December 8, 2011

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: Has literature stopped evolving?


At Vanity Fair, Kurt Anderson argues that there have been no radical change in style, culture, art, and fashion over the last 20 years—a stark contrast to every other two decade period. Going all the back into the 19th-century, Anderson writes, a 20 year period marked a drastic and unmistakable shift in cultural appearance. With the exception of our current quarter century “the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising—all of it.”

However, for Anderson, this constant cultural shift comes to an end on or around 1992. “Jeans and sneakers,” he writes “remain the standard uniform for all ages, as they were in 2002, 1992, and 1982. Look through a current fashion or architecture magazine or listen to 10 random new pop songs; if you didn’t already know they were all things from the 2010s, I guarantee you couldn’t tell me with certainty they weren’t from the 2000s or 1990s or 1980s or even earlier.”

It’s an intriguing piece, filled with ideas and observations worth contemplating and debating. However, I want to focus on one subset of Anderson’s article: Literature.

Anderson writes:

When high-end literature was being redefined by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, great novels from just 20 years earlier—Henry James’The Ambassadors, Edith Wharton‘s The House of Mirth—seemed like relics of another age. And 20 years after Hemingway published his war novel For Whom the Bell Tolls a new war novel, Catch-22, made it seem preposterously antique…. [However] ambitious fiction from 20 years ago (Doug Coupland‘s Generation X, Neal Stephenson‘s Snow Crash, Martin Amis‘s Time’s Arrow) is in no way dated, and the sensibility and style of Joan Didion‘s books from even 20 years before that seem plausibly circa-2012.

Is this true? Has Literature become more static and familiar, less differentiated and mutating than in the past? When you think of the Literature of the 20th century, you can at least attempt to name some movements and schools. The High Modernists of the 1920s and 30s, the Beat Generation of the 1950s, the New Journalists and Postmodernists of the 60s and 70s, the Minimalists and Multicultural trends of the 1970s and 1980s… What is the literary development/school/movement of the 1990s and beyond that we can point our finger at and say “This is what happened. This is what changed.”? Has Literature, too, fallen into a “nostalgic gaze” at the methods of the past? And, perhaps more importantly, does it matter? Does different, distinctive, and new necessarily mean better?

It’s nearly impossible to empirically prove whether something as diffuse as Literature—suffused as it is with specific attitudes and experiences—has become moribund or not. Still, the anxiety remains, a fear that we are stuck in a low period, a period when Literature ceased to re-invent itself within cultural history, a “cultural era of the Same Old Same Old.”  You can find this concern about Literature losing its revolutionary character in Lars Iyer’s recent literary manifesto “Nude In Your Hot Tub, Facing the Abyss” when he writes “Sometime in the 1960s, the great river of Culture, the Literary Tradition, the Canon of Lofty works began to braid and break into a myriad distributaries, turning sluggish on the plains of the cultural delta.”

What do you think? Have the last 20 years of fiction lacked distinction in comparison to the past?