This quote is from Woolf’s 1923 essay “It Strikes a Contemporary,” in which she compares the literature of the 19th century to that of the 20th. I know, in my own life, this seems to be true. My days of drinking in bars in Brooklyn and dining on rooftops in Florence are over. Now, I wake and take care of my children and go to work and try, when I can, before the sun rises, to write something of worth. I strive toward cleanliness and hard work and fail at it more days than not. I do try, though.
But about the matter of literature, even though Woolf was wrong (Ulysses is not a symbol of cleanliness and hard work, but is considered a work of genius), her comment seems to hit upon an essential truth: that when held up to the literature of the past, contemporary literature is always going to be seen as less than, as “lean,” as she puts it, and not anything like the works of genius produced in the past. We just don’t know what will be read one hundred years from now. Maybe Harry Potter won’t stand the test. I wonder if it might be impossible, in fact, to judge the work of our time because of this blind spot.
I have complained of today’s literary output myself (I still don’t understand why people love Jonathan Safran Foer’s writing). And on the whole, with the exception of outliers like Infinite Jest, we, too, seem to be getting a lean literature that Woolf complained of. We have blogs (like this one), micro-essays, six-word memoirs, lines here or there, scrapped from Twitter. Aren’t these all dissatisfying, in a way? I’ve put down many novels and thought, “Eh, what else?” Something seems to be missing. Some grand but invisible knowing. I have read nothing from recent years that has captivated me in the way that The Magic Mountain has. There’s a patience to that novel that makes me believe in it. It has a kind of faith. Woolf calls it belief. Writers of her time
seem deliberately to refuse to gratify those senses which are stimulated so briskly by the moderns; the senses of sight, of sound, of touch—above all, the sense of personality vibrating with perceptions which, since they are not generalized, but have their centre in some particular person at some precise moment, serve to make that person and that moment vivid to the utmost extreme. There is little of all this in the works of Wordsworth and Scott and Jane Austen. From what, then, arises that sense of security which gradually, delightfully, and completely overcomes us? It is the power of their belief—their conviction, that imposes itself upon us.
Doesn’t that seem tantalizingly true?
The most sincere . . . will only tell us what it is that happens to himself. They cannot make a world, because they are not free of other human beings. They cannot tell stories, because they do not believe the stories are true.
But then, I wait. And think about the stories of George Saunders, who tells funny and true stories. I believe him. And Elena Ferrante, whose Days of Abandonment convinced me completely. And Haruki Murakami—whose writing I can only describe as patient. In fact, Murakami opens up new possibilities in what writing should be; I’m not sure I would say he believes in one thing, but he does show a faith in the unknown. His characters explore and wonder and are open to whatever might happen. This is a wonderful feeling. And it’s what makes Murakami’s writing masterful. He manages to make me believe the characters are responding to the moment all the while the writer isn’t.
I do think it’s hard to get past this blind spot of the age we live in. We’re destined to be hard critics of our own time. I wonder if there is anything objectively good or bad about our taste for the now. Do we (and should we) shun the familiar? Is that why we cringe at the mention of Facebook or Twitter in literature? I know I do. I seek timelessness.
But a deeper question is if “true” literature is one that provides that authoritative voice, one that “believes.” Maybe that mode of literature is outdated. How could the cultural shift that’s been taking place for decades now, as we move from an authoritative experience to a “user” experience, not affect our literature? Is it progress or a regression? Is it inevitable?
I have more questions, but I’ve gone on too long. I’d love to hear what you think.