No Book is New: The Continuing Evolution of Literature
“'The finished book doesn't interest me,' he said, only the book that is being written, 'the book to come.'”*
When one thinks about the evolution of literature, the first thought tends to go to the oldest piece of literature one knows and move forward in time. Is this really an accurate picture of how literature evolves? Maybe someone at some point very long ago, wrote the very first novel and everything has followed chronologically since. That may be how literature happened, but it does not accurately describe how it evolves. Are we really falling prey to “fast-food” literature, pushed onto our shorting-out attention spans by publishers trying to make a quick buck? Is the “art” of literature dead? Is Powers' “Generosity” the future of literature? Is Powers' writing style “bad”? Is it typical of this new wave of cheap, quick fiction? Do we not have a say in all of this? How is literature changing? At what speed? In what direction? These are just many of the questions that this class has recently touched upon. While this is quite a bit to tackle in one short paper, I think that one simple idea can help us answer all of these questions. The idea is this: literature evolves and behaves in tandem to us, human beings. We cannot find its beginning nor do we know its end, it does not evolve linearly but branches out in all different directions, and it is cyclical in its influence over people and itself. Basically, literature is not dogma.
Richard Powers structures his novel “Generosity” in what many would call an atypical way. He strings together pieces of a narrative with often acute details of how the story is being constructed by a narrator who is the “writer”. This engages the reader in his process of writing, whether real or imaginary, and adds a confounding element to the plot. Is this “writer” simply a construction for this story? Is this really Powers we are hearing or is this how he created the story? How does the plot of the characters relate to the plot of the “writer” creating them? This type of construction raises all of these questions, and I think it is a successful and interesting. Many of the people in class complained that they could not engage with the story or get lost in the plot. However I found that once you really started reading, the two aspects became very closely entwined; they needed each other to function properly. What I saw as interesting and successful, many of my classmates saw as annoying, unsuccessful, even horrified at the prospect that this could possibly be the future of literature. Authors, the media, publishers, even the very members of this class fear that their beloved type of literature is quickly dying in this new and modern age. Their fears are completely unnecessary and illogical because literature does not evolve linearly and never permanently changes. Literature does not just evolve based on how the style or subject matter change. Already published works of literature are themselves constantly changing, morphing, mutating, and will continue to for all eternity. No piece of literature will ever mean the same or look the same from one period of time to another. Previous works influence new ones, and the new ones in turn change our perspective of the older ones. In this endless cycle “readers create writers who in turn create readers [ . . . ] and each new writing much teach its methods to its audience, present or future”(Manguel 68). The old and the new conjoin in an infinite swirling dance. We should not be asking ourselves if “this” is the new literature, for literature is constantly changing from one day to the next, there is no new literature, there is no old literature, literature just is.
As much as authors or editors or publishers shape the evolution of literature, we, the readers, do so even more. Our understanding of literature, and our many readings of it, change it more than anything else. “Any great book incorporates into its pages all previous readings, so that, after a first incursion, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde disarms its own surprise ending, assimilates the conclusion into its beginning, rewrites itself into the reader's mind with a mass of comments and glosses that have sprung up since its first publication”(Manguel 130). But for some reason, we want to think that literature exists in some sort of static limbo. Forcing literature to stop evolving, hanging pieces of literary genius on the wall of a museum as it were, would be extremely destructive. It destroys not only the work itself, but the creator. And since we are all interpreters and creators of literature, the destruction of an evolving understanding thus destroys us. If stories define society, culture, human life, what does the succinct beginning and ending of literature say about us? “Western narrative demands from its audience the belief in a prehistory and a future beyond the page or screen, an extended pageant from which the chosen story has been cut. Published books claim for a work once printed a nihil obstat”(Manguel 78-79). We did not one day just exist, evolution is a long slow process for which we do not know the end or the beginning. So it follows that literature could not one day have just existed, nor will it cease to be one day. “Writers must find consolation in the fact that there is no very first story and no very last one. Our literature reaches further back than the limit of our memory permits us, and further into the future than our imagination allows us to conceive”(Manguel 139). Powers' style of writing should not be a memorial to literature, literature is not going to its death. We will never be able to get rid of stories unless we ourselves are destroyed.
Literature represents the ultimate cycle; it lacks a beginning and an end. It is continually recycling itself and building up on itself, like a never ending game of Jenga. “No literary text is completely original [or] unique, it stems from previous texts, built on quotations and misquotations, on the vocabularies fashioned by others and transformed through imagination and use”(Manguel 139).
Manguel, Alberto. The City of Words. Toronto: House of Anansi, 2007. Print.
Powers, Richard. Generosity: an Enhancement. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009. Print.
*Quote of Alfred Doblin (Manguel 5).