On literary schools and generational packaging
The beats. The lost generation. The romantics. The modernists. The dirty realists. Before I’d read any of the works that fell within them, I knew of these names. They conjure a time, and often a city, they characterise a period. It made the ‘lesser’ writers within these groups bigger, and gave a higher purpose to the writing than the sum of its parts. Though, admittedly, the names of many literary movements have been bestowed years afterwards by academics searching for a thesis topic, whether self-identified or not they described writers with a unified aesthetic who worked together or were at least part of the same ‘scene’. And yet, I cannot think of a single literary movement in the current era. What’s happened to literary schools?
In recent years, generational packaging is the way authors are grouped, with The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 being the most prominent example. Editor David Remnick explicitly noted that the last list of talented under-40s have nothing in common beyond their age: ‘This is not an aesthetic grouping’ he said of the most recent list in 2010.
Literary schools, when they do occur, appear to have descended into little more than marketing labels. Perhaps the most recent literary school (and this is going on thirty years ago now) was the infamous ‘Brat Pack’ – comprising of Bret Easton Ellis, Jay McInerney, and Tama Janowitz – who enjoyed huge commercial success with their first (or, in the case of Janowitz, second) novels. The unifying force between its members appeared to be youth and marketability. Yet, there was still a common intentional ‘flatness’ in literary style, written in a dazed, affectless prose – which has since been termed ‘blank fiction’.
We’re seeing a new isolation. Though literary celebrity is nothing new, single author ‘branding’ appears to have replaced the literary school. You now know what you’re going to get when you buy into a [insert author name here] product: values which are emphasised in everything from author photo, to byline font, to twitter account. Ellis himself is the perfect example of this progression from ‘school’ (however loose it may have been) to ‘brand.’
I was reminded of all this recently when I came across a letter from Kurt Vonnegut to his friend Miller Harris:
Thought, rather fuzzily, about something I want to add to my recent letter to you. It’s this business about the school: school of painting, school of poetry, school of music, school of writing.
Vonnegut describes a lecturer he’d had while a grad student at the University of Chicago, Slotkin, who had interested him in the idea of the ‘school’ and compelled him to begin writing a postgrad thesis on the topic. Though he never completed the thesis, Vonnegut writes to his friend:
But Slotkin’s notion of the importance of the school stuck with me…What Slotkin said was this: no man who achieved greatness in the arts operated by himself; he was top man in a group of like-minded individuals. This works out fine for the cubists, and Slotkin had plenty of good evidence for its applying to Goethe, Thoreau, Hemingway, and just about anybody you care to name. If this isn’t 100% true, it’s true enough to be interesting—and maybe helpful.
The school gives a man, Slotkin said, the fantastic amount of guts it takes to add to culture. It gives him morale, esprit de corps, the resources of many brains, and—maybe most important—one-sidedness with assurance.
I find myself agreeing, as Vonnegut did, with his mentor, and wondering if we have any in contemporary Australia, or indeed, anywhere else.
There are those writers we might instinctively place together, in their early novels at least – Pynchon, Foster Wallace, DeLillo, and, if we expand it across the Atlantic, maybe Zadie Smith, or in the other direction, Salman Rushdie. And yet, while they do share a kind of manic, intricate, highly technical prose, I’m not sure they comprise anything like a school (beyond the broadly Postmodern).
So what of the Aus scene? Historically, we’ve tended to produce single great novels or novelists rather than great literary groupings. A consequence, perhaps, of our geography.
There was nothing particularly unifying in the aesthetics of, for example, this year’s Miles Franklin nominees, even amongst the longlist. Look at the program of any writers festival and you’ll see authors grouped by stage of career: debut novelists, second novelists; and content or genre, Young Adult, Crime Fiction, Memoir; rather than literary style.
(The memoir genre is an interesting example – at several major writers festivals in the past few years there have been panels on writing memoir with Marieke Hardy, Ben Law and occasionally Michaela McGuire. All have, unusually, written memoirs at a young age, so is this our newest literary movement: the Early-Memoirists?)
Perhaps I am wrong and there are these schools. We certainly have our cliques in the writing world, and they can be observed at any launch, any writers festival. You can see them cropping up around certain publications and journals. Or perhaps actual literary schools – creative writing courses – are the new aesthetic movement. There’s been enough written on the sort of uniformity of writing that comes out of them to think that we have reached the final, literal instance of the term.
My argument is not for the importance of the name – always problematic, never adequately expressing the types of writing the authors engaged in, oversimplifying, always seeming to catch either too many authors or too few. My point, rather, is that the idea of the school – with authors working together towards a common aim, idea, or aesthetic, appears to be lacking, certainly in Australia, if not overseas too, and that this might be to the detriment of the writing culture. ‘It isn’t a question of finding a Messiah,’ Vonnegut writes, ‘but of a group’s creating one—and it’s hard work, and takes a while.’