of us who’s ever tried to publish anything will have come across the publishers’ demands about what’s “suitable” and what isn’t; the current favourite genre seems to be something called “Young Adult” fiction, as though late teens can’t read anything more mature. I wonder how we managed to consume Melville and Dostoyevsky as teenagers without our brains imploding, then.
So, since the vast majority of good writing isn’t writing aimed at the market, you no longer get good writers getting published. Good writing has always been edgy, out of the common herd; it has to be, to stand out. Often it’s been controversial – Lolita for example. Anyone here thinks Nabokov would have found a publisher today?
Then, there’s the fact that less and less reading is actually getting done. There’s too much TV feeding pre-digested garbage into people’s brains. There’s too much channelling of kids into reading “useful career-oriented” material rather than “story books”, at least in India where today’s children can scarcely call a minute of their time their own. There’s too damn much background noise for writers to be heard, unless, of course, they go with the flow.
Is there a way out? Funnily enough, I think there is. Once global warming and the decline of fossil fuels reach their logical conclusions, the modern frenetic pace of society will quite definitely break down. There will be chaos, social disorder and civil war, but once that phase is over, the remnants of civilisation will pick up the pieces and the survivors will return to a quieter and more sustainable mode of existence. And then, there will be an enormous amount of material to write on, too, as there was in the years when we were growing up.
So, we shouldn’t give up writing. The flame needs to be kept burning, even if it’s only going to kindle a blaze decades after we’re gone.
And meanwhile we can re-read Quiet Flows The Don or A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. At least we know we have quality there.