This is another post based on a comment I wanted to make on another blog but it got too long. Nathan Bransford recently posted a 100-year best-seller list alongside a list of the books that were published in the same year that are now considered Best Books by Modern Library. His contention is that there is no golden era of literature – that the books we revere from the past were not better liked during their time than literary novels are during our own time.
I think this is an interesting and complex idea. I neither agree nor disagree. The Modern Library list starts in 1900 and I’m not sure this is a big enough sample, for one thing. If people have a sense that literary standards have diverged from the tastes of the reading public over time, might that process have not been in full force by 1900?
The comments on the post are a mixed bag, with some good points being made.
…I actually think the nineteenth-early-twentieth century British/American preoccupation with introspection and realism is the literary fluke.
while some other people said predictable things like,
Actually, what I take away from the list is that it is good to be a male writer.
I’m surprised I’m the first one to comment about how man-heavy the list is!
The Modern Library’s list is chock full of white men! …I’m sorry to see that we haven’t really progressed when it comes to gender or racial representation.
Apparently in order to make sure that all best-of lists are 51 percent female, and 51 percent colored, list-makers should white out the actual content of the book, and just make choices based on the name of the author – kind of the reverse of how writing contest are judged.
Others mentioned that best-selling doesn’t equal well-liked, that genre fiction and high literature are symbiotic.
The following is my response to a comment that I found very interesting by James.
“Are the older books really “more literary” or do we just think they are because they’re old?”
My opinion: It’s just that they’re old.
Mary Shelley wrote a literary classic about stitching together corpses and reanimating them.
Dickens wrote about ghosts that revealed past, present, and future. Today, they might shelve him alongside pulpy SciFi–maybe even Stephen King?
Most literary classics endured to today because they were also commercially viable.
I think it’s hard for us to see “Like, ohmigod, amiright?!” in a sentence and consider that book a contender for a classic.
But it’s really no different than the language in The Three Musketeers. It’s just that we are no longer accustomed to the slang and idioms of the past. (And the translation :P).
I have to disagree with the idea that there’s no difference between the past and the present other than that the past is “novel” to us because it’s unfamiliar.
Gargantua and Pantagruel, for instance, is simply the best smut available. You’d think that the abandonment of sexual standards would produce lots of great dirty humor but Rabelais’ works are still the funniest.
I don’t think people without a classical education realize how many fundamental shifts in thinking happened over the past 400 years. It’s really not comparable to any other like passage of time, unless perhaps the conversion, two millenia ago, of nearly half the globe to Christianity and its completely new assumptions about reality and human nature are comparable. Yet I think that our assumptions are not just post-Christian but post-pagan and indeed post-divinity altogether. In a lot of ways we really are a different humanity. Not deep down, but in all of our conscious identities, values, and assumptions, we are different than anything that came before – and it’s not just one society shifting here and there, but the whole entire globe moving together into a new metaphysical, philosophical, ethical region.
I really believe the vast majority of us would be moved to paroxysms of contempt and judgment if we met a human being from another era. We are the most intolerant age that has ever existed. In what other age have businesses had to advertise that “Yes, we will take your money even if you are a different ethnicity or religion?” And seemed unusually noble for doing so?
The fundamental shift in thinking that is operative for the period of time covered by this best-seller list and the 100-best book that stands along side it is the Darwinian shift, which took until the fifties or so to trickle down to the person of average education.
Many people believe that the furor around Darwinian evolution is a simple contest between people who believe that God created the world suddenly, fully mature and fully formed, 6000 years ago and people who see evidence that the world is much older and that things arose gradually (and who, following Galileo in despite of Aristotle, see the idea of efficient cause as the only useful explanation of causation.) However in reality a conceptual change that redefined the nature of literally everything came along with this question of origins. What we mean by “human nature,” and “love” and “good” and “worthy” and nearly everything else bears almost no resemblance to what anyone else ever meant by those things before.
The conceptual change to which I am referring is the new assumption that causation or source moves from the bottom up instead of, as previously assumed by nearly everyone, from the top down. (I realize certain schools of Greek philosophy can be found which are antecedents to nearly everything that has happened since then.)
Changes in language and form have been driven, often quite intentionally, by desired changes in thought and assumption. Take, for instance, the rejection of the pronoun “he” to refer to a person of indeterminate or unknown gender – a practice so universally accepted for so long that there is literally no viable replacement terminology existing in our English language or in most other languages. We’ve been aggressively sold the idea that the older usage is sexist, but of course no one who used it ever meant to exclude the female. Rather, the male could be the ‘representative sex’ not because women were seen as un-human but because women saw themselves as human by virtue of their likeness to men – as much as men saw themselves as masculine by virtue of their difference from women.
To put it another way, men were seen as the mirror in which women saw their own humanity, and women were seen as the mirror in which men saw their own maleness.
This viewpoint assumes an inherent incompleteness or weakness in each sex. The weakness of the male is that he initially experiences himself as self-sufficient, seeming to comprise the whole of human significance in his own body. However, as soon as he understands this experience, he is overtaken by ontological aloneness. He needs to bring someone else with him on this adventure. He may not know what this desire means but it drives him from that moment. In order to fulfill this desire, he must sacrifice his false self-absorption and become the savior (healer, meaning one who makes whole, meaning someone who fills the waiting emptiness) of someone else. Some incomplete men satisfy this urge for a time by turning it back on themselves. However, very few people (except a fantasy novelist whose book I threw down in disgust because he said that his protagonist celebrated a victory by going into a cave alone and “honoring himself”) imagine that this is satisfying in any way. It fails to embrace another. Others go further out from themselves but end by embracing another man. In this they move beyond themselves personally, but fail to move beyond their own masculinity. However, in order to be complete, a man must take and enter into the body and being of a woman, a creature which he sees as wholly other. When, in this way, he satisfying his divine desire to not be alone and his ontological need to be informed of the mystery-bearing significance of his own creation, he finds that he is not only human but male. For the man then, his masculinity is discovered in the body and person of his wife. Many feminists are unaware of this particular vulnerability in men, and believe that traditional sexuality posits and indeed creates weakness only in the female.
The weakness of the female, on the other hand, is that in the case of most, she experiences herself as female. Her desires from childhood are almost all consumed with childbearing, the differentness and mystery of her own body, her intent to be beautiful and feminine. While this in itself is not problematic (when it’s supported in a positive and balanced way by her parents, it prepares her to be a satisfied and fulfilled person) the weakness is that her humanness is as yet undiscovered. The man who becomes her body’s “savior,” who fulfills this waiting emptiness in her, paradoxically provides her with an intimate companion (for most of human history, her first intimate companion) who is not concerned primarily with female concerns. Her husband is not naturally consumed by household details, finances, childrearing, and so forth. He becomes to her the symbol of humanness itself, of all that is common to both sexes and the concern for that which transcends the immediate details of day-to-day life. In yielding herself to this person she discovers her equality and likeness to him, and in her equality and likeness to this person she finds her own humanity fulfilled and enlarged.
This is the mystery of marriage, on which most of society has been built, but it does not, of course, denigrate the existence of those who have a different path to follow. Many celibate or single women have been consummately human. One wonders whether unmarried men fare so well, but that may be my feminine vanity speaking. 😉
In this sense, the two sexes were not only considered complementary in the past, but in regard to gender, wholly other. This of course makes perfect sense if human sexuality is an image of a more perfect divine-human relationship (if it is imbued with, informed by, and sourced from something higher than itself.) But if everything came into existence through building blocks accidentally bumping into one another and sticking when it worked out well for the organism, than such an idea is meaningless, stupid, and fantastical. (Sadly, many people are not aware of the third choice – that before fundamentalism came along, many Christians actually did believe in an old earth and a divine creation that unfurled naturally over long periods of time. While I entertain this idea with a certain amount of accompanying agnosticism, I do believe that Adam and Eve were real people.)
To judge this older understanding of sexuality as carrying the assumption that men were superior to women is difficult. Pagans, even our favorite pagans such as Plato, certainly did believe that men were superior to women. Early Christian writers like St. Paul seem to have an idea that runs more like this: “Folks, because we are in Christ we know that women are equal to men and that in fact this is not that important because women and men alike are about to be transformed into something that is currently unimaginable in its glory. But for the sake of our reputation, the good order of society, and not bringing down more hatred on us than we’re already dealing with, let’s not use this knowledge to overthrow the hierarchy of the household and the church.” Perhaps the knowledge of feminine equality was meant to be more and more realized and fulfilled as time went on. While I am not a progressivist, I don’t see why human history shouldn’t show divine renewal and improvement alongside the sometimes disastrous falls that humanity experiences.
Later, Papist Christianity certainly denigrated not only sex, but women – because naturally, a society composed entirely of highly-educated celibate men will equate women and sex. Not being united to women, they never discovered their own masculinity or associated with men who had done so, and therefore viewed women as less than human since humanity was, for them, still located in themselves.
To what extent was the English language built around the true Christian idea, to what extent around the pagan idea, and to what extent around the pseudo-Christian idea? I can’t answer that question, but I can insist that this small change in form from the natural “he” to the contrived “he/she/it” imports massive assumptions about literally the most important questions of human existence.
The same principle applies to nearly every other change in lingo. Modern slang is not necessarily the equivalent of romantic-era oaths or 1920’s frivolity. The backdrop of feeling and assumption against which they were spoken gives them a unique character. When we read them, the backdrop is inherently suggested. We live for a moment with the humanity that people of another time lived with – and I contend that we don’t just like it because it’s new to us. We like it because it’s less contrived and more natural to us than our own experience of humanity is.
What are often called “literary novels” (which are, as one commenter said, revered by literary authorities because they are introspective and self-indulgent)are actually the presagers of our own more self-righteous humanity. They are dull and depressing because their language imports an assumption that everything that makes human life worth living has been debunked.
And to answer a question that may well arise, yes, smut is funnier when author and reader are traditional Christians. Why? Simply because there’s nothing surprising, daring, or knowing about smut if you don’t have a real solid sense of Christian chastity to play off of. You can see the same thing in modern humor where a character in a sitcom falls to temptation and behaves in a manner we recognize as less-than-ideal: perhaps betrays vanity, for instance, or rage. We laughg but it’s only funny because we know that it’s better to be realistic about ourselves and to not handle things through rage. If society comes to forget the distinction between confidence and vanity, between rage and zeal, those old sitcoms will continue to be funny (because we will be momentarily transported to a world where vanity and rage was unacceptable) but all the new sitcoms being made will be dull whenever they show someone acting out of vanity or going into a paroxysm of rage.
I can laugh at the antics of Pantagruel but want to vomit at modern filth. Why? Because the modern filth all comes laden with the assumption that “This is what you REALLY are. This is your lowest and most basic and therefore most REAL nature.”
Others may find the same books penetrating, revealing, and resonating.
Therefore, the question of the nature of reality is precisely what is at stake when we discuss the value of literary styles. Whenever someone scolds me for writing formal poetry about subjects of beauty, I understand instantly that the person thinks that beauty has been debunked and feels contempt for the idea that there might be anything higher than that height to which man has risen through evolution. He recognizes my poem as a veiled act of worship.
And lest someone think this is just an argument for religion, I realize that vast swathes of people have very personal reasons for mistrusting religion and loathing the image of God that they have rejected in their minds. This is why I so appreciate the understanding displayed in “The River of Fire.”