Survey of contemporary fiction -- but maybe a task too great?,
This review is from: Contemporary Fiction: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (Paperback)
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Robert Eaglestone's very short introduction to Contemporary Fiction is a literary-critical examination of what is being written at the moment. He places this in the context of modernism and post-modernism (assuming, somewhat tendentiously, that post-modernism is over, though there isn't a word for what replaces it), and considers the differences between genre fiction and literary fiction, positing the terms 'closed' and 'open' fiction as preferred alternatives. In the final section he considers three key features of contemporary fiction, being our view of the past, our view of the present, and our view of the technological.
This is a lovingly written book. "Hard boiled thrillers have short sentences. A clipped vocabulary," he writes, immediately followed by: "Sentences in academic texts, on the other hand, are long and drawn out, characterised by subclauses, usually but not always full of qualifications, and display a detailed complexity, certainly in their lexical and syntactic choices (their words and grammar)." The rest of the book isn't quite as formally playful as that, but it's clear that Eaglestone's love for literature imbues his own writing with a knowingness which one seldom sees.
General surveys of literature are always difficult. They are most especially difficult when the field in question is united by a time rather than a movement, and almost irredeemably difficult when that time is now, and the critic does not have the benefit of hindsight. In this golden age of self-publishing, where even published authors are beginning to follow well-known musicians down the self-publishing route, 'literature', as Eaglestone tacitly admits, is being defined not so much by what agents will pitch to publishers, but by what the big prizes are prepared to shortlist. Indeed, he suggests that 'Booker fiction' is an acceptable alternative to 'literary fiction', and perhaps expresses it better.
Eaglestone is at pains not to side with the Leavis's and write off genre fiction for not being serious enough. However, his solution, which is to suggest that literary fiction can be about anything, whereas (to take his example) science-fiction cannot does not actually reflect the way the terms grew up. Literary fiction during the 20th century was, as he describes, very much subject to the Leavis description of being serious about life, but, in practice, anything which was genre fiction was excluded. He points out that science fiction can now be shortlisted for the Booker prize, but non-science fiction can't be shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke prize, but I'm not sure that that really tells us anything. His notion of 'open' and 'closed' literature is interesting, but my sense is that what is termed literary fiction implies a value judgement -- he tries very hard to avoid this -- and calling genre fiction 'closed' is essentially the same judgement.
Dividing the themes of contemporary fiction into the past, the present and the future has a formal interest. However, I don't believe that he actually makes the case that this is any more than a division. The future, in particular, as he discusses it, is about technology, not about the future as such.
This is a book with a rich range of references, and Eaglestone works hard to explain the plots and themes for us in books we are unlikely to have encountered. On the way he makes some very astute and insightful points. However, by the end, I do not feel that I have grasped what Contemporary Literature really is. I blame this fault on the title, not the author. In fifty years people will look back and tell us what the dominant characteristics of second decade 21st century literature were, but, at the moment, we are among the trees, and cannot describe the forest.
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