My A-Z of Reading: Y is for Yesterday

December 27, 2016

There has long existed the myth of the Golden Age, the idea that everything was better in the past; it’s an infection that spreads through the brain as one ages, I am finding, and it’s one from which the world of literature is not exempt. Is Shakespeare the best dramatist, or the best writer, even, who ever lived? Has no-one since then approached him in brilliance, grandeur, stature? Is it really all downhill since then? Is Jane Austen the greatest English novelist? – and this is a question I’m sure we’ll be asked with considerable frequency next year, the 200th anniversary of her early death…

In the end such questions are surely pointless, as one is never comparing like with like; each age develops new themes and ideas and ways of exploring and illuminating them. Ibsen isn’t Shakespeare, he’s radically different; he challenges, too, and leaves us without easy answers: look at the ending of Ghosts, with the mother frozen in time forever. Should she offer her doomed son an easy death? And they wrote in different languages, at different epochs…

Each age produces an enormous amount of literature, of varying quality. Much of it vanishes fairly rapidly, without much trace: who now reads the novels of Dennis Wheatley, Hammond Innes, Arthur Hailey and their ilk, all best-sellers in my early days? How many people read D H Lawrence, touted as one of the twentieth century greats when I had to study him at university? Theodore Sturgeon, once a pretty well-known science-fiction author, once said, “95% of science-fiction is crap. But then 95% of everything is crap.” And he’s right, if you think about it. I’ve been in second-hand bookshops stacked with fading hardback novels from years ago, and thought, “No-one will ever buy any of this stuff. The shop belongs in a skip.” Most of the authors I’d never heard of, and I’m reasonably clued up on literature.

Which brings up another question: what will survive of what is being published and read today? I often initiated discussions about this with my sixth-form classes. What are the criteria which lead to writers such as Shakespeare or Austen surviving the test of time, and others not? Clearly, inclusion in university and school programmes of study help, but what leads critics to think that writer X deserves study by seventeen year-olds, whereas writer Y doesn’t? You can come up with such ideas as universal or timeless themes, but it’s not only Shakespeare who has written about sexual jealousy or filial ingratitude, for instance.

I’m not convinced that any of my favourite twentieth century writers will survive the test of time, even though I’d like to think so. How long will Umberto Eco or Gabriel Garcia Marquez enchant us? How long will readers be interested in Guenter Grass’ explorations of German war-guilt? My touchstone for current students has been Harry Potter: will the books still be popular and read in twenty, fifty, a hundred years’ time? I’m not convinced, anathema as it might seem to say such a thing.

What will survive? What ensures the survival of a particular writer or text? Answers below, please…

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