One of the many challenges for contemporary literary fiction is the staggering amount of really good competition. I don’t mean competition from Angry Birds, young adult literature, YouTube, film, comics, and social media. I mean the competition from all literature that has ever existed. If you are writing a novel about contemporary America, like, say, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding or Jamie Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, you are not competing with other new novels, but all novels.
Other art forms don’t really have this problem. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t competing with Kramer v. Kramer and Citizen Kane at the box office. At some point, it’ll be on DVD and Netflix too, but it gets a window to itself, or at least to share with only a dozen other first-run movies.
With novels, every new novel shares physical and digital space with all extant novels. Writing a courtship story? You are up against Austen, Bronte, Wharton, Henry James, and the like. How about science fiction? Somehow you’ve got to hope your reader has already read or doesn’t care about Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and Le Guin.
And it’s not just a question of proximity, of being next to great works from the past. Literary works also just don’t age like other cultural artifacts.
Consider the case of The Great Gatsby, published in 1925. In every other popular medium, 1925 seems like ancient history.
In the mid-1920s, the most important jazz musician who ever lived was taking off. Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives were cutting revolutionary records. And while they are still great, they sound like museum pieces. Listen to this cut, recorded by Armstrong and his band in 1926: “Don’t Forget to Mess Around.”
To my mind, film ages even faster, probably because it requires a whole host of technologies that are themselves evolving rapidly, so that the sum total of the work those technologies do changes drastically over relatively short periods of time.
Buston Keaton’s The General, also released in 1926, is one of the foundational works of American cinema. But it feels like something from a different planet when compared to today’s movies.
And now read this passage from Gatsby:
“He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.”
Has that aged a single day? Will it age a day in our lifetimes? I doubt it.