Sunday, September 13, 2009

Looking Back to Look Forward

Some of the comment about the Booker shortlist last week seems to me symptomatic of our current obsession with time, as discussed recently by David Ulin in the Los Angeles Times, and of the 'global' and linear way we think about it. We see the world in terms of 'past' and 'present', it seems, and this as a bad/good opposition. I suspect that 'Degrus' 's comment on Sarah Crown's Guardian books blog that the list of six 'historical' novels is 'depressingly backward-looking' represents a common train of thought. As David Ulin points out, there's an obsession with contemporaneity, with the now. I confess I haven't read a single book on this shortlist (!), so I'm writing theoretically, but I'd like to pose the question: what is wrong with 'looking back'? Or to put it more strongly, isn't it damn well urgently important to look back? I hate to be cliched, but sometimes cliches seem to get forgotten, and wasn't there something someone said about remembering the mistakes of the past in order not to make them again...?! In other words, the present and future lie in the past, and as 'Hedgiecc', another Guardian blog commenter pointed out, what is important in historical fiction is to 'make the themes of the work relevant to contemporary concerns'.

Edited in: I wrote the above before I looked at today's Observer. While one article there reported on the fact that history is in danger of disappearing as a subject from our schools, another by Tim Adams bemoans our heritage culture as a retreat from the present and its concerns. I can't disagree with this last, and while there seems a paradox, I think in fact it's just the other side of the coin of our simplistic 'global' thinking, the one which alternatively holds the past as 'good' and the present as 'bad' (or at least, as he says, too difficult for contemplation). Adams acknowledges the respectable tradition of mining the past for 'stories that will illuminate the present', but believes that the 'current appetite for historical fiction' seems different, a part of this retreat from 'the here and now'. Well, it's true that you can't legislate for what people seek in books, but (while, as I say, I haven't yet read the current Booker shortlist) this seems in itself a bit of blanket/'global' condemnation of the shortlisted books.
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