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November 20, 2007

Because you've brought it up, on timelessness

So last week Russell Smith responded to Ken McGoogan’s essay “Tilting at the Windmills for Literary Non-fiction” and he did so much more strongly than I did. (I can’t find Smith’s column on-line, but I very conveniently have it here in paper form, headlined “In defence of the novel, and the test of time”). Oh Russell Smith, who came of novelistic age with the marvelous Muriella Pent. Russell Smith who is a walking defence of the novel.

Smith underlines the illogic of McGoogan’s thesis: that he says fiction shouldn’t be promoted because not enough people read it. Says Smith, “He seemed to be contradicting himself: If [non-fiction is] the most popular, then it’s the most popular. What’s his problem?” He questions McGoogan’s assertion that non-fiction better stands the test of time, and doubts whether Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition is truly a book people will “still” be arguing about in one hundred years. “Say, Ken, you wouldn’t be thinking of the furiously held opinions among Arctic historians, would you?”

The lesson, says Smith (invoking tea!), “is partly that we all live in our own little teapots”. But then Ken McGoogan has responded from his. Oh, Ken, who should have quit whilst he was ahead. His stompy reply doesn’t read so well: “[Smith] writes that I think novels are stupid, when I have had three published!!!” (Okay, exclamation marks mine). “Margaret Atwood wrote the intro to Frozen in Time!!!” And finally, without any modification, “As to literary longevity, Mr. Smith writes: ‘It’s 100 years from now. Ken McGoogan or Alice Munro?’/ A fairer question might be: Ken McGoogan or Russell Smith? On that one, I’ll take my chances.” Oh, he better hope his name appreciates…

Literary longevity is about as easy to predict as the weather. Read Virginia Woolf’s “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” and among the variety of ways you will be enlightened, you will learn how threatened was Woolf by near-contemporaries “The Edwardians”: Mr’s Wells, Bennett and Galsworthy. That their work and reputations so seemed to overpower her own within her lifetime. How astounding, Virginia Woolf– she of the song, the movie, the collections, the cult. That she wasn’t always in fashion? Nobody writes songs about Galsworthy after all.

The point being that nobody knows how it goes, and the canon is all about fashion. But also to show what happens to non-fiction, as opposed to fiction. I am sure that today Mrs. Dalloway reads more similarly to how it did 80 years ago than “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” does, and this, my friends, is timelessness. Not that I believe timelessness determines value, but with the subject brought up already, I will say that fiction fits the bill in a way that non-fic never will. (And I am speaking in very general terms).

The context of a novel is fixed, while that of non-fiction is much more in flux. For example, the best book I ever saw was Regent Park: A Study in Slum Clearance by Rose, 1958. Which is not to say that non-fiction loses its value over time; no, I would say that value is added, for all it tells us about the past, and in particular about what we thought of the past in the past. But in this process, the text becomes more object than book– a relic even. Moreover we tend to judge it based on how much it got wrong, which is usually most things. And this isn’t timelessness, but rather time magnified.

Teapots indeed. Now, to bed.

One thought on “Because you've brought it up, on timelessness”

  1. Rebecca Rosenblum says:

    Voltaire said, “The instruction we find in books is like fire. We fetch it from our neighbours, kindle it at home, communicate it to others, and it becomes the property of all.”

    I think the sort of fire that resonates across time and space is the human, because that’s the only thing that’s universal (until it’s proven that there is alien life). What’s universal about literary non-fiction is the literary, not the “topic”–the rendering of human elements, the *story*. Some people will care about the artic history, or the urban renewal, or whatever, but not that many, proportionately. We’re not aware enough to care, most of us. But we all care about people, because we know a bit about them to start. And we want to know more, in case that might help us do it better ourselves. A good story is one about people, and it doesn’t matter much to me whether it’s true or not.

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