There is no such thing as ‘modern literature’

by Marie Marshall

Robert Rauschenberg, untitled.

Robert Rauschenberg, untitled.

Imagine a world where Paul Klee’s ‘Senecio’ (that’s the painting a detail of which currently heads my web site – look above) doesn’t exist. Imagine a world with no Mark Rothko, or no Salvador Dali, no Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian, Marc Chagall, Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, or Robert Rauschenberg to look at. Imagine a world without Györgi Ligeti’s music, or Igor Stravinsky’s, or Steve Reich’s. Imagine there’s no jazz, no John Coltrane, no Miles Davis. Imagine a world where music had been halted before Debussy and Satie, and art before the impressionists. You don’t have to, that world exists.

It’s the world of literature.

Effectively, literature operates to an Edwardian, male pattern. It’s driven by the absolute imperative of plot resolution, the cart valiantly and obstinately pulling the horse along. I’m looking at the list of winners of the Man Booker Prize, all bloody fine books, and a quick scan of the last – say – ten reveals none without a plot that resolves, and thus none that hasn’t been written with the plot driving it along, arse-about-face. We can all probably name a handful of authors who broke out of the comfort zone of writing – James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, and of course dramatist Samuel Beckett who famously wrote a play in which ‘nothing happens, twice’ – but they’re long gone. Even Manuel Puig’s El beso de la mujer araña, an uncomfortably brilliantly novel in dialogue form, interrupted by long footnotes and official reports, is almost forty years old.

Mark Rothko, untitled.

Mark Rothko, untitled.

I see startled looks already. “Surely,” people are saying, “a novel must have a beginning, a middle, and an end? What is it otherwise? What is it if it doesn’t ‘tell a story’?” But look at the vibrant colours of a Mark Rothko painting, or the vigorous action of a Jackson Pollock, ask the question “What is this if it doesn’t show me anything visually recognizable?” Listen to the ‘Kyrie’ from Ligeti’s Requiem, or to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, or to the jazz of Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, or Ornette Coleman, and say “What is this if it doesn’t have a tune?” You will instantly feel silly for having asked the question. Just because there is no recognizable image, no tune, doesn’t mean the work doesn’t engage your senses and your emotions, doesn’t mean that it has no aesthetic, doesn’t mean that it’s no longer painting or music.

So why not literature? Why has this particular art form stood resolutely still?

“Well feel free to experiment all you like, but you won’t sell any books!”

Is that it, then? Is literature not an art form at all, but rather nothing – nothing! – but a commercial product? Of course the argument about ‘canonical’ literature versus ‘popular’ literature is old, stale, and defunct. But seriously, when a rich patron can stage a new opera, or buy a single painting for a hundred thousand pounds, why can’t a rich patron buy a hundred thousand copies of a book to distribute to friends, family, the needy, anyone, or buy the manuscript to keep exclusively for his own?

I can’t be the first writer to ask this question. Why should literature effectively stand still? Why shouldn’t it change its face and figure and still engage us? Discuss.


Images reproduced under ‘fair use’ terms.