Literary confinement: Part II – canon fodder and writing in the default mode

In a recent article on revivals of plays by Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter, Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty uses the occasion to identify some shortcomings in contemporary theater that apply equally, if not even more closely, to contemporary fiction. He distinguishes the work of these two modern greats not only in degree from playwrights active today, but more importantly in the foundations their work arose from:

“Their education and training didn’t come courtesy of an M.F.A. program, with its cramped curriculum divorcing the stage from the other arts. They were carving paths for themselves as wide-ranging men of letters, to use a phrase that has sadly gone the way of “bibliophile” and “public intellectual.”

He gives a summary of their artistic and literary interests, a kind of intellectual CV: Beckett, for example, studied Romance languages, read deeply in philosophy and the modern novel. Perhaps most importantly was the fact that he didn’t put these disciplines in different, unrelated categories, as if he were majoring in drama and minoring in philosophy. They were all connected to how and what he was going to write. His first essay “Dante… Bruno. Vico.. Joyce” pointed to the lineage and background of the modernism Joyce brought to the novel as Beckett would go on to apply it to an even broader range of literary work.

Leaving the past behind

Having read this assessment of contemporary English-language theater, the artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater Carey Perloff sees the problem in a disconnect between today’s playwrights and their more distant predecessors: “The astonishing innovations of these two great writers were only possible because they had a relationship to classical literature: they knew the metaphors, the forms, the structures of inherited culture so deeply that they could then rupture them with control and intent.”

She similarly points to the MFA programs playwrights are coming out of having learnt “to write acceptable contemporary plays that might appeal to the watchful eyes of television executives and artistic directors hungry for ‘relevant’ and sellable plays.”

I’m not at all sure that playwrights eyeing TV and film is the cause of what these two articles are lamenting as much as the effect of an aesthetic that is just as prevalent in English-language fiction. It is a literary sensibility in which there is, as Perloff writes, a “simple equation of contemporary subject matter with relevance.”

Even more significant than the ahistorical subjects these works often exhibit is the ahistorical style that gives them shape, as if the formal innovations characteristic of drama and fiction over the centuries have come to a welcome stop. The result of this ‘end of (literary) history” mentality is that realism becomes the default mode, a notion of writing in which experience can be directly transferred to the stage or page without the need for artifice. Realism becomes the written equivalent of speaking frankly and directly, and the obvious choice for making a claim of authenticity.

Low tolerance

The same issue in fiction writing has also received some recent attention, though not from a writer bemoaning the “simple equation of contemporary subject matter with relevance” or the narrower intellectual formation of many of today’s writers. It was instead a result of an American mathematical research project. By examining the frequency of certain “content-free” words like “of”, “at” and “by” the mathematicians concluded that the influence of older, classic writing is diminishing among modern writers. In an article in The Guardian the research group’s head Daniel Rockmore states that the shift away from the influence of older canonical writing to increasing contemporary influences occurred when modernist writers strove to “reject their immediate stylistic predecessors yet remain a part of a dominant movement that included many of their contemporaries.” The fact that Joyce’s Ulysses is widely considered the archetype of modernist fiction puts an odd twist on that explanation.

More convincing is another hypothesis Rockman mentions in the article, “that there is so much more to read now and more kinds of ‘important’ work that if we believe that style is influenced by what one reads, then it is less likely that people generally devote the preponderance of their reading to the older ‘classics.’”

First of all, what a strange qualification: “if we believe that style is influenced by what one reads …” As opposed to what? Ah, of course – life, experience, reality, inscribed directly onto paper through the medium of a writer.

The Guardian gets a confirmation of sorts for this hypothesis from novelist Lionel Shriver, author of We Need to Talk About Kevin, who says that now she reads contemporary fiction almost exclusively and doesn’t often “get around to touching base with the literary canon.” (Dear literary canon, Hi, how have U been. Sorry for not writing in a while but was 2 busy).

Shriver continues: “When I have tried to, say, reread a Dostoevsky novel, I’ve discovered that I don’t have the patience any longer – for the long philosophical digressions, for example. I bet I’m not alone in this reduced tolerance for the stylistic traditions of the past.”

Don’t worry, you are definitely not alone.

For Part I click here

For Part III click here

Photos – 1) The Intervention of the Sabine Women by Jacques-Louis David, 2) A poster from a production of Lysistrata by Aristophanes, Théâtre de la Récréation, 3) Samuel Beckett by Roger Pic, 1977

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Categories: Essays


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    […] of stories resemble precisely those stories Boyle feels compelled to promote, representing what in Part II of Literary Confinement was referred to as the “cramped curriculum” of MFA programs (in theater, though I think it […]

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