Sunday, June 05, 2011

Now and Then

Three cheers for Graham Swift for tackling, and indeed attacking, the current notion of the 'contemporary novel' in yesterday's Guardian. It's an impossibility, he says: novels often take too long to write to be entirely 'contemporary', and are written in reflection rather than in the white heat of contemporaneous reportage. He says something I've been thinking about for a while: that the novels by Dickens and Tolstoy which we may now take to have been 'of their time' were in fact set in an earlier period than the time of writing. Crucially, he says, the true subject of novels is the passage of time, which requires a wider and more reflective historical scope than a concentration on the 'now'.

Commenters on the piece taking issue with him seem to be missing the point that the concept of 'nowness'  he's attacking - ie simply that of the period in which a novel is set - stems from our current culture; it's not his own definition of 'nowness' and he's at pains to point out that novels have their own, more valuable, kind of 'nowness'.

It's an important point: that current obsession with contemporaneity puts pressure on novelists (and publishers), I feel: it appears to be marketing gold to be able to say that a novel is a gauge of current society.

Though on the other hand, there's Simon Reynolds contending that we're just wallowing in nostalgia now...
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