…and every postmodern family is a dead loss in its own way

Jane Austen's PersuasionOur friend Dale Nelson sent me a link to this New York Times column by Ross Douthat, all about why many “literary” authors are turning to writing historical novels, rather than setting their stories in contemporary settings. His interesting conclusion is that modern culture just doesn’t present the kind of conflicts that made the family sagas of old work so well:

You can write an interesting contemporary novel based on the “Anna Karenina” template in which the heroine gets a divorce, marries her modern-day Vronsky, and they both discover that they’re unhappy with the choices they’ve made — but the last act just isn’t going to be quite as gripping as Tolstoy’s original. You can turn the Jane Austen template to entertaining modern purposes, as Hollywood did in “Clueless” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” but the social and economic stakes are never going to be as high for a modern-day Elizabeth Bennet as they were for the Regency-era version.

I think he’s got something there. If you want to write a novel about, say, an unwed mother, you can suggest that your plucky heroine’s Neanderthal, Bible-thumping parents don’t want her to have an abortion, but there’s really nothing they can do to stop her. The only other problem her romantic passions are likely to get her into is that of sexually transmitted diseases. In that case, she either takes medication to get better, or she’s stuck with the problem for life. There’s little scope for her to heroically defy convention and shame the small minds; there is no convention to defy.

P. G. Wodehouse wrote stories about couples being kept apart by unsympathetic fathers and guardians, well past the point in history when such parental figures had “sunk to the level of a third rate power” (to quote “Uncle Fred Flits By”). He was able to get away with it because his stories were light confections, not intended to reflect real life in any serious way. If he’d been forced to be realistic, the fun would drained out like water from a lion-footed bathtub.

Is it an indictment of modern society to say that it doesn’t offer scope to certain forms of fiction? Probably not.

But I often think of the popularity of Amish stories in the Romance genre, as I’ve mentioned here before. I don’t think it’s unrelated to highbrow authors writing historical novels. I think there’s a hunger out there to be able to live in a society where people care enough about you to tell you when they think you’re messing up your life.

The autonomous life, in the end, is a pretty lonely one.

9 thoughts on “…and every postmodern family is a dead loss in its own way”

  1. Writing that doesn’t have a moral focus has little interest for most people; that’s certainly the case with me. Any kind of serious fiction must have a moral standard.

    – If an author doesn’t believe in right or wrong, good or bad, what’s he going to right about? And why bother? (Thrills and spills I guess.)

  2. What he’s going to write about is sex and/or violence, in many cases.

    I think another important factor why I and others neither wish to write nor to read novels about contemporary people is that they (we?) usually spend most of our waking ours dealing with processed images, information packages, etc., at a computer. This scenario is not interesting to think about.

    The novel used, in a way, to make children of us again: we stood and stared as the soldier drilled, the wheelwright handled wood, the lovers sat on the green back under the oak, the pastor trudged up the muddy lane to see his poorhouse parishioners, etc. Anthony Trollope could find plenty of material for novels that are STILL enjoyable to read, with “the ordinary” as raw material.

    But I don’t think this is the case now. It is not interesting to stare at someone in a cubicle or driving a commute day after day, or sitting with CNN on, etc.

    What I’m talking about isn’t the only problem but it must be part of it. If modern writers turn to historical settings, surely much of the attraction is to recreate in the imagination a world of people doing things more interesting than keyboarding.

  3. Sorry — “sat on the green bank.”

    They sit on the greenback (figuratively speaking) in the modern Wall Street novel, I suppose.

  4. . I think there’s a hunger out there to be able to live in a society where people care enough about you to tell you when they think you’re messing up your life.

    I grew up in such a society. It doesn’t work was well as you might hope. Remember the whole “fallen world / evil inclination”(1) thing? People tell you how to run your life so you’ll be messed up the same way they are. It doesn’t work without a real standard, and from what I read about Ultra-Orthodox society, doesn’t work very well even with one.

    (1) Christians say this is a fallen world. Jews say it is the “Yetzer haRa”, the evil inclination, which was designed in by God.

  5. The result is the Anti-Hero.

    I used to enjoy British Cold-War spy novels from authors such as Len Deighton and John Le Carre. It was good versus evil in a world of mysterious tradecraft that occasionally intersected with my own travels through London and Berlin.

    Now, instead of stodgy old George Smiley or Bernard Sampson, Vince Flynn gives us the assassin Mitch Rapp. He’s a dangerous terrorist with no compunction to follow the rules if they get in his way, but that’s ok because he’s on our side. In other words, He may be a schmuck, but he’s our schmuck – Relativism gone beserk.

  6. For literary novels, I think the focus is on relationships and character development when story doesn’t stray into science fiction’s territory. Politics and society are in their too, of course. I’m thinking of Walker Percy’s novel “The Second Coming,” which has little plot but the tension builds around the lead character’s desire to challenge God to show himself and give him a purpose for living. If his challenge goes unanswered, he will kill himself.

  7. Greybeard, that’s an interesting observation. A lot of conservatives laud Vince Flynn, but my one reading of a Mitch Rapp book left me cold. Glad to know I’m not the only one who found him kind of creepy.

    Of course Le Carre was a major relativist himself, and he hated America to boot.

  8. Le Carre grew much more cynical as he aged. His early novels came from a workingman’s perspective, the “Mine is not to reason why. Mine is but to do or die.” attitude.

    I think much of his initial popularity was the way an everyman kind of reader could relate to the struggles of his characters. The cold war backdrop wasn’t judged. It just was. The antagonists weren’t vague ideologies as much as they were the character’s counterparts on the other side with the natural rivalries of internal office politics added as a subplot.

    His later novels were much less satisfying as characters fought in vain against entrenched corruption or for politically correct causes. The result was that they were either forced into untenable positions or unwinnable situations.

    His later cynicism reflects the lostness of a world without a redeemer. He can’t get away from the universal natural corruption of man’s fallen nature. Reality eventually erodes anyone’s belief in the natural goodness of people. Once that is gone, what is left is an atheistic mindset that sees the world only through a materialistic lens, there is no hope of a solution. All is lost. Evil wins. Even when it looks like the good guys are winning, they turn out to be evil too. That’s the cynicism Le Carre’s later novels left me feeling. I pray he learns about my Savior, the God who cares, the hope of transformation.

  9. I have been thinking of this idea a lot lately. Egalitarianism is so profoundly boring (in stories, in life) that it’s hard to get excited about as a setting. Unless it’s tyrannous (as in Harrison Bergeron).

    Good one, Lars Walker.

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