Our 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.