The Modern Novel

"the modern novel"
Joy Chalaby of Fullness of Joy has been running a party celebrating the birthday of her blog, and I thought I would answer a series of questions she posed on the blogger's opinion of the "modern" novel.

1.  Who are your most well-loved authors of the mid to late twentieth century (1930-1960)?
I want to say C.S. Lewis, because Lewis was an amazing writer and I really enjoy his Chronicles of Narnia, The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, Out of the Silent Planet, and Perelandra.  But when it comes to some of his other fictions, and when it comes to his writing in general, I realize that I am handling excellent literature for which I am simply not equipped with the basic tools to understand.  Even his non-fiction The Discarded Image was a stretch at times - although a step which I could take.  But sometimes I have to admit that Lewis simply knew and utilized more knowledge than I have access to or can currently command.

So I'm going to have to go with Rosemary Sutcliff.  Again.  Honestly, I have kind of out-grown my tutor now, and not all of her books exhibit the cutting edge of finesse which I demand in literature; but she is still magical - totally magical historical fiction - and she taught me a great deal of what I know.  I know she was not a Christian and her literature was not Christian, but honestly that doesn't bother me.  Christian fiction is generally sub-par and I don't have patience for that.  The curious light-handedness (which I actually kind of wish Georgette Heyer employed as opposed to her stuffing every historical reference in possible) which she used when it comes to writing historical fiction was delicious and inspirational to me.  Also she knew how to bring her writing and her time periods alive and place the reader's finger on the pulse to share the magic, and I will never, ever be able to express ingratitude for that training.

2.  Who are your favourite authors of the twenty-first century?
I don't have any.  We're only fourteen years into this century.  Give it a little time.

3.  Which genres do you tend to read the most and enjoy from more modern fiction?
I'm going to say that "modern" refers to "within living memory," because I am not sure I own many - if any - living authors in my library.  So it may come down to a toss-up between Rosemary Sutcliff's historical fiction and Georgette Heyer's historical romance, because I seem to have the most of those and they are simply fun to read.  

4.  Are you more willing to invest yourself in a fictional trilogy/series or do you prefer the stand-alone novel better?
I have nothing against the series (gosh darn it, I'm writing one myself), but experientially  the series is generally badly done (Emma - badly done indeed) so I usually prefer the stand-alone novel.

5.  While it is generally agreed that nothing beats classic fiction, there is much gold in the new too!  What are the positive qualities and styles of modern fiction?
I must protest that I fail to see the rage about classic fiction.  As nearly as I understand it, a "classic" is just a book which has survived fame for more than one generation, and honestly if sparkly vampires outlast a generation and continue going strong, they will become classical.  And personally, I have no patience for fangirling, period drama fanaticism, et al, and since I tend to take any and all books and/or authors on a strictly individual basis of merit, I don't like any one genre, classics included.

In terms of "modern" fiction, it tends to be cinematic - which is fascinating seeing one new method of media and storytelling so vitally impacting an old method.  Also "modern" fiction tends to engage the emotions of the reader more than older fiction; even I share this view: that the reader is a "ghost" character, almost as much a part of the story one is telling as the characters one has made up and is writing.  In older writing one often merely watches the emotions and reactions of the characters, whereas in "modern" fiction the reader's heart is intricately linked with that of the character.

6.  What is your greatest hope for modern fiction?
I'm cynical and jaded.  I don't put any trust in anybody's writing but my own.  You will hear audiobooks and rumours of audiobooks, and many dystopian novels will arise, but honestly writing is pretty much the same as it has ever been: the market is full of good and bad, fads come and go and books from either camp remain.  Of the writing of books there is no end, and lo the ink stains will be with you always, even to the end of the hand-soap dispenser. 

7.  List five books by modern authors you have read which you either hope or predict will become "classics" in years to come.
A Wrinkle In Time, The Grand Sophy, The Eagle of the Ninth, Mara: Daughter of the Nile, The Screwtape Letters.  Challenge me.

8.  In reading modern books, do you predominately read from the secular or Christian market?
Of the seven fictions I have read so far this year, the only overtly Christian novel among them was Rachel Heffington's Fly Away Home, and I was quite pleased with that novel.  Most of the time Christian fiction is shallow, unrealistic, uninformed, and uninspiring.  My two favourite novels of 2014's first six months are Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting (superb prose, excellent plot - if a "Christian" writer were to touch it, it would taste like fifteen cubes of sugar in a three ounce cup of tea) and Georgette Heyer's These Old Shades, which sports a deliciously cold-blooded revenge plot.  So yes, I tend to read secular fiction.  When the Christian authors can gird up their loins adequately (and talk of loins without colouring up and lowering their voices) I'll probably be perfectly happy to read them too.

9.  List three of your favourite novels written in this century.
Again, this century is only fourteen years old.  I'm not in a hurry.  I can wait to see how books weather.

10.  Of various as-of-yet unpublished books that you know about, what are five that you most wish to read one day?
Lamblight, Maresgate, Cruxgang, Drakeshelm, Ampersand.  I am rather a chap of one idea, and I don't do things by halves either.  You'll thank me later.

14 ripostes:

  1. I completely agree about modern Christian fiction. It's terrible. To be perfectly honest, though, I think that classics are actually classics for a good reason, principally because they relate universal truths that simply don't fade after one generation. They survive their generation because they are relevant to others.

    As for the Screwtape Letters, I also enjoy it.

    Thank you for a very interesting blog post!

  2. I would say that part of the definition of "classic" status is not simply to have stood the test of time but, fair or unfair, to be more or less universally recognized as having done so by dint of popularity and influence as well as merit. Dickens is a classic author and Bleak House is a classic novel, but is, say, Nicholas Nickleby? Probably not. The corollary of this is that many novels not labelled as classic are still worthwhile, and some that are, are not (Steinbeck, anyone?). All that aside, however, the following modern authors, all of whom published from the 1920's on, have each written at least one work which I consider to be a must-read:

    James Joyce, HP Lovecraft, William Faulkner, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, Anthony Burgess, Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Alan Moore, David Foster Wallace, Neil Gaiman

    And that's leaving out some obvious ones that don't quite do it for me (Conrad, Hemingway, Garcia Marquez, DH Lawrence), some fun-to-read but not quite must-reads (Douglas Adams, Theodore Sturgeon, Mark Helprin, John Irving), and a whole host of authors I've been meaning to get to but simply haven't (Nabokov, Rushdie, Salinger, Saul Bellow, Flannery O'Connor, William Gaddis, etc).

    I will be the first to advocate the thorough absorption of the old masters, but there is as much, if not more, pound for pound, lasting value to be found in the new modern consciousness, particularly once the artificial restraints of circumspection and decency were done away with and the bubbling pitch of evil at the heart of humanity could be fully explored. If you want to understand which principles are worth defending, read in a milieu in which every principle is aggressively challenged.

  3. I like your comments on classic literature; you've made me think. To some extent, time shaves off the weakest books, so if a book is old and still in high praise, I trust it. But not all old books are worth reading over all new books. I love the Victorian British novels as much as the next person, but I have an equal love for books as modern as The Hunger Games. A good author will have the same earmarks in the 21st century as in the 17th; the way in which he or she communicates is the only difference. Sutcliff, Lewis, Tolkien, and Austen (to name a few) wrote wonderful stories, but to say that all quality died out with the end of the nineteenth century (or even the twentieth) is to discredit the wonderful stories that have yet to be written.

  4. Your answer to #6 made me laugh.


    Also I finally read The Grand Sophy and it was just as stupendously awesome as you and Mirri are always saying. I LOVED IT TO DEATH. AND SOPHY. AND CHARLES. AND ALL OF IT.

    Okay, I'm done. XD

  5. Oh, Jennifer. This post.

    >when it comes to [Lewis's] writing in general, I realize that I am handling excellent literature for which I am simply not equipped with the basic tools to understand.

    I know. I have to review TILL WE HAVE FACES eventually (otherwise one of my readers has promised to blow up a small town) and I have no idea how I'm even going to start. I only hope I didn't do unforgiveable violence to the Cosmic Trilogy when I tried that.

    > Christian fiction is generally sub-par and I don't have patience for that.

    Amen, sister.

    >As nearly as I understand it, a "classic" is just a book which has survived fame for more than one generation, and honestly if sparkly vampires outlast a generation and continue going strong, they will become classical.

    I KNOW. I'm not persuaded this is a bad thing, of course. OTHELLO is currently my favourite Shakespeare tragedy, and for basely sensational reasons that have nothing to do with literary quality (revel, revel). If it means the odd sparkly vampire gets through...I can take some roughs with my smooth, to quote Anatole.

    >In terms of "modern" fiction, it tends to be cinematic - which is fascinating seeing one new method of media and storytelling so vitally impacting an old method.

    My goodness, someone else has noticed it too? I thought I was the only one. I've particularly noticed it in relation to action scenes, which I'm not convinced are improved by the change.

    > You will hear audiobooks and rumours of audiobooks

    *tears of laughter*

    > Mara: Daughter of the Nile

    Oh YES.

    > Nine Coaches Waiting


    > this century is only fourteen years old.

    I know. I feel so awkward recommending recent books. "How can I know if my judgement is any good? I don't know what St Augustine/William Wilberforce/CS Lewis would have thought of it!" That said, you MIGHT enjoy some of ND Wilson's books--maybe try the 100 Cupboards? He is a Christian writer who doesn't rain anvils and doesn't blush at words like "loins".


  6. I think the word "classic" has come to be used in two senses—in one sense used loosely, as in anything by an author from centuries past with some kind of a reputation, i.e. Dickens or one of the Bront√ęs. But I'd say a true classic is more than just a book that has survived. My own definition would be a book that contains some measure of wisdom or insight that is able to resonate with readers of almost any time and place. The passage of a few decades helps sort out just which books can hold that place.

    I tend to regard modern fiction in general with suspicion and/or skepticism. Lately I have found myself reading a few more recently-published books, but usually on the basis of trusted recommendations. In this area I'm like you; I pick and choose carefully and take each book separately on its own merits.

    There is one aspect of comparison between "classic" and "modern" novels that I despise. I recently read a post, from a blog that typically has pretty commonsense advice on writing and publishing, of tips on how to write a successful book. Successful being the key word there. Most of the ideas were fairly sound, but one of them...well. It basically prescribed cutting any and all description, avoiding long words, and all but reducing your style to words of one syllable. People are bored by long and flowery sentences nowadays, they say; they won't read books in the style of the classics. That makes my blood boil. More than once I've read the first few pages of a book that looked promising and given up because the writing was so simplistic it seemed to have been written for children. Concise doesn't have to equal dumbed-down. Of course I'll edit when I've written something too rambling, but I have no intention of deliberately cutting down my sentence length or ceasing to use long words just to fit into the "modern" scene.

  7. I liked how you said as far as changes in modern fiction goes, modern authors tend to make the reader 'a ghost character' of the book. Very true. I was talking to someone who read a recently written novel, and they said they felt as if they had lived the whole summer with the character. Some of the books I've entered most deeply into are indeed more modern written fiction (1950s and later) where I feel as if I've been a part of it all. Now, granted, older classics can have that feel as well (I was Davie Balfour for years every time I fled into the heather with Alan).

    Another good benefit to modern fiction, as someone pointed out, is that it can deal in a very interesting manner with modern history. A no-brainer, but true.

    Love number 6! XD

    And Jennifer, I loved how you weren't afraid to admit that your own books were your favorite and most looked forward to, in the last two questions. Some authors (myself included) are afraid to admit how much they love their own works, because it seems so terribly proud and pretentious--but why shouldn't we love something that we ourselves have breathed life into just like God breathed life into Adam? Truly, we're intimately connected to our own works in a way that we can never be wholly connected to someone else's.


  8. Kathryn -It is a very sad thing that I must denounce much of Christian fiction. I know it does not reflect well upon us to be contrary like that, but so long as there is a mismatch between Christian fiction and Christian doctrine, I cannot very well abide Christian fiction.

    In re. "classics," Elisabeth Grace Foley is right, there are typically two meanings which can be used when the word "classic" is employed. One hopes that the majority of books referring to as classics are genuinely composed of goodness and accuracy to their point. Unfortunately, I must also admit a strong disinclination to trust the values of the masses. Wisdom, clarity, foresight, and fidelity to any topic are not things usually found on a grand scale, and while they can certainly be found, I do not feel quick to trust what people have called the genre "classics" before I have been able to make my own assessment juxtaposed to what I know of the state of man and God.

    Having come to a sine qua non in these two aspects, I take or leave all other views with varying degrees of aggression. While it is a privilege to be able to confront and dismantle numerous erroneous views in the world, I have observed it to be a truth among the saints that a sound understanding of God and his revelation (which accurately portrays the state of man, and does not really need fiction to bolster it) will be adequate to combat the filthiness of this world without the saint going out and "acquainting himself" with that filthiness beforehand. Once the feet are put right, the rest of him will follow. I am wary of being accused of making something which is a luxury (fiction, and being a fiction author) into something more important than it truly is.

    Elizabeth Rose - I certainly hope quality has not died out, or else I am woefully deceived in myself. XD But truly, I do not really feel the need to emulate the other authors in an attempt to write good fiction. The ability to write good fiction has a good deal to do with who we are inside ourselves, how healthy and how strong we are, and less to do with the time period in which we are born. That is due simply to providence, and any man can serve well and work well in the time in which he has been placed.

  9. Deborah - Mara, Daughter of the Nile was a favourite from my childhood! I reread it, oh, a year ago last February, I believe. It stood the test of time and age.

    Suzannah - I do not envy you having to review Till We Have Faces, or having done the Space Trilogy. I don't think even I have done that.

    I've noticed in a lot of aspects in life that Christians have a helter-skelter view that if we don't take whatever aspect of life by storm, the world will win, or some such idea. Personally, I think if decent, God-fearing authors will write quietly with their hands and produce works worthy of their names, a good thing will have been done. It is not my business to "save" the world of fiction. The world will be forever loving and entertaining itself with rubbish (possibly even classical sparkly vampires), and that is a business between it and God, not me. My responsibility is to work well and hard and truthfully in whatever vocation I may find myself - at this juncture it is writing fiction. In the end, that business is between myself and God as well. If what we do will stand the test of scrutiny by our Father in the last day, it will serve none so badly here on earth now.

    Elisabeth Grace Foley - So many times I have said that the cutting of words is the wrong way to go about making "relevant" fiction. Occasionally I remember to keep my blog posts short for your benefit, but again, the magic of the story lies not in how many words are used, but which words, and the deftness of the writer who employs them.

    I am generally askance of any view which tells me to "do this" or "don't do that" in order to write relevant fiction. I despise the spineless grovelling to be "relevant," and telling me to kneel to a fad is the surest way to get me to set back my ears and go off with a clear view of how not to do things. I learn best by seeing people do things wrong. XD

    Schuyler - Some time ago I was asked which authors I wanted most to be like, and it hit me like Jupiter that I didn't want to be like anyone else. That is the ambition of a child. I wanted to be myself. I wanted to write as no other, for I have a mind and a view which is, in its particulars, unique. There was a moment of fear that I might be taken as pretentious, but I was convinced that to want to be like any other author is really the wrong view. The same now applies to writing. I am committed to my stories, and I am convinced that, once I am done with them, they will be very, very good literature. I am also convinced that it will take a lot of work, and that pushing myself to do better than my best feels like an impossible task. An appreciation for how hard the job will be (and the belief that, in the end, I am just a fiction author and there are many other people who do greater service to the world), helps combat any tones of pretension. :)

  10. "Personally, I think if decent, God-fearing authors will write quietly with their hands and produce works worthy of their names, a good thing will have been done."

    I just had to say to that, yes, yes, and yes again. To that whole paragraph, but that line in particular hits it on the head. Would you mind terribly if I were to add that to my stash of writing quotes, and/or possibly quoted you elsewhere? It's too good to lose.

  11. "I said something rather clever just before breakfast..."

    If you like it, please take it. I quote bloggers at random when I come across lines I like. I'm always happy to produce a like favour. :)

  12. My point about classics was simply that if time is the threshing floor on which the wheat is separated from the chaff, there still must needs be a thresher - in this case the collective operation of the world's reading populace, which of course includes the academians with their ivory tower myopia, and the unwashed masses and their penchant for instant gratification. As I said, it's not a perfect system, but it does succeed far more often that it fails.

    Also, I hope I didn't give the impression that I was advocating that literature should supplant or even supplement God's Word as a means of instruction in righteousness. To engage the world's Art is to engage the world's false philosophies, and one must be well-prepared for that combat, because the world will bar no holds and pull no punches. This is especially true of the art of the last century. There is nothing new under the sun and human activity has always been vain and sinful, but the vanity and sinfulness of our present day is reflected in our present art, and to encounter it there allows us to develop a defense, and counteroffensive, to it. That challenge (to say nothing of their technical and aesthetic brilliance) is inherent in all the authors I listed, and their works have been a proving-ground for my equipment and tactics. That, to me, is no mere luxury, but an instrumental part of what has shaped me.

    Lastly: DEUTSCHLAAAAAAND!! World Cup Champs woot! (We now return to your regularly scheduled comments.)

  13. I'd be interested to see what you think of a book series entitled "Divergent" by Veronica Roth. You've probably heard about it; it has become, unfortunately, one of those over-hyped dystopian romances that is hyped for the romance, and not the actual themes of the book. Now, I'll be the first to admit that I over-examine books and probably put words into author's mouths, but in this case I think Roth was intentionally weaving in these themes. Her description is lacking, and her writing style lacks finesse, but you'll just be reading, happily caught up in initiation or what have you, and suddenly these phrases will just appear. Things like, "We believe in ordinary acts of bravery, in the courage it takes to stand up for another." It's hard to explain, but if you're looking for it, Roth has a way of commentating on life that is both simple and profound. If you do read it, don't be dissuaded by people who say the third book was bad - it is excellent.
    Anyways, it might not be your cup of tea, but I'd be interested to see what you think.

  14. I never got a chance to comment before, as I was traveling to England at the time, but I just wanted to thank you for joining in the literary party, Jenny! I really enjoyed reading your responses to the questions ^_^