Saturday, September 09, 2006

"Lost" in literature: more despair

There's that old chestnut: if Dickens were alive today he'd be writing soap operas.

Mini-series more like.

In his now-infamous essay How to Read, Nick Hornby presents what he evidently perceives as the pinnacle of literary achievement: US readers of Dickens waiting "on the dockside in New York for news of Little Nell". We can now only dream of such cultural prominence for fiction. (Harry Potter novels are perhaps regarded as merely early drafts of screenplays).

So what is the contemporary equivalent of the Little Nell vigil? For me it would have to be Lost. After the first series (i.e. not "season"), I wanted to know what was in the hatch. So when I got the chance to see the second series-not-season, I jumped at it. But even now, after 48 episodes, I'm unhappy. I know what's in the hatch, but it's not enough. I want to know more. It's not a pleasant need. For all the memorable characters and the series-not-season's compelling storylines, there's a void echoing with hunger. As I described in my original post about Hornby's essay, this is despair. Once it is satisfied, it's forgotten. The need for satisfaction would make anyone stand on a dockside and wait for news or, more probably, a burn of a download.

"Dickens is literary now, of course" Hornby added sarcastically, "because the books are old." Presumably The Old Curiosity Shop was like Lost is now. This is the despair popular authors want to foment.

The intriguing question from this is: why Dickens is 'literary' now yet wasn't then?

Following Hornby's logic, it's unclear. He offers only two definitions of "literary" fiction. The first can be deduced when he writes that he has rejected "contemporary literary fiction" from his reading diet because "I am not particularly interested in language". He does not like "prose that draws attention to itself, rather than the world it describes". A literary novel is one that tends to be "opaquely written". Yet how can anyone tell if prose is drawing attention to itself? If one likes prose that effaces itself, how can one recognise that quality without it immediately clouding over?

If that point seems sophistical because one recognises it only after being seduced, after putting the book down and reflecting, then what do you do if you happen to think about it during a read? Is that when a work becomes literary? Do you have to avoid thinking throughout a sitting? It seems that is precisely what Hornby seeks when he reads: thoughtlessness. (He certainly seems to achieve it when writing.)

His other definition of 'literary' is that it is educational. Literary books make you think; they "must be hard work" in order to be any good. "But [Dickens'] work has survived not because he makes you think" he insists "but because he makes you feel, and he makes you laugh, and you need to know what is going to happen to his characters." His sarcastic remark about this being literary only because it's old suggests that such entertainment is only a sweetener for the dose of education his novels offer about social history.

So why is it I find Dickens hard work? According to Hornby's logic, it's because his novels are too literary. I wouldn't argue with that.


  1. "It's not a pleasant need. For all the memorable characters and the series-not-season's compelling storylines, there's a void echoing with hunger."

    Manipulating hunger -- you almost could have been talking about an ad campaign.

  2. Not so long back Hornby got excited about his recent discovery of Patrick Hamilton, who simply didn't exist until NH had heard of him, going so far as to claim it was as if someone (who?) had converted the stretch of London writers' A road between Charles Dickins and Martin Amis into a motorway (what about Gissing? A service station?).

    Martin Amis, that accessible non-literary author.

  3. Anonymous4:33 am

    "I am not particularly interested in language."

    Thanks for telling us your great secret.



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