Why New Literature is Different From Old Literature

This is another post based on a comment I wanted to make on another blog but it got too long. Nathan Bransford recently posted a 100-year best-seller list alongside a list of the books that were published in the same year that are now considered Best Books by Modern Library. His contention is that there is no golden era of literature – that the books we revere from the past were not better liked during their time than literary novels are during our own time.

I think this is an interesting and complex idea. I neither agree nor disagree. The Modern Library list starts in 1900 and I’m not sure this is a big enough sample, for one thing. If people have a sense that literary standards have diverged from the tastes of the reading public over time, might that process have not been in full force by 1900?

The comments on the post are a mixed bag, with some good points being made.

Amanda said,

…I actually think the nineteenth-early-twentieth century British/American preoccupation with introspection and realism is the literary fluke.

while some other people said predictable things like,

Actually, what I take away from the list is that it is good to be a male writer.

and,

I’m surprised I’m the first one to comment about how man-heavy the list is!

and,

The Modern Library’s list is chock full of white men! …I’m sorry to see that we haven’t really progressed when it comes to gender or racial representation.

Apparently in order to make sure that all best-of lists are 51 percent female, and 51 percent colored, list-makers should white out the actual content of the book, and just make choices based on the name of the author – kind of the reverse of how  writing contest are judged.

Others mentioned that best-selling doesn’t equal well-liked, that genre fiction and high literature are symbiotic.

The following is my response to a comment that I found very interesting by James.

“Are the older books really “more literary” or do we just think they are because they’re old?”

My opinion: It’s just that they’re old.

Mary Shelley wrote a literary classic about stitching together corpses and reanimating them.

Dickens wrote about ghosts that revealed past, present, and future. Today, they might shelve him alongside pulpy SciFi–maybe even Stephen King?

Most literary classics endured to today because they were also commercially viable.

I think it’s hard for us to see “Like, ohmigod, amiright?!” in a sentence and consider that book a contender for a classic.

But it’s really no different than the language in The Three Musketeers. It’s just that we are no longer accustomed to the slang and idioms of the past. (And the translation :P).

I have to disagree with the idea that there’s no difference between the past and the present other than that the past is “novel” to us because it’s unfamiliar.

Gargantua and Pantagruel, for instance, is simply the best smut available. You’d think that the abandonment of sexual standards would produce lots of great dirty humor but Rabelais’ works are still the funniest.

I don’t think people without a classical education realize how many fundamental shifts in thinking happened over the past 400 years. It’s really not comparable to any other like passage of time, unless perhaps the conversion, two millenia ago, of nearly half the globe to Christianity and its completely new assumptions about reality and human nature are comparable. Yet I think that our assumptions are not just post-Christian but post-pagan and indeed post-divinity altogether. In a lot of ways we really are a different humanity. Not deep down, but in all of our conscious identities, values, and assumptions, we are different than anything that came before – and it’s not just one society shifting here and there, but the whole entire globe moving together into a new metaphysical, philosophical, ethical region.

I really believe the vast majority of us would be moved to paroxysms of contempt and judgment if we met a human being from another era. We are the most intolerant age that has ever existed. In what other age have businesses had to advertise that “Yes, we will take your money even if you are a different ethnicity or religion?” And seemed unusually noble for doing so?

The fundamental shift in thinking that is operative for the period of time covered by this best-seller list and the 100-best book that stands along side it is the Darwinian shift, which took until the fifties or so to trickle down to the person of average education.

Many people believe that the furor around Darwinian evolution is a simple contest between people who believe that God created the world suddenly, fully mature and fully formed, 6000 years ago and people who see evidence that the world is much older and that things arose gradually (and who, following Galileo in despite of Aristotle, see the idea of efficient cause as the only useful explanation of causation.) However in reality a conceptual change that redefined the nature of literally everything came along with this question of origins. What we mean by “human nature,” and “love” and “good” and “worthy” and nearly everything else bears almost no resemblance to what anyone else ever meant by those things before.

The conceptual change to which I am referring is the new assumption that causation or source moves from the bottom up instead of, as previously assumed by nearly everyone, from the top down. (I realize certain schools of Greek philosophy can be found which are antecedents to nearly everything that has happened since then.)

Changes in language and form have been driven, often quite intentionally, by desired changes in thought and assumption. Take, for instance, the rejection of the pronoun “he” to refer to a person of indeterminate or unknown gender – a practice so universally accepted for so long that there is literally no viable replacement terminology existing in our English language or in most other languages. We’ve been aggressively sold the idea that the older usage is sexist, but of course no one who used it ever meant to exclude the female. Rather, the male could be the ‘representative sex’ not because women were seen as un-human but because women saw themselves as human by virtue of their likeness to men – as much as men saw themselves as masculine by virtue of their difference from women.

To put it another way, men were seen as the mirror in which women saw their own humanity, and women were seen as the mirror in which men saw their own maleness.

This viewpoint assumes an inherent incompleteness or weakness in each sex. The weakness of the male is that he initially experiences himself as self-sufficient, seeming to comprise the whole of human significance in his own body. However, as soon as he understands this experience, he is overtaken by ontological aloneness. He needs to bring someone else with him on this adventure. He may not know what this desire means but it drives him from that moment. In order to fulfill this desire, he must sacrifice his false self-absorption and become the savior (healer, meaning one who makes whole, meaning someone who fills the waiting emptiness) of someone else. Some incomplete men satisfy this urge for a time by turning it back on themselves. However, very few people (except a fantasy novelist whose book I threw down in disgust because he said that his protagonist celebrated a victory by going into a cave alone and “honoring himself”) imagine that this is satisfying in any way. It fails to embrace another. Others go further out from themselves but end by embracing another man. In this they move beyond themselves personally, but fail to move beyond their own masculinity. However, in order to be complete, a man must take and enter into the body and being of a woman, a creature which he sees as wholly other. When, in this way, he satisfying his divine desire to not be alone and his ontological need to be informed of the mystery-bearing significance of his own creation, he finds that he is not only human but male. For the man then, his masculinity is discovered in the body and person of his wife. Many feminists are unaware of this particular vulnerability in men, and believe that traditional sexuality posits and indeed creates weakness only in the female.

The weakness of the female, on the other hand, is that in the case of most, she experiences herself as female. Her desires from childhood are almost all consumed with childbearing, the differentness and mystery of her own body, her intent to be beautiful and feminine. While this in itself is not problematic (when it’s supported in a positive and balanced way by her parents, it prepares her to be a satisfied and fulfilled person) the weakness is that her humanness is as yet undiscovered. The man who becomes her body’s “savior,” who fulfills this waiting emptiness in her, paradoxically provides her with an intimate companion (for most of human history, her first intimate companion) who is not concerned primarily with female concerns. Her husband is not naturally consumed by household details, finances, childrearing, and so forth. He becomes to her the symbol of humanness itself, of all that is common to both sexes and the concern for that which transcends the immediate details of day-to-day life.  In yielding herself to this person she discovers her equality and likeness to him, and in her equality and likeness to this person she finds her own humanity fulfilled and enlarged.

This is the mystery of marriage, on which most of society has been built, but it does not, of course, denigrate the existence of those who have a different path to follow. Many celibate or single women have been consummately human. One wonders whether unmarried men fare so well, but that may be my feminine vanity speaking. 😉

In this sense, the two sexes were not only considered complementary in the past, but in regard to gender, wholly other. This of course makes perfect sense if human sexuality is an image of a more perfect divine-human relationship (if it is imbued with, informed by, and sourced from something higher than itself.) But if everything came into existence through building blocks accidentally bumping into one another and sticking when it worked out well for the organism, than such an idea is meaningless, stupid, and fantastical. (Sadly, many people are not aware of the third choice – that before fundamentalism came along, many Christians actually did believe in an old earth and a divine creation that unfurled naturally over long periods of time. While I entertain this idea with a certain amount of accompanying agnosticism, I do believe that Adam and Eve were real people.)

To judge this older understanding of sexuality as carrying the assumption that men were superior to women is difficult. Pagans, even our favorite pagans such as Plato, certainly did believe that men were superior to women. Early Christian writers like St. Paul seem to have an idea that runs more like this: “Folks, because we are in Christ we know that women are equal to men and that in fact this is not that important because women and men alike are about to be transformed into something that is currently unimaginable in its glory. But for the sake of our reputation, the good order of society, and not bringing down more hatred on us than we’re already dealing with, let’s not use this knowledge to overthrow the hierarchy of the household and the church.” Perhaps the knowledge of feminine equality was meant to be more and more realized and fulfilled as time went on. While I am not a progressivist, I don’t see why human history shouldn’t show divine renewal and improvement alongside the sometimes disastrous falls that humanity experiences.

Later, Papist Christianity certainly denigrated not only sex, but women – because naturally, a society composed entirely of highly-educated celibate men will equate women and sex. Not being united to women, they never discovered their own masculinity or associated with men who had done so, and therefore viewed women as less than human since humanity was, for them, still located in themselves.

To what extent was the English language built around the true Christian idea, to what extent around the pagan idea, and to what extent around the pseudo-Christian idea? I can’t answer that question, but I can insist that this small change in form from the natural “he” to the contrived “he/she/it” imports massive assumptions about literally the most important questions of human existence.

The same principle applies to nearly every other change in lingo. Modern slang is not necessarily the equivalent of romantic-era oaths or 1920’s frivolity. The backdrop of feeling and assumption against which they were spoken gives them a unique character. When we read them, the backdrop is inherently suggested. We live for a moment with the humanity that people of another time lived with – and I contend that we don’t just like it because it’s new to us. We like it because it’s less contrived and more natural to us than our own experience of humanity is.

What are often called “literary novels” (which are, as one commenter said, revered by literary authorities because they are introspective and self-indulgent)are actually the presagers of our own more self-righteous humanity. They are dull and depressing because their language imports an assumption that everything that makes human life worth living has been debunked.

And to answer a question that may well arise, yes, smut is funnier when author and reader are traditional Christians. Why? Simply because there’s nothing surprising, daring, or knowing about smut if you don’t have a real solid sense of Christian chastity to play off of. You can see the same thing in modern humor where a character in a sitcom falls to temptation and behaves in a manner we recognize as less-than-ideal: perhaps betrays vanity, for instance, or rage. We laughg but it’s only funny because we know that it’s better to be realistic about ourselves and to not handle things through rage. If society comes to forget the distinction between confidence and vanity, between rage and zeal, those old sitcoms will continue to be funny (because we will be momentarily transported to a world where vanity and rage was unacceptable) but all the new sitcoms being made will be dull whenever they show someone acting out of vanity or going into a paroxysm of rage.

I can laugh at the antics of Pantagruel but want to vomit at modern filth. Why? Because the modern filth all comes laden with the assumption that “This is what you REALLY are. This is your lowest and most basic and therefore most REAL nature.”

Others may find the same books penetrating, revealing, and resonating.

Therefore, the question of the nature of reality is precisely what is at stake when we discuss the value of literary styles. Whenever someone scolds me for writing formal poetry about subjects of beauty, I understand instantly that the person thinks that beauty has been debunked and feels contempt for the idea that there might be anything higher than that height to which man has risen through evolution. He recognizes my poem as a veiled act of worship.

And lest someone think this is just an argument for religion, I realize that vast swathes of people have very personal reasons for mistrusting religion and loathing the image of God that they have rejected in their minds. This is why I so appreciate the understanding displayed in “The River of Fire.”

11 Comments »

  1. spot on really connected with the way you developed the idea/ will excitedly share this with a good woman friend who has been deeply wounded by the undeveloped maleness you so trenchantly describe your beautiful writing will help us find common ground glory to god in christ

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  2. A. R., your understanding of male/female mutual fulfillment made me think back to Yeats – his theory of “masks” (just looked for found interesting summary: http://www.dutchgirl.com/foxpaws/biographies/Myself_That_I_Remake/yeatssec2.html ) I was struck by it way back, and now after reading your views I can put his in a context and perspective that makes more sense to me.

    Many other things here that you got me thiking about. It’s worth rereading, and I plan to.

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  3. Interesting. You describe the male allowing the female to become human. I’ve always, as a male, thought of it the other way ’round.

    Males, in general, do not fare as well without women as women do with out men. One reason that the Orthodox monastics on Mt. Athos are devoted to the Mary, the Theotokos is precisely to give the balance which would otherwise be lacking–an unbalance to which men are more vulnerable. It was also the prime reason that I remarried after the passing of my first wife. I longed for that intimate balance and was simply unable to get far enough into prayer to acquire it on a higher level plus I knew that I was much better suited to being an husband and father than a monk.

    God has greatly blessed me with a funny, witty, intelligent, beautiful, God-loving woman who, by the grace of God, loves me and forgives me so that I have a chance at being human. At the same time, she tells me, I allow her to be fully a woman for the first time in her life.

    Thanks be to God.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, in contemporary marriage we often have to finish raising one another so sexual development is altered. I think that’s probably why we don’t recognize everything that’s described in the scriptures and older literature on this subject.

      But maybe not, who knows?

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  4. AR you say: Later, Papist Christianity certainly denigrated not only sex, but women – because naturally, a society composed entirely of highly-educated celibate men will equate women and sex. Not being united to women, they never discovered their own masculinity or associated with men who had done so, and therefore viewed women as less than human since humanity was, for them, still located in themselves.

    Men who reject and denigrate women are not fully men at all. We need each other to become fully human. Male monastics need the Theotokos and female monastics have our Lord. Celibacy viewed as mere abstinence from sex real or imagined is not a virtue but a barely restrained passion. Real celibacy involves the whole hearted love of God in a deeply intimate manner that few ever achieve making any carnality an impossibility or at least far in the rearview mirror. Celibacy viewed as a life time struggle against submitting to carnality and lust misses the point entirely. “It is better to marry than to burn” Which is not a put down on either marriage or women but a realization that marriage is but an icon of the union with God that is possible in different sort of marriage.

    The Bible instructs men to lift up our wives to God in thanksgiving, praising them and building them up in love, to give wholly of ourselves to them without thought of ourselves even unto death if necessary. As we offer them to God in Thanksgiving they are transformed by His Grace into truly fecund (beyond just having babies and raising them) human beings in a manner that men are not capable of. We have our own chrism that is an intimate part of that process that allows us to also be transformed, made whole and fruitful too. Such synergy can only be fulfilled in this life in a blessed marriage but the reality of the male-female synergy is at the heart of creation. The Orthodox wedding service is full of metaphors referring to the process–properly veiled I think. Of course, even the best of us fail. I certainly have, often quite badly. My wife is gracious and kind and forgives easily.

    We watched a charming and incredibly honest Israeli movie the other night named “The Wedding Plan”
    A Quixotic quest of a not so young Jewish woman to find a blessed marriage. She has been rejected not long before a arranged marriage. With the plans all in place, she decides to carry on anyway with the wedding plans trusting God to provider her with a groom. At the end, her bold but prayerful quest for God to bless her with the right man, is fulfilled. A man is given to her in joy at the last minute. In one of the final scenes, the surprise, last minute bridegroom sings out in clear joy: “Blessed is a God loving woman.” Thus it is. We men are often lost without one, I can tell you. it is easy to loose our own love of God without such a woman.

    It is a deep shame, perhaps the most shameful thing, that we have allowed the consequences of being kicked out of the Garden to so mar our innate fitness with each other–thinking that somehow, despite clear design to the contrary, we each can be autonomous in our own sex.

    As to the list, the frequency with which John Grisham appears on the list in later years ought to tell you all you need to know. Although a somewhat competent cheap story teller, if I want a formulaic writer I’ll take Louis L’Amour or Lee Child or J.A Jantz or Agatha Christie or for a real treat Dorothy Sayers. For literary content Robert B Parker is head and shoulders above Grisham. At least Parker actually read and valued great literature as of course did Dorothy Sayers. (Three of the six I mention are women BTW). In case you can’t guess I like mystery fiction. My favorite writers on the list are William Faulkner and Joseph Conrad. One I wish were there is Graham Greene. Flannery O’Connor and Alice Walker deserve their place as well.

    May the Lord bless and forgive us all and grant mercy and fullness to you and your family.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for this beautiful meditation on marriage. It brought tears to my eyes. I know it requires time and unraveling to articulate something like this.

      Reading back over this old post, I realize that I agree more with ‘James’ comment than I got around to saying. I agree with him that the literature of the past was a lot less stuffy than we think it is, and that the dignity of age has given us the wrong impression about how great writers came to write classics. For instance, Vanity Fair and much of Charles Dickens were written as magazine serials. I just think he was wrong about the slang of the past being no different in quality from the slang of today. Different assumptions underlie it, and just as those assumptions have stripped us of much that our ancestors would be able to recognize as human, so our slang and our pop culture are particularly empty compared even to the fashionable nonsense of the past.

      I feel similarly to you about the individual authors.

      I don’t feel much interest in John Grisham; I read one of his books and remember nothing about it except the feeling of dreariness it gave me. I enjoy my Agatha Christie very much, and my Dorothy Sayers, too. I haven’t read most of the others you mentioned. I like to get to know my authors slowly. Recently it’s been Roy Campbell, then revisiting T. H. White, and a wide selection of myth and folklore.

      I’m just discovering Louis L’Amour. He has been a surprise. I know the sort of man that frequently names him as a favorite author. For some reason that sort of man has always been present on the periphery of my life, appearing in reiterated beacons of chivalry. I always meant to check out the books.

      I was recently reviewing a book of collected writing advice I’ve had since my teenaged years, and I was struck by the original and rich way Louis L’Amour uses language in his paragraph or two of advice to other authors. I glanced at his biography and was deeply impressed by his very active life and forceful character, not to mention his family literary heritage.

      I ransacked my local Goodwill and bought the first of his books I found. It turned out to be a missing-girl mystery set in the waning days of the old west, and I thoroughly enjoyed it over Tom Yum shrimp on my next night off. I think I know what you mean by “formulaic writer,” but I don’t feel the MFA’s contempt for such. And I found much less formula in him than I expected, although I did detect a few signs of the prolific author who doesn’t revise much. I think his wide and deep practical knowledge allowed him to dress his stories in uniquely interesting detail, and that serves for invention.

      On the other hand, I was thrilled to learn that Susanna Clarke is about to publish her second novel, about a private kingdom in a castle beneath the sea, or underwater or something. Completely unrelated to Strange and Norrell, apparently. I hope she remains relatively uncorrupted by political correctness, and I hope to find her powers of invention even greater than before… or at least not too much diminished. I believe she’s considered a cross-over author. She certainly takes long enough at writing her books; and they are considered perfectly constructed and the prose is considered highly polished. Yet she tells a story that the general reader can enjoy.

      For me, a really good story needs to be archetypal first, inventive in detail second, and well-told third. It is a fine thing to use words well, and that’s something I work on daily. Even when speaking, I compose all my sentences in my head. I just don’t think it’s anywhere near as important as the ability to clothe that archetypal hero in a new face, with really human – and very attractive – features. Unless, of course, the author finds actual words of power. They are so rare in modern usage, alas. When they are found, they increase the importance of how the story is told to equal status with what is told, because the two seem to fuse somehow.

      Which brings me back around to the other theme. I’m currently surveying folk literature, scripture, and myth, in search of “the heroine with a thousand faces,” or the archetypal heroine. I’ve begun with the assumption that Eve-Israel-Mary-Church reveals the general outline, but I’m casting my net as widely as I can. It’s made tricky by the relative disappearance of feminine myth in our preserved mythologies. However, they seem to have taken new form, in many cases, in fairy tales and other mundane folklore.

      For instance, Sleeping Beauty appears to be based on a Norse myth about Odin banishing Brynhildr to earth, there to be given in marriage to a mortal man. She fears being wed to a coward, so Odin pricks her with the thorn of sleep, lays her out in a house surrounded by barriers of flame, and promises her to the man brave enough to take her. That silly detail of the spindle on a spinning wheel (they weren’t sharp) is simply a naive substitution. On the other hand, it gives me a new respect for Walt Disney (I grew up loving Disney’s Sleeping Beauty) for including the barrier of flame and endowing the hero’s weapons with symbolic meaning.

      I hope to publish the results of that research not too far in the future. As always, my work is subject to wild fluctuations in health, energy, inspiration, and circumstances… and I’m still holding onto unfinished work in the form of my poetry book, the poetry challenges and publishing them in book form, the AJIL, and several novels. I believe that if I were single and had no children I would work roughly 16 hours a day on all this, pretty tirelessly, and be fairly prolific. All to become more impoverished daily, and not mind at all!

      However, my child-bearing days seem to have closed; my little one has weaned and is asserting his independence ferociously. I can still see the baby in him, but he is rowing hard. My eldest turned 13 and complains that he feels like an adult 60 times over; though he perks up pretty well when we play blind-man’s-bluff or the like. My middle child has packed up all her plush animals – all hundred and some of them – into plastic bags because they were cluttering her room. It’s not the time to regret my maternal bondage; I know I shall miss it.

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      • I think that any author who rights multiple books or a series of books will often have a formula. The question is as you say what details and description are brought to hear around and through the formula. Louis La’mour does that I think varying the details of land, time and place.

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